The Boyz N the Hood director is back – with Snowfall, a TV show about America’s drug epidemic. Over a lunch of fried catfish in South Central LA, John Singleton reveals all about his ‘ghetto Game of Thrones’
This article titled “John Singleton: ‘The crack epidemic gave me something to write about – but I had to survive it first'” was written by Lanre Bakare, for The Guardian on Wednesday 28th June 2017 06.00 UTC
‘Welcome to South Central Los Angeles,” says John Singleton, as he makes himself comfortable at La Louisanne, a Creole bar and restaurant that sits between Crenshaw and Inglewood. “I’m not a Beverly Hills dude. I still live in this community.” Singleton has made his home in the centre of African-American culture in LA. It was here that the city’s jazz renaissance took root, led by Kamasi Washington. It’s where Kendrick Lamar found his inspiration, and it’s the part of the city film-maker Ava DuVernay has made her base.
La Louisanne feels frozen in time. The menu of jambalayas, fried catfish and gumbo is a reminder of the African Americans who migrated from the south, mostly in the 1940s, and the decor feels as if it might not have changed much since the early 80s, when Singleton would pick up his grandmother, who was a regular at the bar. “At night they play blues,” he says, “and all the old men who’ve been drinking here for most of their lives come in.” It is a landmark on this side of the city – an area with which Singleton has become synonymous.
The director made his name with Boyz N the Hood in the summer of 1991. His debut film told the story of a group of black teenagers in South Central LA who lived cheek by jowl with gang violence. It painted the area as a war zone, with corrupt police provoking rather than protecting a community mired in drug violence and left to fend for itself by the Reagan administration.
Gang violence broke out at screenings all over the country when the film was released. Singleton, at 24, became the youngest best director nominee at the Oscars. His latest project, a 10-part TV drama called Snowfall that launches on the US network FX next month, looks back to the 1970s and the nascent drug trade, which started with cocaine and rapidly turned into the crack epidemic.
“I remember friends who never had any money starting to have money,” he says. “It was like, ‘OK, that’s where it’s coming from.’ I’ll never forget seeing kids I knew – who used to play ball with us – shaking down grown people for money they owed for drugs. Seeing a kid, just nine or 10, kicking a grown man in the leg saying, ‘Motherfucker, you better get me my money.’ It was surreal.”
That dreamlike quality is woven into Snowfall, as Singleton presents South Central LA as a place where, before cocaine, gang violence was low-level and isolated, and nobody had bars on their windows. “As crazy as things were,” he says, “it was a great time. I was 12, 13 – my formative years. It was beautiful.” He calls his show “the ghetto Game of Thrones”.
Given that the story is so deeply rooted in South Central, the director turned heads when he cast the mostly unknown British actor Damson Idris as the lead character, Franklin. Could a young actor from Peckham, London, really capture all the nuances of a South Central teen in the 1970s? “I was kind of sceptical,” says Singleton. But, by listening to the director’s memories, and west coast rap from the period, Idris changed the director’s mind. “He’d studied acting,” says Singleton. “He got it. I call him Damsel, as in Denzel Washington. You really believe the guy. He reminded me of a few guys from that time, which was kind of haunting.”
Snowfall seems like a chance for the director to settle a few scores, especially because it features a storyline about a CIA agent who channels money made from LA drug deals into the arming of an anti-communist rebel group in South America, with echoes of the Iran-Contra affair. “They made it easy for these people to bring in cocaine and then crack,” says Singleton. “It’s not like they did it in a diabolical way to bring black people down. They were just indifferent to the end result. The same thing is happening in the US now with prescription meds and opioids. They’re doing it right now, but they’re doing it to their own people.”
Like Boyz N the Hood, Snowfall is personal. “Drugs devastated a generation,” he says. “It gave me something to write about, but I had to survive it first.” Singleton began to feel the effects of his background when he went to the University of Southern California to study film-making. “It made me a very angry young man. I didn’t understand why I was so angry, but I wasn’t someone who took my anger and applied it inward. I turned it into being a storyteller. I was on a kamikaze mission to really tell stories from my perspective – an authentic black perspective.”
That all-or-nothing approach earned Singleton a reputation for being difficult, and his films after Boyz N the Hood were poorly received. Poetic Justice, starring Janet Jackson and Singleton’s friend Tupac Shakur, was attacked for its “right-minded preachiness”, while the college drama Higher Learning was criticised for its “overbearing messages” about racial tensions on campus.
By the time of 1997’s Rosewood – a film about a real-life mass lynching in Florida that struggled to make a commercial or critical impact – the director began to blame the system. “The studio didn’t support it,” he would later say. “They were afraid of the picture. You’re talking about black genocide.” In 2000, his remake of Shaft was marred by disagreements with mega-producer Scott Rudin, who brought in Richard Price (who worked on The Wire) to rewrite a script that Samuel L Jackson refused to use. In the 17 years since, Singleton has only made four features.
“I could have done more movies,” he says matter of factly. But there is no sense that he regrets some of his more unorthodox methods for dealing with creative differences, such as the time he threatened to bring gang members to the studio. “When I was in my 20s, I was out of control in terms of what I would do to defend my vision,” he says. “There are black film-makers and storytellers who take a back seat to just get it done. It’s good, but it’s not right there. It’s been compromised.”
He points to his drink. “It’s like this tea,” he says. “You put some milk in it, it’s going to be sweeter. You put some more milk in it, it’s going to be sweeter. Some more, it’s going to change colour. And after a while, it’s not going to be tea. But if you don’t put anything in it, it’s going to be so potent.”
Moving to television seems to be one way the director can ensure his undiluted vision. Snowfall is his second small-screen show of 2017 (superhero drama Rebel debuted earlier in the year). He’s also working on a civil-rights drama. You sense Singleton sees his future in television. “A lot of great stuff is being done now on TV. You can watch repulsive behaviour on it in the confines of your own home and it’s like, ‘I know I shouldn’t be watching this shit … but I’m gonna.’”
Whether or not Snowfall sees Singleton reborn as a TV auteur, you can’t help feeling that, after Boyz N the Hood, everything else is a bonus. “All I could think about was that Orson Welles was nominated at 25 and I was nominated at 24,” he says. “And Orson – as brilliant as he was – never really recovered after Citizen Kane. That’s not to say Boyz N the Hood is Citizen Kane, but it’s pretty much a landmark in American cinematic history.”
He stops to pick over his fried catfish. “At heart, I’m a dude from South Central Los Angeles. We roll the way we roll because we had survival tactics, we had to learn how to adapt. That’s just me.”
- Snowfall begins on 5 July on FX in the US.
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