John Singleton has nothing to apologize for, and yet here he is telling a theater full of movie buffs how sorry he is. Hundreds of attendees of the American Black Film Festival have filled a South Beach cineplex to see the critically acclaimed drama Hustle & Flow, which Singleton produced. Instead, the crowd is treated to the first-ever public screening of Four Brothers — which he directed — and they couldn’t be more thrilled. The lights came up to a burst of applause, and even Singleton’s mentor Spike Lee popped in to show his support. So why is the director so bummed?
”That print was so bad,” says Singleton, who, one week and over 1,000 miles later, is still fussing over some flawed correction that no one even noticed. ”That was the worst dupe I’ve ever seen in my life.”
Visiting Manhattan for a Four Brothers press junket and Hustle & Flow’s opening weekend, Singleton is micromanaging everything from Paramount’s antipiracy task force to showtimes at the Loews on 42nd Street. ”Friday, the last show [of Hustle] was at 9:30,” he says, grousing outside a midtown hotel. ”All the other theaters had 11 and 12 o’clock shows for War of the Worlds, Wedding Crashers, all this stuff. I made a call to the head of distribution at Paramount: ‘This is bulls—!”’
As it turns out, he needn’t have been worried. Hustle & Flow — which garnered him a sweet multipicture production deal at Sundance earlier this year — justified its hype, bowing with a respectable $8 million. With its art-house angle on African-American struggle, the film could easily be seen as a return to form for the 37-year-old director whose career began so auspiciously in 1991 with Boyz N the Hood and then gradually headed into more conventional action fare like Shaft and 2 Fast 2 Furious. But as Singleton is quick to remind overly dismissive critics, 2 Fast topped $230 million worldwide in 2003, and he’ll do it again any chance he gets.
His newest film features Mark Wahlberg, Tyrese Gibson, OutKast’s André Benjamin, and Garrett Hedlund as four grown foster brothers in various stages of reform who reunite for their adoptive mother’s funeral. When they find out her death was not simply the result of an arbitrary corner-store holdup, the requisite ass-kicking and name-taking begins. Punctuated by perilous car chases, fistfights, and enough shots fired to tempt any male teen to pause his Grand Theft Auto, Four Brothers is all bare-knuckle, hip-hop bravado infused with just the right amount of old-school cool. And it’s not just the Motown soundtrack that gives the movie that throwback vibe.
”I grew up on Westerns,” says Singleton. ”No matter what his politics were, I love John Wayne movies. I love Steve McQueen. I love Lee Marvin. Those are the films I used to watch growing up in South Central Los Angeles. Mark Wahlberg’s like a young Jimmy Cagney.”
At the beginning of Four Brothers, a scruffy, stone-faced Wahlberg rides into town in a beat-up Buick Regal blasting Marvin Gaye’s ”Trouble Man.” Although the scene is meant to recall badass cowboys of old, it’s an equally fitting metaphor for the way Singleton strode confidently into Hollywood back in ‘91.