Words by Curtis Waller and Todd Williams
Images by Mike Melendy for Steed Media Service
NEW YORK – It’s a sweltering hot July day in Midtown Manhattan and the press junket for John Singleton’s new production Illegal Tender is underway. As the small throng of journalists ready themselves for one-on-one interviews with one of the most respected filmmakers of the past two decades, Singleton himself exits the elevator on the second fl oor of The Regency Hotel, iPhone in hand and at his ear. He’s just finished lunch in his room and hits one of the rooms to do liners for Latin radio before interviews ensue. “Hola! ¿Que pasa?” (“Hello! What’s happening?”), he queries as he records his drops to promote Illegal Tender, his first Latin crime-drama. “Wepa!” he adds excitedly, continuing his Spanglish-infl ected promo, before wrapping up his one-liners for radio. Ever the multitasker, Singleton enters the room, cell phone still fused immovably to his ear, and takes a seat. Now more than 15 years removed from the directorial debut of Boyz N the Hood, which made him a young sensation in Tinseltown, the director-turned-producer says, “Everything I do [as producer] is an extension of what I’d do as a director.”
Directed by Franc Reyes, (who made his debut with the John Leguizamo-led film, Empire), . Tender is a coming-of-age story set against an action crime-drama. With a fresh-faced cast including Rick Gonzalez, Wanda De Jesus, Dania Ramirez and reggaeton superstar Tego Calderon, Singleton is understandably excited at the prospect of giving this group the platform to catapult their careers to the next level in Hollywood. “The cast is hot,” says Singleton, who handpicked the players. “We’ve [got] Rick Gonzales, who people know from Coach Carter, Dania Ramirez, from X-Men: The Last Stand, and (“CSI’s”) Wanda De Jesus.”
The film spans two generations, with themes of revenge and redemption intertwined throughout. Almost 20 years after murdering his father, thugs are coming to kill Wilson De Leon, Jr., played by Gonzalez, and his mother Millie, played by De Jesus. De Jesus, in particular, gives a tour de force performance on-screen, (think Pam Grier or Tamara Dobson (Cleopatra Jones), recast as a fiery Latina). Fans of “CSI” might be ill prepared for her turn as a gun-toting mama intent on protecting her son, but they will undoubtedly be pleasantly surprised.
As proud as he is of the cast, Singleton was especially pleased with director Reyes’ work. As a guy who was nominated for an Oscar® his first time out of the gate, he knows a thing or two about being a gifted lensman. “Franc is a really good writer – he has a great vision of what he wants as a filmmaker.” And the film itself? “It’s sex, violence and music,” Singleton says, jokingly.
While there is no shortage of violence and grit, Illegal Tender actually displays a poignant sense of family values throughout. “We wanted to make Scarface with a mother and son,” says Singleton. “It’s a cool gangster movie.” Journalists asked if he was concerned about the violence ruffl ing any feathers in the Latin community. He shrugs off any potential controversy; he’s not concerned with those who’ll want to discount the film for its subject matter. “That’s just the conservative people – this movie is for the young folks,” says Singleton.
Although the film features a majority Hispanic cast, (“There’s so many different permutations of that,” Singleton says), the producer normally associated with African American themed films such as Hustle & Flow doesn’t really see the ethnicity of the cast as a stretch at all. The subject matter the movie focuses on is relatable to any urban audience – regardless of color.
“I really set out to do with this Latino cast what I did with my other pictures, and [that’s] to pick new faces so after they see the movie they know that they’re star-making material,” says Singleton. Singleton’s Boyz N the Hood starred future Oscar winner Cuba Gooding Jr. and rapper-turned-actor-turned-director/producer Ice Cube; Higher Learning definitely gave boosts to the careers of Omar Epps and model Tyra Banks; Poetic Justice showcased the superior acting skills of Regina King, while showing a softer side of hip-hop icon Tupac Shakur; and 2001’s Baby Boy was a springboard for both Tyrese Gibson and Taraji P. Henson. Singleton feels that Hollywood is basically ignoring the class of Latin people portrayed in the film, and believes he’s tapped into an audience that has made significant economic and cultural contributions.
As for taking on the role of producer more often, Singleton says: “I think it’s necessary, the whole business has changed in a sense that studios aren’t really making pictures anymore, it’s just people with money making the films and releasing them through the studios.”
Singleton feels very fortunate to not have to wait for his ideas to get the ‘green light.’ “The experience of Hustle & Flow [was] very good for me in retrospect, because it let me know that I can just go out and make the movie,” he says, with a hint of pride. “I don’t have to sit around a bunch of folks talking about why I want to make the movie – I can just make the movie.”
Not a man to rest on his laurels, Singleton says he has plans to work with both Craig Brewer and Franc Reyes again. His next film with Brewer (working title: Magdalene) is centered around country music, and he and Reyes are in talks about their prospective future projects. At this point in his career, Singleton’s having fun. He remembers his early days, when he was arguably the most prominent of a crop of young, talented black filmmakers considered the New Black Renaissance of Hollywood, (a group that included the Hughes Brothers and Manny Rich, among others). The young visionary of the early ’90s, Singleton was motivated early on by the belief that he had something to prove.
“I’m more confident about my abilities as a filmmaker [now]; I’m having a lot more fun,” he says. “When I was young, I was so serious – I just [wanted] to get put on and be taken seriously as a filmmaker.” Now having proven himself with a chain of successes, the South Central L.A. native doesn’t have to prove anything to anyone. “Now I’m having fun with it. I’m doing [the] movies that I want to [do]; I’m not taking any shorts.”
But some things haven’t changed. Singleton is as outspoken and passionate as ever, and he still has an eye on the next big shift in the industry, (“The future of Hollywood is more independent filmmaking”). And if anyone was worried that becoming the “Big Boss Hollywood Producer” would sway Singleton from his first love, he is certain to be back in the director’s chair sooner than you think – he’s working on a project entitled, Tulia. The film stars Oscar® winner Halle Berry and Billy Bob Thornton, (who first appeared together in 2004’s controversial Monster’s Ball, which was produced by Lee Daniels, another African American filmmaker). “It’s a story about how Texas has found a new industry. They’ve lost their agriculture, they’ve lost their oil, [and] now their industry is building more prisons, and they need a lot of poor black folks to fill them,” says Singleton. Additionally, Singleton is working on the film for one of Marvel Comics’ first black superheroes, Luke Cage.
At the core, Singleton is still a movie buff who decided to start making the kinds of stories that he wanted to see – and according to the man himself, this could be you. “[Just get] a camera, [and] a place to edit it,” he says, before adding, “[having] interesting people and a good script always helps.”