From the archive:
After the success of House Party, Hollywood has realised that the colour of money isn’t necessarily white. Rappers Ice Cube, Ice T and LL Cool J are all starring in new films, and Spike Lee is no longer alone.
Two homeboys are seated on the concrete stoop of a small South Central Los Angeles bungalow. A 40-ounce bottle of St Ides malt liquor fills the space between them. It’s the fifth take of a long, emotional scene near the end of Boyz N The Hood, the directorial debut of 22-year-old John Singleton. Someone has been smoked by rival gangsters and the script calls for Dough Boy, played by rapper Ice Cube, to cry. Prior to this, Cube’s acting has consisted primarily of creating his furrowed brow scowl for photographers. Singleton knew this, but wrote the part for him anyway.
Take fallows take, as the winter shadows lengthen across Cimarron Street, where the director grew up, and the best Cube can muster is a sniffle or two. Singleton pulls him aside. Director and actor exchange a few words out of earshot and resume their places. Cube scrunches his face for a few moments in deep concentration, and the camera rolls. As the crucial moment arrives, his eyes glisten convincingly, stopping just short of producing an actual tear. It's a powerfully honest and moving moment nevertheless, and Singleton recognises it as such.
“Cut!” The director is out of his seat in a bound, barely able to contain his excitement. “That’s beautiful… Great, print it.”
Afterwards I ask Cube – who, like Singleton, cut his baby teeth in this neighbourhood – about his histrionic difficulties. “I haven't cried in, shit, I haven’t cried in about eight years, so I really forgot how to cry. So many bad things happened that it just numbs you,” says the 22-year-old former member of NWA, the group that blew the roof off the LA rap scene with albums like Straight Outta Compton.
Can’t get more real than that.
A year ago, no one would have dreamed that a conservative Hollywood studio would have handed $6 million to a kid from South Central just a few months out of film school to make a movie with a novice lead actor. But here is Singleton, demonstrating a precocious genius for slice-of-life storytelling and a talent for casting and working with actors that would make veteran directors twice his age envious.
When I ask Columbia Pictures chief Frank Price why he signed Singleton to a three-year deal, while most of his University of Southern California classmates were still scrambling for their first production assistant jobs, he says: “I found him to be an extremely talented fellow. I thought he wrote a marvellous script. He made it very easy to back him. He had the confidence that I remember Steven Spielberg had when I first met him when he was about 21.”
But Singleton’s quick rise is as much a recognition of his talent as a reflection of Hollywood’s realisation, after years of denial, that black film-makers can attract big box office. In the wake of the success (both critical and financial) of such actor-directors as Eddie Murphy, Robert Townsend (Hollywood Shuffle), Keenan Ivory Wayans (I’m Gonna Git You Sucka) and, of course, Spike Lee, the major studios are scrambling to cash in on the next wave of black auteurs.
“Right now, every studio wants their own Spike,” explains one talent agent, who has tried unsuccessfully to land several black directors.
Among other things, young black directors provide a vital link for generally unhip studio executives to the lucrative (and previously inaccessible) rap subculture and the teen audiences who come with it. Reginald and Warrington Hudlin, whose raucous $2.5 million teen movie House Party – starring rappers Kid N’ Play – raked in an impressive $23.6 million in the US last year for New Line Cinema, have secured a three-picture deal at Tri-Star Pictures.
“The major motion picture industry knows that the rappers are a way to get the urban audience. The urban audience generates money. That’s it. Money.”
New Line has contracted Kid N’ Play for a sequel, and the duo now have their own Saturday morning kiddie show. Even independent black film-makers like Charles Burnett (To Sleep With Anger) and Wendell Harris (Chameleon Street) have found themselves being courted by studios since making a splash on the film festival circuit last year.
And Ice Cube isn’t the only rapper coming to a theatre near you this year. LL Cool J has a cameo role in Universal’s The Hard Way, which stars Michael J Fox and James Woods. LA gangster rapper Ice T stars as an undercover cop in Warner Bros’ New Jack City, which was directed by Mario Van Peebles (son of black independent film director Melvin), and MC Hammer says he’s entertaining several offers in hope of going before the cameras this summer. “Right now, it’s the most fashionable time to be black (in Hollywood),” says Ice T. “Hip hop was what put black up front.”
John Badham, who directed such films as Saturday Night Fever and Short Circuit, didn’t know LL Cool J from shinola when a casting director suggested him for The Hard Way role. The rapper’s potential to attract youthful ticket buyers wasn’t lost on him. “He came over to Universal at 2.30pm (for the audition) and we had a riot. They practically shut down the building because everybody left their desks to see LL Cool J,” recalls Badham. “I got the point. The last time I saw that kind of attention paid to somebody was when I had to shoot with John Travolta in Brooklyn. LL’s only got eight lines (expanded from the original one), but test audiences rated him third most liked thing in the movie.”
LL, who didn’t even have to doff his Kangol hat and gold chains to play the part, has no illusions about why he appears alongside Woods and Fox. “The major motion picture industry knows that the rappers are a way to get to the urban audience. The urban audience generates money. That’s it. Money,” he says.
LL has a good point. After all, who, apart from big rap names, could the majors turn to? Apart from Murphy and Denzel Washington, there are virtually no young leading black men in Hollywood with the kind of built-in audience that rappers deliver.
In his cops-and-robbers drama, New Jack City, Mario Van Peebles brought in Ice T to balance out the charisma of the villain, a suave Harlem crack kingpin played to the hilt by Wesley Snipes.
“The tangible role model in the inner city is the drug dealer and the rapper,” explains Van Peebles. “I could have cast myself, but I wanted to put somebody there with a real authentic street voice. Now the audience will roll in on Ice T’s side of the equation.”
Playing a cop was certainly no easy trick for Ice T, who has made a career of dissing “the Man”. “I was worried about my career,” admits the rapper, without the slightest hint of irony in his voice. “I had friends in penitentiaries calling me up. ‘Yo what’s you playing?’ ‘The police.’ Ugghh. I just don’t like them. That happens to be my pet peeve. I hate the police.”
For his next movie, Ice T has a much broader palette to choose from. After word got out about how good his dailies on New Jack City looked, Hollywood ground a path to the rapper’s doorstep. He’s already shooting his second film, Ricochet, with Denzel Washington – and is sorting through a pile of other film offers, including a western with Danny Glover of Lethal Weapon fame.
An added bonus for studios when they cast rappers in films is that most artists throw in a single or two for the soundtrack, which can be conveniently released with the picture’s opening. “It’s exploitation,” admits LL. “But you have to exploit as they are exploiting. One hand washes the other. I want to be well known on a universal level.”
Fame. Isn’t that what fuelled hip hop in the first place? Ice T says it would be easy to be cynical, but he’s looking ahead to a bigger pay-off. “If all of a sudden Hollywood has discovered it’s on, so be it,” he says. “I would love to roll down Hollywood Boulevard and see all the marquees with black films. Some of them will be good, others won’t, but at least there will be more of my brothers and sisters working.”
While the studios may see only dollar signs, and some rappers may be going along for the ride to get their faces in front of a million or two potential new fans, young black filmmakers like Singleton – and his even-more-precocious New York counterpart, a 19-year-old Brooklyn native by the name of Matty Rich – are using the opening to push a more meaningful agenda. Rich, who wowed audiences in Robert Redford’s Sundance Film Festival in January with his debut effort, Straight Out Of Brooklyn, caught the tail end of Melvin Van Peebles’ Sophisticated Gents on the late show when he was 12 and decided he too wanted to make movies.
After spending a month at New York University’s film school, he dropped out, wrote a script, cajoled some actors into working for free, and financed an eight-minute clip with $I6,000 he borrowed on his mother’s and sister’s American Express cards. He then went on a black radio station asking for investors. Within two days he had another $40,000 to complete production. Next he met Jonathan Demme, who introduced him around town, and American Playhouse (the only company brave enough to finance last year's Aids story Longtime Companion) agreed to pick up the tab for post-production.
“I call it the Mike Tyson syndrome,” says Rich. “You know how he gets that look in the ring? I didn’t have any money but nobody was going to stop me because I had something to say.”
Rich recently flew out to Hollywood to make the rounds of studios, but says he hasn’t cut any deals. “I think my duty as a young black man and a film-maker is to say something meaningful,” he says. “At this point, black is hot. We have a little power and we’re growing. The most important thing is to keep that power and not have black films stop at a point and then have to start all over again. What happened for rap music, I hope that happens in the film industry.”
John Singleton’s story is unique in that he went straight to ‘Go’ and collected his $6 million, skipping the low-budget independent-feature or award-winning short-film stage. What sets him apart, friends and studio acquaintances inform me, is that he knows exactly what he wants.
In fact, he’s known since the age of nine, when his daddy took him to see Star Wars. Five years later, upon learning post-ET that Spielberg had directed his first movie in his early 20s, Singleton made up his mind to duplicate the feat. But don't expect cute bug-eyed aliens to spring from his pen: his decidedly uncuddly characters are firmly based in a harsh reality.
“This isn’t about gangs, it’s about people... I just want to show that everyone’s human.” John Singleton
Singleton experienced the downside of Reaganomics while growing up in South Central, first with his mother and then, like Boyz lead character Tre Styles, moving in with his father to “learn how to become a man”. His dialogue bears the imprint of influential militant thinkers in the African-American community, from minister Louis Farrakhan to rap groups like NWA and Public Enemy and, of course, film-maker Spike Lee.
Singleton vividly remembers meeting Lee when, aged 18, he attended the opening night of She’s Gotta Have It in Santa Monica. “Spike wasn’t like frontish and everything. He was real down. That’s when I thought, ‘I’m not alone,’” Singleton recalls.
Next, the soft-spoken, Armani-bespectacled director launches into a story about when he was in eighth grade and Reagan had declared that ketchup would henceforth qualify as a vegetable in school lunches.
“They said over the PA system in this inner-city school I was in, ‘The president has just been shot.' When that happened all the kids in the classroom clapped and cheered. We were like, ‘Yaaaay, he got shot!’ Even as kids we knew what the programme was.”
Now Singleton is in a position to push his own programme. Boyz N The Hood traces the lives of three ambitious youths trying to pursue their dreams in a world peopled by such role models as crack dealers, “strawberries” – women who turn tricks for drugs – and racist cops. Singleton says his goal in the film is to capture the undercurrent of violence permeating life in South Central without making that the main focus.
As a junior at USC, Singleton once stood up in front of 500 fellow students and told the producer of Colors – which starred Sean Penn and Robert Duvall as white cops battling black and Hispanic gangs in Los Angeles – that he had no business making the movie because he didn’t know anything about life in the ghetto. “He said, ‘Well, Ice T wrote the music,’” recalls Singleton with relish, “and I said, ‘well, Ice T didn’t write the fuckin’ script.’ And everybody clapped.”
Boyz touches on such pressing inner-city problems as drugs, teen pregnancy, single-parent households, but, unlike Colors and its ilk, the headline-grabbing issues are merely background for a film about relationships – a father raising his son, a boy learning to respect his girl, homeboys coming to terms with their ‘hood.
“If you’re not from this neck of the woods, you can’t begin to talk about it,” explains Ice Cube, who met the director at a Farrakhan rally in Los Angeles two years ago. “All your information is built upon stereotypes and what you think is going on in the inner city. John, he’s from here. Hollywood is starting to realize that there are black people who can do better movies than a lot of these white directors about what’s going on in the inner city.”
“Certainly this is a black story, as written by a black man. But more importantly it’s a universal story,” adds actor Larry Fishburne (King Of New York), who plays Furious Styles, a father trying to guide his son, Tre (Cuba Gooding), into responsible manhood. “This is a story that could happen in any working-class neighbourhood, be it black, white or Technicolor.”
Singleton, like Matty Rich and Mario Van Peebles, hopes to send a positive message to the black community while demolishing stereotypes built by Hollywood and the mainstream media. “Everyone is going to expect this to be about gangs, but it’s not, it’s about people,” he says. “I just want to show that everybody’s human. Even a person that will shoot somebody is a human being, even a person who has been to jail is a human being, even a person that is in a gang is a human being. I want to demythologize all that stuff.”
The new crop of young black directors, and rappers like Ice T and Ice Cube, will bring a realism to their films that audiences won’t have seen before. While most Hollywood directors would shun the streets of Harlem or LA’s Watts for the safety of the sound studio, Singleton, Rich and Van Peebles shot in real neighbourhoods to bring an authenticity to their films not seen before.
Singleton says he used his Crenshaw District locations to his advantage, regularly passing on “horror stories” about the mostly black neighbourhood to keep the “suits” at Columbia outta his face. “I don’t tell them it’s just a nice area, that only a couple of little things happen only occasionally. I don’t tell ‘em that,” he confides, snickering. “It keeps ‘em out of the way.”
The neighbourhood is disputed turf for such gangs as the Hoover Crips, Van Ness Gangsters, Van Ness Bloods and the 83rd St Gangsters, and local Rolling 60s Crips members cruised the locations, flashing signs at nervous extras costumed in their trademark blue colours. Even so, says Singleton, the crew had few difficulties.
Columbia, meanwhile, took a hands-off approach, allowing Singleton to hire his own crew and tell his story his own way. A firm believer in giving back to the community that nurtured him, the director hired a crew that is almost entirely black. (The producer, a couple of teamsters and the caterer were practically the only white faces on the set.) Fourteen of them, several people on the set proudly inform me, were “grandfathered” into the generally closed-door crafts union.
“I think a lot of people on this crew have been in the situation where they have been one of a handful of black people working on a film,” says Fishburne. “To be in a situation where a majority of the people on the crew are black makes for a much more comfortable situation for us. We don’t get to work together like this all the time.”
Is the studio’s gamble going to pay off? Does he see himself as part of the next generation of Spike Lees? Singleton pauses for a moment and then answers. “Spike is kind of like... he’s been around a while. There’s a lot of new things to be done.”
John Singleton, 6th January 1968 – 29th April 2019.