In his debut film, Boyz N the Hood (1991), John Singleton depicted life on the streets of his native Los Angeles–not the famously sunny, palm-tree-lined boulevards but the tough, gang-ruled neighborhood of South Central. His portrait of three young black men growing up in Compton, where drive-by shootings were a terrifying fact of everyday life, was praised for its disturbing accuracy as well as for the depth and compassion with which it viewed all its characters. It became one of the first films with a largely black cast to break out as a mainstream hit, earning some $57 million at the box office. On February 20, 1992, the 24-year-old Singleton became the youngest person, and the first African American, ever to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director. Singleton also scored an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay.
Born in 1968, Singleton grew up in South Central Los Angeles. He made Boyz N the Hood shortly after his graduation from the prestigious film school at the University of Southern California. After earning raves at the Cannes Film Festival, the film was released in the summer of 1991. The success of Boyz N the Hood jump-started Singleton’s career, as well as those of the movie’s then-relatively unknown actors Cuba Gooding Jr., Morris Chestnut and the rapper Ice Cube, who wrote a hit single called “Boyz ‘n the Hood” as a member of the rap group N.W.A. before recording a platinum-selling solo record in 1989. The ensemble cast was rounded out by Laurence Fishburne, Angela Bassett, Tyra Ferrell and Nia Long.
After directing an elaborate music video for Michael Jackson’s hit single “Remember the Time,” Singleton released his much-awaited Boyz N the Hood follow-up, Poetic Justice (1993). Starring Janet Jackson and Tupac Shakur, the film met with a tepid reception by critics and audiences. Singleton continued to tackle difficult subjects with his next two films, Higher Learning (1995), which dealt with racial tensions on a college campus, and Rosewood (1997), the story of an African-American town in Florida that was burned by a white mob in the 1920s. He took on the action genre with Shaft (2000), a remake of the 1971 film, and 2 Fast 2 Furious (2003), a big-budget sequel to the 2001 sleeper hit The Fast and the Furious, directed by Rob Cohen. Though the latter film was critically panned, it became an international blockbuster, earning some $240 million. An earlier film, Baby Boy (2001), which returned to the streets of South Central L.A., earned better reviews but failed to make much impact at the box office.
In 2005, Singleton’s production company, New Deal Entertainment, released Hustle & Flow (2005), directed by Craig Brewer. Singleton put in $3 million of his own money to make the film, which told the story of a Memphis pimp (Terrence Howard) who follows his dream to become a rapper. Hustle & Flow generated the best critical buzz of Singleton’s career since Boyz N the Hood, winning an audience prize at the famed Sundance Film Festival and earning an Oscar nomination for Howard and a statuette for Best Original Song for “It’s Hard Out There for a Pimp,” by the rap group Three 6 Mafia. That same year, Singleton directed Four Brothers (2005), starring Mark Wahlberg; other New Deal productions included Black Snake Moan (2006), also directed by Brewer, and Illegal Tender (2007).
On the heels of Hustle & Flow‘s success, Singleton signed a $7 million two-picture deal with Paramount and MTV Films.