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.
thirty-three, 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).
How did you come to focus so closely on the mother-son relationship?
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 twenty years old, he lives with his mother, who's thirty-six,
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.
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?
What comes to me is the premise, the concept of the baby boy, the not yet
fully-formed baby, about to develop.
How did that striking first image of Jody in the womb come to you?
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.
And for this film, you went back to Charles E. Mills, your cinematographer for Boyz.
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.
Juanita's garden struck me as one of those locations that bring a lot to the
film's composition as well as its themes.
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.
While you've worked with Ving and some of the crew members before, you're also
working with a lot of new performers.
I love that new, positive energy, people who feel lucky to even be in a movie.
What attracted you to Tyrese?
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.
How did you decide to begin the film with the image of an abortion?
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
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.
They're all baby boys: Melvin (Rhames) is a baby boy, Sweet Pea (Omar Gooding)
is a baby boy, and so is Rodney.
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?
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
What is your composing process?
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.
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.
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.
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...
And the ending's like Boyz, or actually, not. But... what did you see
that was from Shaft?
We cannot count Shaft.
[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.
As you look back on your career so far, how do you feel the films have
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.
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
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-f*ck 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?
Click here to read Cynthia Fuchs' review.