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“I took the training wheels off”


John Singleton is eating sushi when I walk into the Sony office suite where he and his entourage are ensconced for the day. Dressed in designer shorts, shirt, and slip-ons, Singleton goes at his snack like a starving man (lunch comes after our interview), while simultaneously hunkering down over a phone conversation. He sees me and waves me inside while he uh-huhs his way off the phone.


Only 33, John Daniel Singleton can already look back on a highly respectable career, comprised of six very different movies (and one $2 million Michael Jackson video, for “Remember the Time”). Raised in separate LA households by his unmarried parents, recalls, “When I was nine years old, I went to see Star Wars ten times, and I started breaking down how they made the shots.” Though he played basketball as a teen, he decided to give that up for USC’s Filmic Writing Program right out of high school; there he won three writing awards and a contract with Creative Artists Agency during his sophomore year. For his first film, 1991’s Boyz N the Hood, he earned Oscar nominations for Best Screenplay and Best Director, and much media attention as part of the vaunted “Black Pack,” including Spike Lee, Matty Rich, and Robert Townsend. Since that crash introduction to celebrity, Singleton’s films—Poetic Justice (1993), Higher Learning (1995), Rosewood (1997), and last year’s rock-em-sock-em remake of Shaft—have remained ambitious and unusual. His new movie, Baby Boy, is his most daring and most complex, with characters and plot events emerging from a confused central consciousness, that of the titular “baby boy,” the “not yet formed” Jody (Tyrese Gibson).



PopMatters:

How did you come to focus so closely on the mother-son relationship?



John Singleton:

Basically, Juanita [A.J. Johnson] was a teenage mother, who’s grown now, and her son, Jody, is a grown man. It’s been said in the black community that mothers raise their daughters and spoil their sons, they baby them to the point that they don’t ever want to leave, give them so much love. And I believe that there’s a lot of baby boys like Jody. My definition of a baby boy is that he’s the most dangerous cat around, because he’s hypersensitive. Raised in a single-parent family, he’s always trying to define and defend his manhood at the same time. He’s dealing with rites of passage and in urban America, that rite of passage is dysfunctional, because it says that you’re not a man unless you’re a killer. But who are they talking about killing? Each other. There’s an accepted notion that you go to jail at a certain time in your life, as a rite of passage, but it’s a dysfunctional rite of passage. My thing is that a baby boy will get your daughter pregnant and kill your son. I saw how dysfunctional these experiences are, including some of my own, and I thought, “This seems like the norm and not the exception: I have to explore this.” So I broke it down to this character who’s 20 years old, he lives with his mother, who’s 36, and he has two children by two different women. The mother’s still young and good-looking, she wants to get her groove on, and gets a new boyfriend, who’s a survivor and a thug in his own right, who moves in with her, and causes friction with her son, the other man of the house. [Jody’s] obviously intimidated the moment Melvin [Ving Rhames] comes on the screen, with that shot of Melvin’s big arm. That’s the premise that I started with.



PM:

What strikes me about this film is how integrated characters and story are with image, environment, and place. As you’re conceiving this, does something come first, image or dialogue or character?



JS:

What comes to me is the premise, the concept of the baby boy, the not yet fully formed baby, about to develop.



PM:

How did that striking first image of Jody in the womb come to you?



JS:

It was always crystal in my head, man. I’m always thinking in terms of how to visualize the themes I’m trying to present. In photography, they have what they call reportage photography, pioneered by a French photographer, [Henri] Cartier-Bresson. And you’d take a picture of action happening, but within that moment of action, there may be something, a theme within that single photograph. I’d been doing that over the years, like in Boyz N the Hood where the boy is walking up the street, and he’s in the foreground and the fighting and the dice game are in the background. I had been setting up those shots but hadn’t been very studied about it—they were just happening. I went back to school after Higher Learning, and took photography classes at USC. So if you look at the films since then—Rosewood, Shaft, and this one—they’re photographed differently than the first three films.



PM:

And for this film, you went back to Charles E. Mills, your cinematographer for Boyz.



JS:

You’re right, but this film looks completely different. To prepare for this film, I sat up with Chuck Mills and we watched a lot of well-photographed films, like The Conformist, and we said hey, let’s go for broke here.



PM:

Juanita’s garden struck me as one of those locations that bring a lot to the film’s composition as well as its themes.



JS:

Yes. It’s all thematic. One thing I’ve learned now, about everything they taught us in film school: all of it was right and none of it was right. To be a director, you have to be obsessive about details, but at the same time you have to be open and big enough to accept the surprises that happen off the cuff. I try to be a master of both. I’m obsessive now about everything—I was the music supervisor on this film as well, picked out all the tracks, the oldies and the new stuff—and I feel like this is the purest John Singleton film around. Usually I hire a producer to be a devil’s advocate, and this time I did it all myself, and figured people are either going to love it or hate it. I took the training wheels off, and it felt very liberating.



PM:

While you’ve worked with Ving and some of the crew members before, you’re also working with a lot of new performers.



JS:

I love that new, positive energy, people who feel lucky to even be in a movie.



PM:

What attracted you to Tyrese?



JS:

He’d never read a script before, but when he did the reading, he was the character. And he’s from Watts! The problems that he had with his mother and one of her boyfriends, are the same problems Jody’s going through. It’s the best research of all, actual experience. And playing this role purged him of him being a baby boy.



PM:

How did you decide to begin the film with the image of an abortion?



JS:

You got that, that he feels like he’s killing a part of himself. Actually, this was supposed to be a novel, and I wrote two chapters of it, and I couldn’t finish it. It was taking too long. So that opened in the clinic, with the sounds in the womb and the sonogram and everything. I think I’ll try that from now on, to put it in a short story form before I write the script. It was helpful to find the little nuances, to pour it out so it can be read, and then the script just came.



PM:

It appears to me that Jody’s fears are related to those felt by Rodney (Snoop Dogg), who is not such an obvious baby boy, but a hard banger type—as soon as he gets out of prison, he heads to his girlfriend’s sofa, like a womb.



JS:

They’re all baby boys: Melvin (Rhames) is a baby boy, Sweet Pea (Omar Gooding) is a baby boy, and so is Rodney.



PM:

I just picked up the new Source magazine, and they’ve got yet another story on the “New Black Hollywood.” Having been part of that yourself, what’s your take on it?



JS:

Black Hollywood is what it is, Black HollyWOOD. I grew up in South Central Los Angeles, and went to Hollywood to hang out when I was a kid and a teenager, and I developed a love for the power of film. That’s what drew me to film school, cinema was my rite of passage. I played basketball when I was in ninth grade, and I thought then, “All niggas play basketball, I want to be a filmmaker.” Everything was focused toward that. When I was nine years old I went to see Star Wars, like ten times, and I started breaking down how they made the shots, and studying how to make a film. And I started making animated films on the sides of notebooks, because the power of the moving image was very intriguing to me. That’s the power of Hollywood. And that whole thing about Black Hollywood comes down to this: Hollywood on the whole is not very radical in its thinking: they do the same thing again and again, and they don’t even do it as well as they did it fifty years ago. Even given the social change in America, and the opening of doors for minorities, they still don’t make movies that are as good as they did half a century ago. Just basic storytelling. That’s what I try to study, and bring it into my format, my frame of reference. I’m influenced by not only Kurosawa, but also Marvin Gaye and Tupac. So I’m coming at it a whole other way. Whereas, I see most people in Hollywood, black people included, they just want to make the same thing over and over again, because that’s what they deem to be successful. But I have a hard row to hoe, because not only do I have to make films that make money, I also feel inspired to make films that say something too. And it’s hard to do both, you know what I mean?



PM:

What is your composing process?



JS:

It’s different. I sit at the computer and I act it out, or sometimes I write it down in my notebook, and come back to it a year or two later.



PM:

Jody has a speech near the beginning of the film where he’s talking about the difference between being a buyer and a seller. That seems an unusual way to frame the power dynamic of the street, usually portrayed as killer and victim.



JS:

The buyer-seller thing came to me while I was thinking about these guys on the street, you know? They’re brilliant, and small-time at the same time. You ever hear about the guys in LA who can’t add seven and seven, but can count only by fives and tens, but if you ask them to divide 1000 by five, they can tell you in a second, ‘cause they sell drugs. I’m interested in exploring characters with a wry, psychological view. Jody’s selling weed, then he decides to try something different; selling dresses has less risk but requires the same business sense.



PM:

Tell me if I’m wrong, but I kept seeing signs of your earlier work in the movie, like the poster of Tyra [Banks] on Jody’s wall, or Tupac’s image over his bed…



JS:

And the ending’s like Boyz, or actually, not. But… what did you see that was from Shaft?



PM:

We can not count Shaft.



JS:

[Laughs.] Good. What did you think of that Tupac mural? It was like Tupac’s looking down on the audience, like the eyes of T.J. Eckelberg looking down on everyone in The Great Gatsby, piercing into the audience. And we never mentioned it once in the movie. For this generation, it makes them feel that Jody’s journey could be just like Pac’s journey. It’s the power of the image. I’ve learned so much on this film, the more thought you put behind the image, the more power it has.



PM:

As you look back on your career so far, how do you feel the films have developed?



JS:

I think I’m getting better at telling a story visually, I’m liking less talk and more image. I like to say multiple things with an image.



PM:

On that tip, I think Yvette [Taraji P. Henson] is a complex character dealing with difficult circumstances, but she doesn’t always articulate what’s going on for her.



JS:

With Yvette I wanted to flesh out a character who’s a young girl and really going through it. She loves this guy but she’s trying to hold on to her own self-esteem and strength, but Jody’s selfish actions are sucking her dry. I wanted to chronicle that. And Joe-Joe, her son, potentially reflects that same relationship that Jody has with his mom. Mostly, it’s about fears. Jody’s afraid to die, that’s why he has this I-don’t-give-a-fuck attitude, because he’s really afraid. And the profundity of him actually going through that dysfunctional rite of passage. He went through it all, but at the end, is he a man?

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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