New film, same roots: John Singleton draws life from the 'hood once more


It's a long, long way from the mean streets of South Central Los Angeles to a plush office in the Capra Building of Sony Studios. But when you enter the headquarters of John Singleton's New Deal Productions, it's quickly apparent that the 25-year-old Wunderkind writer-director hasn't forgotten his roots.

While the hushed corridors outside are swarming with suits, inside Mr. Singleton is kicking back in a T-shirt and jeans as he pumps up the hip-hop soundtrack and watches a trailer for his eagerly anticipated new film, "Poetic Justice" (which opens July 23).

Starring Janet Jackson (in her feature film debut), Tupac Shakur, Tyra Ferrell, Joe Torry, Roger Smith and Regina King, "Poetic Justice" is Mr. Singleton's second feature film and the follow-up to his phenomenally successful debut, "Boyz N the Hood," which earned him Academy Award nominations for directing and screen-writing.

Some of the fallout from that success is proudly on display: Various awards adorn a bureau, there's a photo of Spike Lee and stills from the movie, and in a place of honor hangs a framed T-shirt from the 1991 Cannes Film Festival.

But right now all the director's attention is focused on "Poetic Justice," a modern-day street romance about a young black hairdresser, Justice (Janet Jackson), and a postal worker, Lucky (Tupac Shakur). After the murder of her boyfriend, Justice has become somewhat of a recluse, able to deal with the events in her past only through her poetry (written for the film by Maya Angelou).

"The two meet up when they share a ride from South Central Los nTC Angeles up to Oakland," explains the director, who shot the movie partly on location in his old neighborhood. "It's basically a love story, and about how the trip changes them and opens their eyes."

Mr. Singleton, who says he started writing "Poetic Justice" while he was editing "Boyz N the Hood," adds, "I knew it would be my next movie." He also says that he wanted Janet Jackson for the lead role "right from the moment I wrote it."

Did he have any doubts that Ms. Jackson could pull it off? After all, although she'd done some acting on television sitcoms such as "Diff'rent Strokes" and "Good Times," the singer was far from proven as a feature film actress, let alone as a leading lady.

"I had no doubts at all that she was perfect for the part of Justice," he insists. "And I knew she really wanted to get into films, but the right project hadn't come along yet. I just knew she could pull it off, and I think she's going to surprise a lot of people with just how good she is."

Mr. Singleton reports that Ms. Jackson was "great, phenomenal" to work with. "In fact, I can't wait to do another film with her, and we definitely will do another. She's very professional. She's a jokester. She has really keen observations about people and the world."

Appearing opposite Ms. Jackson is controversial rapper Shakur. Formerly a member of the successful hip-hop group Digital Underground, Mr. Shakur made his film debut in "Juice" playing the ruthless Bishop. "He's got a lot of heart, and he was great in 'Juice,' " Mr. Singleton says. "And a lot of girls like him. So I put him in the film."

Mr. Singleton has cast musicians in lead parts in both his films (rapper Ice Cube starred in "Boyz N the Hood"), but he says it's not intentional. "I just cast whoever's right for the part, that's how it ends up. Ice Cube's a musician, but he was phenomenal in 'Boyz N the Hood.' He should have been nominated for an Academy Award. He gave one of the most original performances in the last five years. But I guess it would be shocking if he was nominated. It would show they respect where he's from, and I don't think that would ever happen."

Like Ice Cube, Mr. Singleton grew up in South Central Los Angeles, but his early love of movies and storytelling helped keep him off the streets and out of trouble.

"I went through a lot of different periods," he recalls. "When I was really young I was very into Bruce Lee movies and horror movies like 'Halloween.' Then gradually I got more selective and started going to revival houses and seeing all the films by directors like Stanley Kubrick and Scorsese. I thought it was hip to go to foreign films, but I was learning film as I went along, so by the time I went to college and film school at USC, it was the only thing I wanted to do."

After graduating from USC film school in 1990, Mr. Singleton wrote "Boyz N the Hood" in just six weeks -- "I write fast when I'm inspired." The script was so hot that Columbia agreed to let the novice also direct.

How did a student fresh out of college persuade a major studio to bankroll his first movie?

"It was a con," Mr. Singleton says, smiling, "but I also had the

script to back it up. I told them it wasn't going to cost that much, and that I could do stuff like the helicopter scenes with just light and sound. I also had the casting lined up, and the bottom line was that this kind of film wouldn't have worked with anyone else but me. I've lived it, and I told them, 'I'll be damned if I let anyone else come in here and make a white movie out of this.' "

Mr. Singleton, who also produces his own movies, says he now wants to produce films for other filmmakers. "I'm now in a position to help. How many young black kids do you know that have a college degree, no criminal record and have made two movies and been nominated for two Academy Awards? And it's a crying shame that there aren't more.

"But there will be more if I have anything to do with it. It's not that I feel I have a responsibility or that I'm a bleeding-heart whatever -- it's just that I want to do it, and I'm going to do it."

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