I don’t know where my high school yearbook is off the top of my head, so you’re not going to get an image that’s how I actually think of John Singleton. Nor are you getting a quote that is extremely difficult to come by for a title—because it’s difficult for me to come by at the moment as well. No, we didn’t go to high school together. I never met the man, who was just shy of nine years older than I am and graduated nine classes ahead of me. But it was nine classes at the same high school, and since we were the thirtieth graduating class, the theme that year was our school’s history. Who else to get a page in the yearbook but Our Only Famous Alumnus?
I mean, I knew the man as John Singleton, Blair High School Alumnus, before I’d seen any of his movies—going over the quotes page for Boyz N the Hood on IMDb reminds me why I didn’t see it until adulthood, you know? It came out just before I started at that school, and I was definitely too young to watch it. I only saw one of his films in the theatre, and that was Shaft, but I was always proud of him when the subject came up, because he was one of ours. There was always the thought there that if he could make it, so could any of the rest of us.
But from that auspicious 1991 debut, there just weren’t a lot of movies. He wasn’t given enough chances, I think, and he certainly agreed with that assessment. I don’t know why he only directed nine movies over the course of his career—in fact, over a twenty-year span, since he hadn’t directed a movie since 2011. The years since then, he was working exclusively in TV, and there wasn’t enough of that to my way of thinking. I mean, the man wasn’t Orson Welles as far as his craft went, but he was certainly talented enough to have been the youngest man ever nominated for Best Director, the first black person ever nominated for Best Director, one of those rare people whose debut film was nominated for Best Director. And Orson Welles had more of a career than he did, because at least people would hire him to act.
And I mean, I don’t know a lot of specifics about his time before Blair, but I feel as though he had been able to call on more than just his own experiences to write Boyz, and I feel as though that was part of the problem—people didn’t realize that. Blair High School was, when I was a student as well as when he was a student, under mandatory socioeconomic busing. The school’s population included the children of CalTech professors and kids from the projects. I was in the gifted program there just as he had been, and in my classes, you could hear at least a half-dozen languages being spoken when we weren’t doing anything in particular. It was an incredibly diverse school, and I feel as though Singleton’s career had him pigeonholed as being “street,” which I have a hard time taking seriously knowing what I do about that school’s location and population.
He believed in the value of actually hearing black people’s voices, and I know from what I’m told that, yes, he was shaped in how to use his by essentially the exact same public school education I got. (The English teacher who meant the most to him was gone by the time I started there, but I did know teachers who’d had him as a student.) We as a high school were proud of him—even I who didn’t actually want to go to that high school in the first place. I’ll never be able to disentangle the two in my head, even on this day when he should be allowed to be seen on his own.