John Singleton is on the phone. He’s been texting and gabbing with one of his daughters about her day.
As the father of six smiles and talks into one of his two smartphones at a downtown L.A. photo studio, he’s on the other, devoting time to his “seventh” offspring: work. While his seminal 1991 debut, Boyz n the Hood, catapulted him into becoming the first African-American director and the youngest director ever to be nominated for an Oscar (he was 24), Singleton has recently made an enjoyable foray into television. He’s directed episodes of Fox’s Empire and Showtime’s Billions and earned an Emmy nod for 2016’s The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story (FX). Now the 49-year-old is executive-producing two new series: the well-received Rebel (BET) and the upcoming Snowfall (FX), a ten-episode drama about 1983 Los Angeles during the infancy of the crack cocaine epidemic.
Just before Snowfall makes its grand entrance this summer, the man behind the movies Rosewood, Baby Boy and Shaft sat down with ESSENCE to chat about why television is the future, his love for stories set in California and the importance of authentic entertainment.
“If my name is on [a project], I want people to say, “I have not seen this before.” I want them to question what the hell I’m doing now,” says Singleton.
WATCH: The Cast of Snowfall at the 2017 ESSENCE Festival
ESSENCE: Rebel follows a newly retired female police detective who becomes a private eye and battles bad guys and dirty cops in Oakland. Was it a passion project?
JOHN SINGLETON: My friend Dallas Jackson, who’s my producing partner on this, and his wife had the original idea for Rebel. We went to BET, and they gave us a little bit of money and we shot a couple of scenes. We showed it at the upfronts for BET before we had even done the whole show. That was last year and the advertisers just went crazy for it.
ESSENCE: Why do you think the reaction to the show was so positive?
SINGLETON: Because of what was happening in the country last year with the police and Black men and the need for an outlet. The shooting death in Rebel makes it personal to her journey and there’s a timeliness. We have these brothers getting killed, but so often it’s objectified or made into a hashtag. We all want more than a hashtag. So we made it personal. [The lead character, Rebecca “Rebel” Knight, played by Danielle Monè Truitt] is strong but she’s vulnerable. She’s something. I’m hoping Rebel becomes an icon for our times.
ESSENCE: Why did you make the switch from film to TV?
SINGLETON: I get to make a “movie” weekly, and with film you’re lucky if you get to make one every year or two years. With TV, you’re on the floor every week—seeing stuff happen, working with the scripts and working with actors—and it’s great. [Also with TV] viewers don’t want the okie-doke anymore. They want that authenticity. Atlanta and Insecure were two of last year’s best programs and they don’t pull punches. The Black people behind the shows and writing them are the real deal. For too long, there were people in the writers’ rooms who weren’t people of color. They were interested in Black culture, but they were afraid to go there because it could be considered racist. Black people don’t have cultural filters. The hardest thing to do as a Black person is to shock other Black people. I’ve always thought that if we shock other Black people, then everybody will love it.
ESSENCE: Let’s talk about Snowfall. Whereas Rebel is very Oakland, Snowfall is very South Central L.A. Was that important to you?
SINGLETON: Yeah, both are totally different but both series are a part of my brand. I want people who didn’t grow up in the 1980’s to look at Snowfall as a new kind of gangster story and people who lived it to learn some things too and say, “Whoa.”
ESSENCE: You’ve been telling stories for more than 26 years. That’s amazing. Does it seems as if it’s been that long?
SINGLETON: It does and I’m not finished. I’m going to keep hitting them from all sides. I have a feeling this is going to be a good year for me.
This feature originally appeared in the May 2017 Issue of ESSENCE Magazine.