When John Singleton was a kid in South Central Los Angeles, police helicopters would swoop down several nights a week hunting for criminals in the streets. It's a memory that elicits powerful emotions, but Singleton's feelings are not primarily fear or horror. What he remembers is the sheer beauty of the blinding light splintered by the leaves of the trees.
It is this kind of aesthetic insight that made Singleton's coming-of-age-in-gangland movie Boyz N the Hood 1991's most talked-about directorial debut. In a year full of high-profile films by black directors, Boyz won greater notice than any other for the fine performances of Larry Fishburne and Ice Cube, for a spate of shootings that accompanied its opening, and, most notably, for its unprecedentedly realistic portrait of ghetto life, which sparked political debates and sold an impressive $56 million in tickets. Singleton knows, though, that aesthetics were not the reason Columbia let the 23-year-old USC Film School graduate write and direct the film. ''I told (former studio chief) Frank Price it wouldn't cost much money,'' he says. ''Instead of real helicopters, I'd use sound and light.'' For a mere $6 million, Singleton captured the true ambience of his scary hometown: the steady obbligato of the hovering cop choppers conveys more menace than the fleets in Blue Thunder and Apocalypse Now put together.
He also knows why Boyz did so well. ''It had heart and there was hardly anything with substance out there. It's like Awakenings or Dead Poets Society.''
Less sweet was publicity over the violence (33 wounded, one dead) that surrounded the film's first weekend. ''You have to understand, things would happen in the vicinity, a block or a mile away, and they'd pin it on the movie,'' says Singleton. Indeed, the last words solemnly displayed on the screen in Boyz are ''Increase the Peace.'' He says kids have stopped him to ask about the movie's meaning and reflect on where their lives are going. ''It made some of them think, ordinary people who'd never been to a movie before,'' he says. ''Instead of gang prevention, I'm into gang direction-do something to make it positive.''
Though his imaginative reach still exceeds his technical grasp, he is already a remarkable artist a fact often overlooked in sociological discussions of his movie. One superb sequence, in which the camera pulls back through a bullet hole blasted through a door, was lurking in Singleton's imagination for years. ''I thought about that shot way before, when I was still in school.'' Though he insists that ''my style is almost a documentary style,'' he isn't just a reporter; he's an orchestrator of emotions.
Singleton is eager to stretch his style in his next movie, Poetic Justice. ''I'm gonna play around with reality versus irreality. I'll be able to express myself; I'll have some time, I'll be able to show myself as a filmmaker.'' He already has.