Something Else New

Interview with John Singleton

by Cynthia Fuchs


PopMatters Film and TV Editor

John Singleton is already seated at the café table. He’s early, and he’s busy already, at the start of a full day of managing details, small and large: he’s got a radio show to do and more interviewers to meet, he’s got to make sure the print of Hustle & Flow, the movie he’s produced, has the right soundtrack before the Rolling Stone people see it. Though he’s best known for the movies he’s directed—from Boyz N the Hood (1991) and Poetic Justice (1993) to Rosewood (1997) and Baby Boy (2001)—he’s got a good feel for this producing business. And he’s ready to make it his own.

When he was moved by Craig Brewer’s script for Hustle & Flow, Singleton tried at first to go the regular route, to get backing from studios. But, as he says, no one in town was inclined to finance a dramatic film about a short-tempered Memphis pimp, featuring the then-underappreciated Terrence Howard. And so, Singleton, inspired in part by the success of Damon Dash’s movie production efforts, not to mention that little movie Mel Gibson recently self-financed, decided to put his own money behind Hustle & Flow.

PopMatters: Now that Time magazine has discovered crunk and, according to MTV, we’re officially into a “post-crunk” moment, let’s talk about what the music brings to Hustle & Flow.

John Singleton: It’s just amazing how, whenever there’s a cool, hip thing within the black community, whether it’s blues, jazz, or hip-hop, it becomes something that’s widely accepted, homogenized and commercial, then black people come up with something else new. I think that crunk came out of a lot of Southern hip-hop artists’ need to make their own cultural identity with their music. Because in the beginning, hip-hop was coming out of the East, mostly East Coast rappers, and the North. And hip-hop, the music, comes out of a tradition of African American oral storytelling. That’s kind of a universal thing among black people, so for a certain region to have so much notoriety, of course there are other regions, in the South and the West, wherever, who try to put their own idiom in terms of the vastness of hip-hop. If you listen to some of the really cool Southern artists, most of it’s dance-based, but some of them get real bluesy. The hot stuff is the real down home stuff, with cool guitar licks and blues inflections. And a lot of them aren’t even aware of it, it’s something they’re just doing.

Mike Jones, for better or worse, is trying to make himself known and significant. He’s basically saying, “I am somebody and I’m worthy of being noticed.” So many people, especially young black men, are written off as chattel and worthless. I think the key to this story of DJay [Howard] is, here’s a guy who basically wakes up one day and realizes, “I’m not going anywhere in life. I wanna do something.” A lot of people identify with this idea, that “I’m gonna go make a record, and it’s gonna solve everything.” And a lot of guys are like that.

PM: That opening sequence speaks to that idea, because DJay, who has such a limited experience, is working at having deep thoughts.

JS: Yeah, he probably never even got out of high school, but he’s one of those people with time on his hands who uses it to philosophize about the world.

PM: And he sees himself as mentoring Nola [Taryn Manning] or Shug [Taraji P. Henson].

JS: Yes, Terrence Howard said he didn’t want to have any kind of sexual thing with them, that he saw them as his children. Except for the one he kicks out [Lex, played by Paula Jai Parker]: he’s probably had a relationship with her and that’s what makes it tense.

PM: It sounds like Terrence Howard [who’s also in Singleton’s film Four Brothers, to be released 12 August], brought his own ideas to the role.

JS: Terrence is a really interesting actor because he’s a really cerebral guy. What I love about him is, you look at his face and you can tell he’s always thinking, the wheels are turning. We had an opportunity to work together many years ago in Shaft, he had a role in the picture but he pulled out at the last minute, for money. So that kept us from getting together until now, four years later. And he’s great.

PM: Speaking of performances, Anthony Anderson has a moment in this film, where Elise Neal [as his wife] comes into the recording room, sits down, and gets what he’s been doing. And he looks at her in a way that speaks eight emotions at once, and it was enough to make you think, “King’s Ransom is forgiven.”

JS: [laughs] He went to Howard University, you know, and he’s a dramatically trained actor. And he made it in Hollywood doing comedy. I told him—like I tell all the black funny men in Hollywood, I have this same conversation with them when I give them an offer to be in a dramatic film, and the only one who took my advice was Jamie Foxx—I say, “Every movie that Richard Pryor did that was halfway decent was a drama.” All of humor comes out of pathos, but very few black comedians have made the crossover to drama, but Robin Williams, and Tom Hanks, and a lot of guys have done it. And now Anthony is now doing Martin Scorsese’s movie [The Departed, due for release in 2006].

PM: The problem takes on specific dimensions for black actors, who are still too often expected to represent for the race.

JS: You make money doing comedies, but it’s hard to find material that’s deep and introspective for dramatic acting.

PM: I remember way back, when you and Spike Lee and Matty Rich were on the “They’ve Gotta Have Us” New York Times Magazine cover. How do you think the industry has adapted or not adapted since then, say, 1991?

JS: I think it has adapted commercially, but you know, it’s not so much of a revolution that black directors can do big budget movies with stars that don’t have to be black [Tim Story’s work on Fantastic Four notwithstanding]. It’s not so much of a revolution as it is an issue of commerce. They might agree to hire you, but it’s in the interest of giving the same engine a slightly different spin. Yeah, of course it’s different to hire a black director, but he’s doing the same old same old. In terms of women, or doing pictures that have any type of depth to them, it’s dismal. There’s very little in the way of films that question why we do certain things, challenging the contemporary [order]. Like Crash, whatever you believe about it, has done so well because, “Wow, it’s a movie about something.” It’s a movie adults can go to and talk about afterwards. And for a certain segment of the audience, that’s revolutionary, because there are so few films that attempt even that much today. That’s what I’m kind of counting on for Hustle & Flow, that it’s has material in it for adults to discuss, plus, it’s hip.

PM: The problem in the industry is so pervasive, it’s like you can’t fight it. Someone like Cheryl Dunye, so smart, so talented…

JS: Yeah, and she did My Baby’s Mama. I thought it was cool that they hired her to do something light, that she’s working, but it’s kind of sad, because she can make a better movie.

PM: So how does this change? How can we get out from under the Soul Planes?

JS: By doing what I’m doing. Hustle & Flow was a great experience as a movie we made, but the most important thing I got out of it was that I learned I can change the structure of Hollywood with one movie. I greenlit this movie. I financed it myself. And because I was successful at it, I can bet on myself, I can do this again. I wanted to do it with Baby Boy, but I didn’t have the financial wherewithal at the time to do it. I want to do it again and again and again.

PM: So in order to keep this train on the track, you need to make a Shaft or a 2 Fast 2 Furious?

JS: It’s like Francis Coppola used to say: “You make one for them, you make one for yourself.” Doing those pictures allows me to funnel the movie into other projects. That’s what John Cassavetes did. He’d make money acting and use it to finance a film he really wanted to do. But for me, even with those bigger budget studio films, they’re still so much a part of me, so much of my personality is visible in them, that if you really look at the content in those movies, you can see, it’s still my bag.

PM: That was my next question, how do you keep yourself in the product?

JS: I have a stamp, yeah. In 2 Fast 2 Furious, I used Southern hip-hop throughout the movie, none of that techno music that was in the first movie. It was kinda crunk.

PM: Let’s talk some about hip-hop artists as actors. Ludacris has a serious presence, and he’s got jokes too. Those music videos in this movie…

JS: Yeah, I shot those myself [laughs]. I’ve made a whole career out of using hip-hop artists in movies. If you notice, when I work with them, the people I work with have all gone on to have acting careers. It’s because of certain standards I have as they approach acting: I have them get a coach, I have a certain standpoint.

PM: To think about “standpoint” from another angle, Hustle & Flow seems at once very regionally specific, as Brewer has described it, but at the same time, has been promoted as a more “universal” kind of guy-with-a-dream movie.

JS: I always feel that the more specific you are culturally, the more universal it can be. Look at a pictures like Cinema Paradiso or The 400 Blows: both are very specific, but universal. The same thing holds for Hustle & Flow, it’s so Southern, it’s so Memphis. But there’s a guy like that in every town, everyone can identify him, if not with him, being introspective about life but also not knowing how to change.

PM: Let’s talk about the specific music in the film.

JS: Do you notice the difference between how, when he starts, the content of his music becomes more introspective, from the first song to the last song? It becomes more introspective, and more mature in the way he expresses himself. In the first verse, he says,

It’s my life and it’s a battle within.
I try to survive… no incentive to win.
And if I show no remorse, I reap the devil’s reward.
I reap the riches but I’m looking for more.
When I was young, witness my dad, standing for right
Black pride even though he was passing for white.

The whole thing is so introspective, and that’s what a lot of the good people, When they’re doing music, they start becoming more poetic, and writing about something. Tupac, man, he wasn’t always so deep and introspective as he became in those last two or three years of his life. You look at his first two albums, they don’t have any of the content that the later ones do. Because he found he had more to say, though the seeds of it were always there.

PM: But this depth isn’t so visible in DJay. A friend of mine told me, before I saw the film, that there was nothing to like about this character. To me, that made him more interesting. His lack of redemption seems the point. Even a record contract only perpetuates the problem.

JS: That’s what I’m saying. That’s what we wanted to do, like Jake LaMotta or Stanley Kowalski. They’re unlikable guys. But they’re so interesting. Jody [Tyrese] in Baby Boy, he was never a likeable guy. He tried so hard, but he was a bad guy, a victim of his own infantilism. I love characters like that.

PM: How about Skinny Black [Ludacris], as a model for success that’s not success?

JS: Skinny Black to me is a guy who grew up in a small town, he’s made a whole lot of money, he’s nouveau riche, and now he’s like, “Fuck everybody. I have money.” You see these guys all the time at the parties, and they’re only two IRS visits away from going back to where they’re from. You never see that aspect of hip-hop in movies, the new money guys. PM When these guys are making their new money, because they’ve hit on some seemingly new performance, does that change something in the system? Does the system adjust or become more accessible? Like, has crunk changed something in the industry?

JS: I think crunk is party music. It’s not like a movement. The movie though, is a groove movie, it makes people think by inviting them wit the music. There are so many different musical sensibilities in the movie, hip-hop, country, blues.

PM: This seems a concerted effort now, to conjoin country and hip-hop, whether through Nelly and Tim McGraw, or Cowboy Troy.

JS: Country and the blues are so intertwined, in the stories they tell. There’s a country version of “Gin and Juice.” The people who listen to covers like that - and there are others—wouldn’t necessarily know Snoop. Southern music, cross-culturally, is a cathartic way for people to get stuff off their chests. What we love about this movie is that it doesn’t fit a stereotype of the South. It’s cross-cultural. That’s the kind of movie we want to make. The next movie I’m making with Craig [Brewer] is called Black Snake Moan, with Sam Jackson and Justin Timberlake. The contemporary South has not been mined for movies at all.

PM: How involved were you with day-to-day work on this film?

JS: I was there every day of this production. I let the director direct, but I was very involved. You see the set, I helped put the lights around the door, and changed the lights for the moods of the songs. It’s Craig’s movie, but I talked to him a lot, like, every song is shot differently. I’m basically telling him what he already knows, but I’m like his conscience. It’s funny. My first protégé is a white kid from Memphis. He’s bald like me, too, and we’re like brothers, we finish each other’s sentences, we have the same musical sensibilities. He’s really into blues, hip-hop, and country, and movies. We’re like film geeks. You know, Hollywood has a way they want to look at me, not the way I am, like I’m some fire-breathing militant black dude. But movies saved me from delinquency. I like the fact that with this movie, we made a stride toward doing something different in the industry. Nobody wanted to make this movie because it was about a pimp. It didn’t matter, the quality of the script. Craig said, “If I had made fun of DJay, everybody would have accepted it.” So I gave them the finger and said, I’m doing it anyway.

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