Director John Singleton doesn’t mind the unfavorable notices he has received, any more than he objects to the acclaim that has come his way - a large body of pro and con criticism, all focused on a small body of work.
“All the hurrahs I came in for on ‘Boyz N the Hood,’ I was bound to come in for some knocks on whatever I did next,” Singleton said. “But the attention is valuable. It shows me that people are paying attention - that what I mean to be hard-hitting in the movies I’m making is leaving an impression.”
Singleton’s new film, “Higher Learning,” is an ambitious and busily written study of culture clashes among students of a supposedly wellintegrated university. The picture finds Singleton living up to much of the extreme promise he showed on the Oscar-nominated “Boyz N the Hood” (1991), and it strikes a serious tone without the arch pretentiousness that many found in Singleton’s second film, “Poetic Justice” (1993).
“Higher Learning” also finds Singleton continuing associations with actors Ice Cube and Laurence Fishburne, dating from “Boyz N the Hood” and earlier.
“Sort of like having your own stock company of players, I guess,” Singleton said. He stopped short of likening himself to such recognized master directors as Francis Ford Coppola and Woody Allen, whose reputations rest largely on the continuing use of favored players from picture to picture.
“But it’s nice to have people around you who believe in you and want to keep doing your pictures with you,” Singleton said. “Larry Fishburne - he prefers ‘Laurence,’ now - anyway, Laurence has been part of my stuff since ‘Pee-wee,’ back in the television days, and he was a mainstay of Francis Coppola’s pictures when I was still a little kid, and - sure, it feels good to have great actors who believe in you.”
Flashback to the late 1980s: Los Angelesborn John Singleton was a low-profile production assistant on Paul “Pee-wee Herman” Reubens’ kids-of-all-ages show, “Pee-wee’s Playhouse.” Laurence Fishburne was marking time with a featured character role on the program, waiting for his big-screen career to take off.
“This kid Singleton,” Fishburne said in an interview during that time, “he’s going to take off in a big way - you just watch. I’ve rarely seen anyone so tightly focused on what he intends to do with his talent.”
True to Fishburne’s prediction, Singleton had completed his scenario for “Boyz N the Hood,” a caustic indictment of the poverty that engenders gang violence, by 1990 and placed it with a major studio. The finished film brought him a nomination for a Best Director Oscar. At age 23, he was the youngest such candidate on record, and the first African-American to be so honored.
Singleton uses the term “hard-hitting” with some frequency to describe his storytelling.
“I got into reality-based films when I was in high school,” he said. “I was into science fiction, fantasy - y’know, escapism - before that, but I’ve always had - just, like this - this “passion” to make movies. Some kids want to be football stars, or basketball stars. I wanted to make movies.
“But as I got more into realism, the crime dramas and the social-problem kinds of movies, I realized that here was where I wanted to make my mark. Write about issues that concern you - and violence in the community, and poverty, and drug trafficking, these are what concern me - and people will feel your films very deeply.
“Film school taught me how to deal with America, it encouraged my drive and my ambition, and it gave me the tools to grow up into the career I wanted to grow into.
“Next? Well, about all I can say is just to keep on making pictures, getting ‘em better every time. I’m still 27, so I’ve got a long way to go. And keeping a wide and fully integrated audience in mind. I don’t make any ‘black’ movies. I make movies about people, all kinds of people.
“And - y’know, I think I would like to do a science-fiction film.”