John Singleton, the first black director nominated for an Academy Award, was in town to talk about his body of work at the TIFF Bell Lightbox Presented by TD and BAND (Black Artists’ Network in Dialogue) in association with Canadian filmmaker Clement Virgo.

Garvia Bailey, the host of CBC radio’s “Big City, Small World” led a thought-provoking conversation with the stellar filmmaker known for such ground-breaking movies as Boyz N the Hood, Poetic Justice and Shaft.  Throughout the evening, audience members learned about his successful career; how he broke into the business with the release of Boyz N the Hood at the tender age of 22; as well as how and why he chose to diversify his craft.

John Singleton portrait, smiling

Celebrated Filmmaker John Singleton

“I am happy to be able to do different types of movies,” says the filmmaker who grew up near a drive-in theatre where he saw his fair share of blaxpoitation films and horror movies. It wasn’t until he saw Star Wars at the age of nine, that he broke down the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of the movie’s structure and said to himself, ‘I can do this.’

Boyz was an exciting time and Spike Lee was the first person I met who was in the industry,” said Singleton of his breakout hit movie that he wrote while in film school. “It was a reflection of reality that hadn’t been shown before. When I make a film like that, it is an ethnographic film.” Singleton joked that after seeing Spike Lee’s film Do The Right Thing, he wanted to make a blacker movie.

Boyz N the Hood helped to open the doors and made other movies possible for the burgeoning filmmaker at the time. Admittedly, he felt that he rushed the movie Poetic Justice and if he had taken his time with the film, he would have made the movie differently. On the other hand, he felt that Four Brothers was a film that was fully realized.

A great storyteller of film, Singleton also talked of his first-time encounters with influential directors such as Stephen Spielberg and friendships with actors Ice Cube and the late Tupac and Richard Pryor. Singleton discussed the importance of comedy in film, particularly as a plot device and the ability to turn painful experiences into comedic poignant elements to evoke pathos, “Telling stories of Black people surviving the oppression without being facetious.”  Singleton said he wanted to make a point of showing key female figures not only as the pinnacle of strength in Baby Boy but also showing their vulnerability and pain as well was key to truly exploring every facet of a character.

Though Singleton enjoyed the recognition that Boyz N the Hood brought for his career as a filmmaker, he said it changed him personally to the point where the lifestyles reflected on screen started to rub off and life began to imitate art. It wasn’t until he started shooting his next film Rosewood in Florida that it took him out of that thug mindset. “Rosewood saved my life.”

During the candid discussion, clips from Baby Boy, Boyz N the Hood, Four Brothers and Poetic Justice were shown to familiarize the audience with his work. Not only did it create a wonderfully varied backdrop of his work, it also brought forth long-forgotten memories for the filmmaker.

When asked what it is like to be a black filmmaker, Singleton doesn’t equate the two. “I am black and I am a filmmaker.”

Not enough people are candid about things. And candid he was, speaking openly about his views on the industry. During the Q & A portion of the talk and throughout the two hour discussion, Singleton did not mince words when describing his views on filmmaking and life in general. When asked about Django Unchained, the Quentin Tarantino film which chronicles a slave’s search for his beloved wife, he marvelled at the film’s brilliance after three viewings. However, Singleton admits that the movie was ‘soft’ — a comedy. “A movie about slavery is a horror film that I couldn’t even begin to touch.”

His advice to a room full of film enthusiasts and budding film students, Singleton offered one piece of advice: “As a storyteller, don’t be afraid to push the envelope … make people rise from it.”

Clement Virgo Productions, in partnership with CFC (Canadian Film Centre) hosted the unforgettable evening with the filmmaker. Virgo, the director, writer and producer of Planet of Junior Brown, Love Come Down and Lie With Me, also mentioned that he is working on a film adaptation of The Book of Negroes.

This is the fourth talk organized by Clement Virgo Productions which has included past filmmakers Spike Lee and Lee Daniels. Proceeds from ticket sales of the event go towards a program for black filmmakers through the Diversity Scholarship Fund at CFC.

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