John Singleton Saw a Tenderness in Black L.A. that the World Refused to Look AtBreaking News
tags: film, African American history, Los Angeles, urban history
This story is part of our issue on Remembrance, a time-traveling journey through the L.A. experience — past, present and future. See the full package here.
I remember the tears. Not the anguished look on Tre’s face as he yelled for Ricky to run. Not the gunshots, the way they sounded like thunder and slaughter. Not the pool of blood. Or the fear of the moment, and how suffocating that fear felt for the two of them, knowing it was already over. Not the way Tre sweetly cradled Ricky’s limp, lifeless body in the alleyway. What I remember most vividly are the tears and what seeing Tre cry did to me, the despair and defenselessness crinkled into his face, how it stirred something deep inside and suggested, even in that moment of grief, the possibility of the self.
This happened in the years following my parents’ divorce, when we lived on 58th Place and La Tijera, when it was just the three of us, my mom, older brother and I. To that point in my life, at the age when I could finally watch “Boyz N the Hood,” I wasn’t privy to all the ways Black masculinity could sculpt itself. I’d never seen another Black boy cry like that onscreen, unshielded and so completely broken. I was 12, maybe 13, and I didn’t yet understand how sorrow and loss and rage open the soul, how those sensations, pinballing off one another, give way to something transcendent, something essential to our survival, to our becoming.
John Singleton knew. The filmmaker, who died in April 2019 at 51, understood the power and rhapsody of self-invention, and how important it was to have witnesses. For me, watching “Boyz” made plain how other Black boys could wear their vulnerability. How they could style it, make it theirs. Singleton knew that to be Black in America is to live at the end of a sharp reality: the proximity of our dreaming and our death were ever entwined. Our living — as Black and not yet free — was not divisible from the terror of the white world and the effects those constraints had on us. Singleton was wise to it all. Then again, how could he not be? He was from the same neighborhood as Tre and Ricky. The realities all lived side by side in his searching eyes.
A screenwriter, director and producer of spellbinding talent, Singleton was a custodian of working-class Black life in South L.A. His films were known for attitude and realism but what was special about them, what has given them the stamina to endure across generations, is their openness to feel and be felt. The great misconception about Singleton’s singular body of work, especially his abiding ’hood triptych — “Boyz N the Hood” (1991), “Poetic Justice” (1993) and “Baby Boy” (2001) — was that his movies were hard and unflinching in their portrayal of Black Los Angeles, which they were, but really, in their marrow, what they are about is our fundamental human enterprise: the grace of feeling.
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