How John Singleton Saved The “Furious” Franchise
The earth-shattering fate of iconic filmmaker, John Singleton, who at age twenty-four, made history with his critically-acclaimed coming-of-age urban tale of survival, Boyz n the Hood, by becoming the the youngest and first Black director to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director, is another reminder of how the gems of the industry need to be appropriately hailed for their magnificent contributions while they’re lucid enough to feel the love.
As the years pile up, it’s only natural to look back at the cultural landscape and marvel at how good you had it when you were impressionable enough to soak up the creative succulence of genius minds.
These revolutionaries defiantly curated stories on their own terms, at the risk of being punished by an all-White system of thugs, who are still criminally biased when it comes to fair representation of non-White talents — in all facets of the business.
Every generation likes to boast about why their “time was the best,” and that’s based on the richness and durability of selected influencers, and why those prized deliverables will never have an expiration date.
For Gen-Xers, during the teen years and past the early stages of adulthood, we were consistently feted with non-stop fare from luminous visionaries, who were working overtime to feed the masses not just what they wanted, but also desperately needed.
John Singleton was one of those geniuses, who became my staple filmmaker, once I became invested in subject matters that had been foreign to me, until I was delivered the potency of the streets according to communities that are still losing homegrown heroes for reasons that never add up.
Higher Learning (1995) was a master class in race relations, set in a fictitious University, that cautiously mirrored the trials and tribulations I was navigating, while attending college in the Midwest, that showcased a campus riddled by supreme division, mandated by color of skin.
Singleton should’ve garnered recognition from the Academy for his masterpiece, but clearly the strong and violent themes of racial conflict were too strong and too controversial.
Poetic Justice (1993) was the quintessential summer sleeper that beautifully echoed the mergence of Black prophets of literature with modern-day characters, who were embodying the elements in ways that generally match young adults who are engaged in the fleeting time of their lives.
There’s more from where that came from, and I would be careless in my pursuit if I didn’t mention the 2001 stunner, Baby Boy, starring Tyrese Gibson and Taraji P. Henson in career-making roles that set them on the path that led to their present status.
It was after the success of Baby Boy, that Singleton, who had garnered the enviable reputation of being a prolific storyteller with a stylized template that translates quite well on the big screen, was randomly approached by Neal Moritz and studio heads about the possibility of directing the second installment of the lucrative Fast and Furious franchise.
The story goes that the humble beginnings of of the now global box office juggernaut began back in 2000, when rising star and heartthrob, Paul Walker, had just completed The Skulls, and had proven his leading man skills when he effortlessly stole the shine from co-star and ordained lead actor, Joshua Jackson.
Skulls director Rob Cohen, and producer Moritz were under contract with Universal Studios, and very eager to work with Walker again, based on the dollar signs emblazoned in those vivid blue eyes, and so they asked the Southern California-bred actor to describe his what he envisioned for his next role.
Walker expressed his desire to be in a movie that would allow him to combine his love for cars with a plot twist of being an undercover cop who infiltrates the illegal world of street racing. He visualized it as the perfect mix of two of his favorite movies — Days of Thunder and Donnie Brasco.
Both Cohen and Moritz were onboard with the idea and immediately researched undercover street racing in Los Angeles based on a Vibe article that profiled the popular underground activity.
Once the storyboard for the film became a reality, Walker was the first to sign on, even before he was presented with the script. But there was the trepidation of being the main driver of an imposing vehicle, and so in order to reduce the pressure of that daunting undertaking, a suitable partner with name recognition and promising career was brought onboard to compliment Walker’s West Coast vibe.
New York native, Vin Diesel, who had already been featured in hits like Saving Private Ryan, Boiler Room and Pitch Black became the relevant piece of the puzzle that would comprise of the Fast family.
When The Fast and the Furious drove into theaters in the summer of 2001, it spectacularly smashed the box office both at home and abroad, and profitably exceeded the highest of expectations.
Naturally, producer Neal Moritz was ready to replicate that success with a second installment for Universal, but there were road blocks in the form of a missing driver and director, since Rob Cohen was officially bowing out from the opportunity to helm another one.
Diesel’s well-documented passion for the franchise was woefully missing when it was needed the most, as Dom Toretto unceremoniously left Brian O’Connor without a “ride or die”, when the burgeoning actor opted to star in The Chronicles of Riddick (2004), which would secure him as a bona fide action star.
The search for the director to rescue the newly-minted franchise that was in danger of the “crash and burn” syndrome, prophetically led to John Singleton, who had publicly declared his admiration for the original film after its mind-blowing debut.
Once the interest in Cohen’s ambitious replacement became a mutually beneficial venture, there was the lunch meeting at a W Hotel in L.A. that gathered all the key players; Singleton, Walker and the newest driver in town, Tyrese Gibson, who was more than willing to fill the seat that Diesel abruptly left vacant.
It’s not hard to imagine how well that memorable meeting went, when you consider the birthing of the premise, that would shift the location from the gritty streets of Los Angeles to the balmy playground of Miami, with the additions of actress Eva Mendes and rapper Ludacris to spice things up.
But the epicenter was the bromance that developed almost immediately between Walker and Gibson, which was evident on set through the captured chaos and mayhem that delighted Singleton, but also drove him crazy, as he tried to maintain order in a race against time. The fun and games were endearing, but the reality of his station as the director who had the immense challenge of producing another blockbuster for a fledging franchise must’ve weighed heavily on him.
The final product was the true Hollywood story that industry forecasters live for because we’re groomed to demand fairytale endings.
2 Fast 2 Furious graced theaters in the summer of 2003, and basically grazed the box office beyond belief. The intoxication of the Miami heat had provided the fitting backdrop for the palatable chemistry between two young and sizzling young stars, who found each other unexpectedly through the blessing of the gods.
The final tally of box office receipts for the second installment gratifyingly surpassed the accrued numbers of the original film, which was a huge feat for Singleton, who bravely claimed the director’s chair with the knowledge of what he was taking on, and with the passion and dedication that allowed for his gamble to more than pay off.
The late Paul Walker who sadly passed away in a car crash in November 2013, while on break from filming the seventh film, never forgot the way he and the Furious franchise escaped the worst-case scenario, thanks to the generosity of two Black creatives, who promised not to let him down.
Walker and Gibson remained brothers until the permanent parting that separated them, but before the tragedy, the good deed was reversed when the fifth installment under Justin Lin who directed Tokyo Drift and Fast and Furious, was green lit, and Walker flat out refused to officially sign on until his partner-in-crime, Roman Pierce from Miami was also extended an invite.
That wish was granted, and with the inclusion of Tej (Ludacris), the Fast Family was finally complete.
The evolutions of this ongoing saga were prompted by the mechanics of an erratic business plan that is just as ruthless as it is traitorous.
Justin Lin, who took the franchise to greater heights with the Rio heist in Fast Five, and the introduction of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as the bulldog hunting down the Family, has been emphatically credited for revitalizing the blueprint of a cinematic heritage, that means a great deal to a lot of people — within and outside the industry.
And while those praises are deserving, it’s time to recognize the vital role John Singleton played in expertly steering the fate of the Furious back to the fast lane, with the robust engineering that cleared away debris that Vin Diesel amassed from his reluctance to stay loyal, and that the departing Rob Cohen bequeathed to his more than capable successor.
Justin Lin, James Wan or F. Gary Gray wouldn’t have stood a chance, if Singleton hadn’t propelled the second film to the tangible level that solidified the viability of the franchise, thereby ordaining the smooth road ahead for future helmers.
His incredible coup with the Furious franchise is a testament to what John Singleton was about, and how he was driven to infuse the Black narrative to everything he touched with the dutifulness of propelling progressive conversations with serious issues, while adding vibrancy to light-hearted fare that he interpreted with his signature moves.
As the prolific filmmaker who undoubtedly re-shaped the Black cinematic experience with his branded delivery of earnestness and uncompromising adherence to the roots of his passion, Singleton absolutely didn’t receive enough accolades during his lifetime.
And now that the unimaginable is upon us, we are once again tasked with bidding adieu to a beloved artist who had so more to give if only time and luck were on our side.
There are so many more testimonies of how Singleton changed lives and the events that mattered for the better, and they will start being unleashed with the trendiness that promises an end date.
But his legacy will remain untarnished, and his painful absence will be the monumental reminder of how we truly need to celebrate our Black superstars while they’re alive and well to enjoy the cheers and applause.
Algorithms and stats do their shifty part, but now is the time for human intervention.
John Singleton was somewhat of a savior in many respects, and now we get to save him forever.