For those of us who grew up black in the 1980s, going to the movies meant picking a character to identify with and pretending that person was black. It was a great era for film: There was “The Breakfast Club” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” “Back to the Future” and “Top Gun.” But black people were almost entirely invisible in those worlds.
Spike Lee joints were awesome because they were an explosion of color on the screen, social justice issues and romances, but when I was in high school, then college, that was one film a year you could count on, hope for. These were the days before streaming; we all went to the movies a lot more than once a year.
Then the ’90s came and all of a sudden, like the Jay-Z lyric, it was all black everything. The critics were often bewildered and ungenerous, but we went and for the most part we didn’t judge. We had historical films, like “Daughters of the Dust.” Finally. We had animated films, like “Bebe’s Kids.”
We got our Ferris Bueller on with “House Party,” and Jennifer Beals reminded us of how much melanin she had in “Devil in a Blue Dress.” Halle Berry was our Meg Ryan, and, for a while, Eddie Murphy was our Tom Hanks. We loved to see them in love in films like “Boomerang.”
“Love Jones” was at the tail end of the Gen X film boom, and it ushered in a wave of black romances that ramped up in the ’90s and continues to this day. My friends and I were part of the last generation of black kids who could have gone all the way through high school and never seen a black couple kiss on the big screen.
In 1991, I was a senior in college and I wrote regularly for Seventeen magazine, which assigned me a profile of John Singleton. Six months after I graduated, he asked me to write a book with him about the making of his second film, “Poetic Justice.” It was the beginning of a decades-long friendship that lasted until his death on April 29.
John invited me to be part of the film from casting through editing and scoring. I watched a young Jada Pinkett audition for a role (it went to Janet Jackson eventually).
Ms. Pinkett was just 20 years old and had met John on the set of “A Different World,” in which she starred as Lena James. In an interview after her audition she told me, “One thing I really like about John is he’s real. He writes real stuff. He doesn’t front on what’s going on in our community.” She loved “Boyz N the Hood,” she said, and wanted to be in “Poetic Justice” because, in part, “I want to be in a black film, and I want to be part of the history that I think John is making.”
Tupac was cast well before the other roles were filled. I had met him the year before, when he was promoting “Juice.” In the Los Angeles film world, he was a beautiful unknown, and I remember he used to wear T-shirts that read, “2 Pac,” because people didn’t know who he was, didn’t know how to pronounce his name.
Shooting a film where you’re in almost every scene can mean a lot of waiting around. One day, Tupac was given the day off. Then a few hours later, something changed — maybe something as simple as the weather — and they switched the shooting order.
Tupac came to set and he was furious at not having a day off: “Black director and still like a plantation up in here.” Maya Angelou, a woman who knew something about long hours and feeling jerked around, took Tupac on a walk. It was such a thing to watch, the lauded poet giving anger management lessons to the up-and-coming rapper.
Film sets are like summer camp for grown-ups: Friendships form quickly and intensely. But “Poetic Justice” was special. With the momentum of “Boyz N the Hood” behind him, John made the decision to make a powerful counterbalance to his experience of being one of the only black kids in high school, college and film school.
He used the clout he got from Academy Award nominations for “Boyz” and called us all to him. So many of us who worked on “Poetic Justice” had spent so much of our lives being the only black kid, or one of a handful. We were the sprinkles on our vanilla campuses and in our vanilla workplaces, and it had its effect: It made us mute our voices, code switch so we could be understood, get in where we could fit in.
John, with his exuberant confidence, gave us jobs and invited us to be bold in our blackness.
One Friday night in Los Angeles, we wrapped uncharacteristically early and a bunch of us headed to a club. It was packed, but there was John in the middle of the dance floor, bouncing like a pogo stick to “The Choice Is Yours” by Black Sheep. The lyrics became something of an anthem to any of us trying to make things in a world full of pushback:
“Don’t know who I am, or when I’m coming, so you sleep
Wasn’t in my room, wasn’t in my sphere
Knew not who I was, but listen here …
You can get with this, or you can get with that.
I think you’ll get with this, for this is where it’s at.”
It took a while for some of us to reach the heights we were aiming for 20 years ago, and I smiled when I heard the Black Sheep song in “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.” Our friend Peter Ramsey, who was a storyboard artist on “Poetic” made history when he won the Oscar for “Spider-Verse” this year, becoming the first black Oscar winner for Best Animated Film.
Those of us who worked in and around black films in the ’90s took away something vital that would not have meant as much on any other platform: the lesson that, from a purely creative point of view, we could do anything. If you could make a movie, what couldn’t you do? Film was, and remains, an expensive, elite medium that is nearly impossible to break into (ask Ava DuVernay). To make even one feature film is a triumph.
Black filmmakers of the ’90s also taught us that our lives were bigger than a laugh track. On TV, there was “The Cosby Show” and “A Different World” and “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.” Networks being networks, however, those shows were constructed with the broadest audiences in mind.
The black films of the ’90s were different. There was no need for lengthy, joke-laden explainers. In these films, we began to approach the complexity that we had long achieved in literature. There was a reason that the parallels were so sharply drawn between what was then called “the new black renaissance” in film and the Harlem Renaissance of the 1930s.
Spike Lee was in Brooklyn, a world away from Los Angeles, just as Richard Wright had been in Paris, a world away from Harlem. Being around John, the Hudlins, the Wayanses and Julie Dash felt like being around Langston Hughes, Alain Locke, Claude McKay, Jean Toomer, Nella Larsen, Zora Neale Hurston.
You saw the same struggles with that group of ’90s filmmakers as the Harlem Renaissance writers had. There was always the drama of making the work, which was accelerated by the pressure to get support for the work when so few people of your hue had ever gotten that backing before.
And there was a powerful connection between what was happening in the movies and the black music, which shaped almost everything those filmmakers did. Scoring often happens when the film is locked. But black films weren’t just scored, they were constructed, frame by frame alongside the music, with an understanding that the music signaled something to your core audience that you didn’t have to explain.
I can remember few moments around John when music wasn’t blaring. Early on in “Poetic,” he invited me to join him on a location scout. Tupac, bored, decided to come. John had a mixtape of classic soul songs and one of the songs he had featured in “Boyz,” “O-o-h Child,” by the Five Stairsteps, came on.
It was magic, sitting in the back seat of John’s Nissan Pathfinder, watching him and Tupac sing along. It was the moment they went from being acquaintances to homies, the song’s lyrics articulating everything they wanted to tell each other about their hard childhoods and the hope it had taken to bring them together in that moment.
When the song was over, Tupac punched John in the shoulder playfully and John, who loved to play like he was hard-core, grinned.
John understood early how music could add valuable subtext to his core audience. It’s why he spent years as an undergraduate pursuing Ice Cube for “Boyz.”
It’s why when John decided to do a romance next, he chose Tupac and Janet Jackson as his leads. He was saying, “This is a love story about black men and black women, but it’s also about the burgeoning love story between hip-hop and R&B.” (The summer after “Poetic Justice,” the song of the summer was Method Man and Mary J Blige, “You’re All I Need to Get By.”)
And of course, more recently, you saw this with Ms. Blige in “Mudbound.” She just exudes the blues, and rhythm and blues, with every fiber of her being. She doesn’t have to sing a note for you to feel all that music coming from her.
With the optimism of youth, I thought that the wave of black filmmakers in the ’90s meant the doors marked a permanent, intractable win: a kind of creative Civil Rights Act. Instead, as so many have noted, in film at least, it’s been a zigzag process of steps back and steps forward.
For every Jordan Peele and Ryan Coogler, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of black filmmakers trying to get their scripts read and their short films screened. I love that Marsai Martin became the youngest executive producer at the age of 14 with “Little.” At the same time, I know how hard it continues to be for filmmakers like John to make the movies they want to make.
Really the only thing that has been uplifting in the days since John’s death has been the surge of viewers watching and rewatching his films. I hope that the rediscovery of black films of the ’90s does more than invoke nostalgia. I hope it also serves as an inspiration, reminding us of all the stories still waiting to be told and that we need to tell them.
Veronica Chambers is the editor of Past Tense, an archival storytelling initiative devoted to publishing articles based on photographs recently rediscovered as The Times digitizes millions of images from its archives. @vvchambers
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