|THE FILMS OF JOHN SINGLETON
Of all the many things that don't make any rational sense about all this, perhaps the one that makes the least for me is that we ever connected in the first place, much less concretely and for so long. I've avoided even attempting to verbalize all that's been churning in my mind and heart, for fear of doing a disservice to the man by either genuinely lacking the adequate words or being much too dramatic and overstating things. But when I think and reflect, I realize that, if anything, I'm more likely to grossly understate things.
It sounds corny as all hell to say, but it's the honest truth: there's my life before John and then after. It's a sentiment shared and so beautifully and eloquently expressed by so many people on various platforms the last few days, recounting how in so many different ways he helped and inspired them, either actively by generously offering direct counsel, support, and opportunity; or by indirect way of his work, the many barriers he broke, and the history he made. Not being in the creative arts myself, his impact on me wasn't in quite in the same way; it was in a far less easily specified and quantifiable manner. I was in my teens when we first connected. In that mid-'90s timeframe, how we connected did not, again, make sense, though nowadays it's commonplace: e-mail. I, bored, overeager, film and comic book geek kid from westside LBC wasting time on this newfangled thing called the internet chancing upon what appeared to be a contact address for a figure whose work and accomplishments I greatly admired. My message wasn't unusual nor special; it was the typical ranting and raving about Boyz and such, and a basic introduction to myself and what I do. In hindsight, that last point may have been kind of significant here. At this point in time, he and I were already years into our careers at improbably young ages. He was three feature films in, to say nothing of two Oscar nominations; my e-mail newsletter and web page (singular, not an actual site) were maybe not quite a year old just yet, but I had already been writing reviews regularly since age 13 and was getting regular screening invites from a few studios. Maybe that vaguest of parallels had something to do with my finding a swift reply from John the next morning, saying that he would like to stay in touch. That, of course, we did, leading to one Monday night not long after the first exchange--I remember it being a Monday since I was watching Melrose Place--when the phone rang. My first official, oh so meaningful words to him, after the standard greeting/ID routine? "Oh shit." He let out a laugh that I would end up becoming very familiar with. This all did not make much rational sense.
Making even less, to me, was how welcoming he was from there on out. He reliably answered messages and questions while assuring me I wasn't a pest, read and followed my work (he told me some time later that he only read me and Roger Ebert; I never quite bought that), supported through the two film school rejections (this famous film school grad's assessment: I didn't need it), or just hit me up to chop it up about movies. While we were technically part of the same industry, I was on a completely different side that typically only occasionally intersected with his, so there was never any talk of him helping me get a career boost or anything. (The one slight exception to this was when Andrew Rausch and I began work on our book Fifty Filmmakers; he was among the first to agree to be interviewed for it.) I was set in my lane, and he was in his. And as such, I didn't like every project he was involved with and was honest with him about it; he didn't always agree with me on movies, and we had spirited discussions on that. He would regularly invite me off duty to his events, which I can now see is a major reason why most of my friends are filmmakers, actors, writers, musicians, artists on that creative end of the business. In typing that, I now also realize he was my first real friend outside of a school peer context, my first in the "real world" (and, if we're to continue with the corny terminology, "reel world").
For a number of years it never occurred to me to ever "return the favor," so to speak, and invite him to one of the press screenings that routinely fill my weeks. He was who he was, and I was just a reviewer--or, more significantly in my mind, I only saw myself as that geek boy n the hood who was in awe of Boyz N the Hood since I first saw it in summer of 1991. Then one afternoon in May 1999, he hits me up out of the blue on AOL Instant Messenger (there's a dated reference for you) asking me if I'd seen The Phantom Menace yet. Yesterday, I say. He was mad that I didn't take him. Thus began him being my +1 for press screenings for things he really wanted to see, mostly leaning toward blockbusters and films by his favorite directors, and of course anything Star Wars. (It's fitting that the last screening he was my +1 for was Solo.) If you didn't know he was there, you certainly heard him. He was the best movie screening partner, especially for someone like me who sees practically everything and can't help but feel a little jaded from time to time. He was always the most enthusiastic in that auditorium, the loudest, the most responsive to whatever was on screen in the most genuine, pure way. The only time I ever saw him shed a tear in front of me was at the end of The Force Awakens, when Rey hands over the light saber to Luke. His giddy energy had a way of snapping me back to the reality that I was not so much doing "work" than doing what I love. He just loved the movies, the experience of it, and just about anything that had to do with film. I remember the first time he joined for a press screening, he got geeked out that Leonard Maltin was there, which is hardly an uncommon occurrence. That's how much he was into everything that encompassed the whole universe of the movies.
This led to many more happenings over the years that didn't make any rational sense. He would be my guest at a press screening at DGA 2, and then from there we'd head over to a university Q&A he was doing for students. From +1 at a press screening of X2 then heading over to hang out at Ludacris's video shoot for his 2 Fast 2 Furious soundtrack cut. (That reminds me... I first told him Universal retitled his movie from The Fast and the Furious 2. He didn't seem pleased, at least at first.) One especially oddball anecdote: somehow DreamWorks invited me to the big premiere of The Terminal and he wasn't, and so he was to be my guest. (This event was at an especially sensitive time for me, a couple of weeks after the sudden loss of my mom, and was to mark my return to the routine.) He ended up having to back out at the last minute, but he told me to send his hero Spielberg his regards--which I did, at the afterparty. Mr. Spielberg said to tell John he said "hi." What the fuck was going on, being the go-between for John fucking Singleton and Steven fucking Spielberg?!
For a long while I never quite was able to see this, he having been someone I looked up to before we ever met and thereafter, but what it all came down to was that from the jump, he saw me simply as being someone on equal footing with him, whom he liked talking to and took time out to spend time with. Sometimes he even took time off of work, as he literally left the editing room on Four Brothers for a few hours to join me for my noontime Revenge of the Sith screening. I remember on that drive from X2 at the National in Westwood (I miss that place) we got in deep, giddy geek discussion about the legendary Claremont/Byrne/Austin run of The Uncanny X-Men. (And now I'm gutted anew, starkly reminded that he can't join me for Dark Phoenix.) Mind you, all the comics stuff still at this point wasn't really considered cool nor part of uber-mainstream culture. Just two giant geek fanboyz from the hood. What didn't make any rational sense rather made completely perfect sense in its way.
That then brings me to my Facebook profile picture, the one I've always had since MySpace. It was taken at the lunch right after his Hollywood Walk of Fame star ceremony, the one and likely only time I will ever be thanked by name by an honoree on any podium, much less for something as big as that. The late Michael Winters, the real life Doughboy, whom I sadly didn't really get to know. Roman Artiste, whom I do know well, the real life Ricky. John, the real life Tre. And then me. You can't see his left arm, with which he was literally pulling me into the shot. It doesn't really make any sense why he wanted me, of all people, in that photo of the core, cinema-immortalized trio, especially on that day of days. Yet it does.
With the bigger picture perspective forced by these events, which I honestly don't think I will ever completely wrap my head around, I see that the division between my life "before John" and "after John" and the impact and imprint he left on and with me is actually quite literally my "childhood" versus my "adulthood." I was literally just a kid the moment he hit "send" on that reply to my first e-mail, me unsure if it even was him at the other end, just going to school, and trying to figure out things and figure out myself. There's literally never been a day of my adult life without John in it, nor without the subconscious comfort and solace that he was only a call or more likely text or e-mail away in the event I needed to hear from him. Until this past Monday. I don't know if, and I highly doubt, that will ever sink in. To say that I'm incredibly devastated, especially for his family, is an understatement. But even greater than the terrible sadness is my great love for the man who somehow became my big brother and the immense gratitude for what he so generously, without hesitation, without any fucking rational sense, gave me for nearly two and a half decades. The messages, the movies, the experiences, the laughs, the love, the time. The LIFE.
--written by Michael Dequina, website creator, as originally published on Facebook on May 3, 2019; e-mail the author/webmaster