John Singleton, whose powerful debut film, “Boyz N the Hood,” earned him an Oscar nomination for best director, the first for an African-American, died on Monday in Los Angeles. He was 51.
His death, at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, was confirmed in a family statement after he was taken off life support. Mr. Singleton had been admitted to the hospital on April 17, reportedly after having a stroke. His family said he had a history of hypertension.
His mother, Shelia Ward, said last week that he was in a coma and filed court papers asking to be appointed his temporary conservator. Several of his children at the time opposed her trying to take control of his medical and financial decision making and publicly disputed her assessment of his medical state.
“Boyz N the Hood,” a bleakly realistic film about three teenagers growing up amid gang violence in South-Central Los Angeles, established Mr. Singleton’s credentials and placed him in the conversation with more established African-American directors like Spike Lee, Bill Duke, Julie Dash, Robert Townsend and Reginald Hudlin.
“When I was 18, I saw ‘She’s Gotta Have It,’ ” Mr. Singleton said, referring to Mr. Lee’s 1986 breakthrough film, in a YouTube video in 2013. “The movie was so powerful to me, as a young black teen who grew up seeing movies with not a lot of people who looked like me.”
He was 22 when he began shooting “Boyz,” which follows Tre (played by Cuba Gooding Jr.) and his friends Ricky (Morris Chestnut) and Doughboy (Ice Cube) as they try to avoid gangs and drugs. When Ricky is shot and killed by a gang member, Doughboy, his half brother, seeks revenge, but Tre backs away from retribution.
[Read the John Singleton obituary and an appraisal of his work. | See where to stream his best films.]
Mr. Singleton had graduated from film school less than a year earlier. He later conceded that when he made “Boyz N the Hood” he did not yet know how to direct a film.
“As the movie was going along, I was learning how to direct,” he said after a 25th-anniversary screening of the film in Manhattan in 2016. “As it becomes more intense and comes on to the third act, the camerawork is more and more fluid, because I’m getting better and better — and taking more chances.”
After Columbia showed the movie at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival — with Mr. Lee in the audience — the film critic Roger Ebert praised its “power, honesty and filmmaking skill.” “By the end of ‘Boyz N the Hood,’ ” he wrote, “I realized I had not simply seen a brilliant directorial debut, but an American film of enormous importance.”
Violence erupted on the film’s opening night in or near theaters; at least one person was killed and dozens were wounded around the country. But the movie did strong business, selling more than $123 million in tickets domestically in today’s dollars.
Mr. Singleton lost the 1992 Academy Award for best director to Jonathan Demme, who won for “Silence of the Lambs.” He was also nominated for best original screenplay, but Callie Khouri won that Oscar for “Thelma and Louise.” Mr. Singleton remains the youngest Oscar nominee for best director.
No black filmmaker has won the Oscar for best director. But when Mr. Lee won this year for best adapted screenplay, for “BlacKkKlansman,” Mr. Singleton was ecstatic.
“My brother Spike Lee just won his first Oscar,” Mr. Singleton wrote on Twitter. “I’m sooo happy!”
John Daniel Singleton was born on Jan. 6, 1968, in Los Angeles. His mother was a pharmaceutical sales executive, and his father, Danny Singleton, was a mortgage broker. He lived with his mother until he was 11 and then moved in with his father, on whom he based the character of Tre’s father (played by Laurence Fishburne) in “Boyz.”
John was influenced early on by movies like “Cooley High” (1975), a comedy-drama about high school friends living in the projects in Chicago, directed by Michael Schultz and starring Glynn Turman and Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs.
Mr. Singleton was 7 when he saw the film with his mother. He recalled that she cried when Mr. Hilton-Jacobs’s character was killed.
“I looked at my mother and I said, ‘Why are you crying?,’ ” he said in a 2016 interview with Vanity Fair. “And she said, ‘Because it’s such a good movie.’ So I start thinking, when I get to make a movie, I got to make people cry. I got to make them feel something.”
From his mother’s apartment in Inglewood he could see films playing at the local drive-in: horror, kung fu, blaxploitation and slasher movies.
“The cinema saved me from being a delinquent,” he said.
He studied script writing at the University of Southern California’s School of Film-Television and wrote the “Boyz N the Hood” screenplay during his senior year.
He then showed it to Stephanie Allain, a script reader for two of Columbia Pictures’ top executives. At the time, he was being interviewed to succeed her. He didn’t get the job, but she loved the script and pushed for it to be acquired.
Before a deal was made, though, Mr. Singleton demanded, despite his inexperience, that he direct the film. Frank Price, the president of Columbia, agreed; he was especially impressed with Mr. Singleton’s audition tapes of Mr. Gooding and Ice Cube.
Mr. Singleton returned to South Central — the neighborhood is now called South Los Angeles — in his next film, “Poetic Justice” (1993), a melodrama centering on a romance between a poet (played by the singer Janet Jackson) who works as a beautician and a postman (the rapper Tupac Shakur in an early movie role).
In an otherwise lukewarm review of the film, Vincent Canby of The New York Times wrote that Mr. Singleton had made a significant leap as a storyteller from “Boyz N the Hood.” “Poetic Justice,” he wrote, is “nothing less than an attempt to celebrate the creative impulse as a means of salvation, not only for the individual but also for society.”
Mr. Singleton directed a variety of films over the next 20 years, but none had the impact of “Boyz.” They included “Rosewood” (1997), a re-enactment of a mob attack against black people in Florida in the early 1920s; “Shaft” (2000), a remake of the hit 1971 film; “Baby Boy” (2001), a coming-of-age story; “2 Fast 2 Furious” (2003), an early entry in the “Fast and the Furious” franchise; and “Four Brothers” (2005), a crime drama. He also moved into television, directing episodes of “Empire,” “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” and “Billions.”
He is survived by his parents; his daughters Justice Singleton, Hadar Busia-Singleton, Cleopatra Singleton, Selenesol Singleton and Isis Singleton, and his sons, Maasai and Seven.
Mr. Singleton produced some of the films he directed, as well as other movies, like Craig Brewer’s “Hustle & Flow” (2005), which starred Terrence Howard, who earned an Oscar nomination for best actor. The film won an Oscar for best original song.
His most recent venture was “Snowfall,” a series on FX about the crack cocaine epidemic in Los Angeles in the 1980s. Mr. Singleton was one of the show’s creators and executive producers and directed three episodes.
“ ‘Snowfall’ manages to carve out its own distinctive visual style, leaning heavily on the contrast between the bright blue L.A. sky and the violence and crime happening beneath it,” Kelly Lawler of USA Today wrote in a review after the series’ debut. “Even in moments of harrowing violence, it’s hard to look away.”
For Mr. Singleton, “Snowfall” was a return to the turf that inspired “Boyz,” with a vehicle that he likened to making a movie every week.
“It’s a popular show, and I could have done it 20 years ago,” he told The Hollywood Reporter in 2018. “But they said, ‘Who wants to see “Boyz N the Hood” on television every week?’ Now everybody wants to see ‘Boyz N the Hood’ on television.”