The John Singleton Films That Paved the Way for Today’s Black Hollywood Icons

A look back at the films that launched the acting careers of today’s black Hollywood icons.

_john singleton collage.jpg
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In 1991, John Singleton made history when he became both the first African American and the youngest person to have ever been nominated for the Academy Award for best director, but the late filmmaker’s responsibility for launching the careers of many icons of the upper echelon of black Hollywood should not be overlooked.

The director suffered a stroke last week and was placed on life support after falling into a coma. Reports circulated this afternoon that Singleton would be taken off life support, and it was later confirmed that he had passed away this afternoon at the age of 51. As friends and collaborators of the director expressed their grief on social media, a survey of his three-decades-long career reveals that Singleton not only pioneered the inclusion of a visual hip-hop aesthetic in mainstream cinema, but also launched the careers of many black actors who are revered in Hollywood today.

Singleton’s contributions were part of a larger turning point in Hollywood, wherein black directors created cinematic touchstones that defined the aesthetics of black cinema in the 1990s. The filmmaker’s early work was often set in his native Los Angeles, and films like his debut, Boyz n the Hood, and Poetic Justice garnered critical acclaim for their realistic slice-of-life portrayals of urban life in Southern California. Later in his career, Singleton pivoted toward directing action dramas like Shaft (the 2000 remake of the 1971 original blaxploitation film directed by Gordon Parks) and 2 Fast 2 Furious. He not only defined the aesthetics of the genre, but he inspired many contemporary filmmakers who have taken cues from Singleton’s early work and incorporated them into their own.

These films also birthed the careers of some stars who were unknown at the time, and many of whom have now achieved icon status in mainstream culture. His films were springboards for performers like Tupac Shakur, Ice Cube, and Janet Jackson, who aimed to be double or triple threats by adding an acting career to their already full plates as musicians and dancers. Even award-winning actors (whose acclaim in the form of golden statuettes has long been overdue) such as Angela Bassett and Regina King were given their first major film roles thanks to the director. Here, we look back at the movies that catapulted these performers to stardom.

Boyz n the Hood (1991)

BOYZ N THE HOOD, Ice Cube, 1991, © Columbia/courtesy Everett Collection

©Columbia Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

BOYZ N THE HOOD, Nia Long, Cuba Gooding Jr., 1991

©Columbia Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

Singleton’s debut, Boyz n the Hood, made a splash as a tragic coming-of-age tale about young men growing up in South Central Los Angeles. The film earned him a best director Oscar nomination at the age of 24, and the script, penned by Singleton, was also nominated for best original screenplay the same year. It also marked the beginning of the careers of performers who would go on to be some of Hollywood’s most esteemed actors. Before they starred in lighter romantic comedy fare like The Best Man, Soul Food, and Love Jones, Regina King, Morris Chestnut, and Nia Long appeared in Boyz n the Hood. Before he accepted his Oscar for Jerry Maguire, Cuba Gooding, Jr. starred in the film as well. Boyz n the Hood also marked the beginning for Angela Bassett and Ice Cube, who has now become just as recognized for his film roles as his rapping career as a member of NWA.

Poetic Justice (1993)

POETIC JUSTICE, Tupac Shakur, Regina King, Joe Torry, Janet Jackson, 1993, (c)Columbia Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection

©Columbia Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

By 1993, Janet Jackson had been an eight-time Grammy nominee, and had roles on television sitcoms like Good Times and Diff’rent Strokes. But Singleton offered Jackson her first feature film role with Poetic Justice, in which she played opposite another budding musician, Tupac Shakur. Michael Rapaport, another collaborator of Singelton’s, joined the cast, and while Jenifer Lewis had already appeared in Beaches, Sister Act, and What’s Love Got to Do With It, for the self-proclaimed Mother of Black Hollywood, the early to mid-90s are when her career really started to pop off, before she became a veteran in the culture.

Higher Learning (1995)

Tyra Banks and Omar Epps in *Higher Learning*.

©Columbia Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

Long before her starring roles in Life Size and Coyote Ugly, and even longer before she hosted America’s Next Top Model, for her first feature film role, Tyra Banks starred opposite Omar Epps in Higher Learning, a crime drama about a black freshman track star (Epps). Higher Learning is also the first film for Busta Rhymes and featured a reunion between Boyz n the Hood stars Laurence Fishburne and Ice Cube.

Baby Boy (2001)

BABY BOY, Taraji P. Henson, Tyrese Gibson, 2001

©Columbia Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

Before his death, Tupac was slated to appear in Baby Boy. However, the model and musician Tyrese Gibson took his place before appearing in another Singleton film, 2 Fast 2 Furious. This film also marked the beginning of a collaboration between Singleton and Taraji P. Henson.

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