"I Got to Be a Part of This": John Singleton on Directing 'The People v. O.J. Simpson'

John Singleton opens up about the episode of 'The People v. O.J. Simpson' that he directed.

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Complex Original

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After coming down from the latest Oscars ceremony that featured Chris Rock taking Hollywood to task for the racial issues in Hollywood, we caught up with another creator who's been historically critical of the industry, acclaimed director John Singleton. Singleton became the youngest person and first African American to be nominated for Best Director for Boyz n the Hood in 1991, and didn't stop there. Over the past 25 years, Singleton has been at the helm of important, charged films like Poetic Justice and Rosewood, while also dabbling in blockbusters with flicks like the 2000 Shaft remake and 2 Fast 2 Furious. More recently though, the Los Angeles native is flexing his muscles in a relatively new medium for him—TV. 

Singleton got his first TV director credit for an episode of Empire, and tonight marks only his second small-screen gig, as he takes the wheel of a truly captivating episode of American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson that seems tailor made for him. We caught up with Singleton ahead of the episode to talk about what it was like to direct Cuba Gooding, Jr. 25 years after Boyz, following the O.J. Simpson trial in real time, and his views on television versus film.

In looking at the people who have directed episode of ACS so far, it's been the same guys doing multiple episodes. How did you end up getting this gig?
Well, I was supposed to do two episodes. When they announced that they were going to do the show, I called up, and I was like, “I got to be a part of this. I lived in Los Angeles. I lived in these times, I was living when this was happening.” I was really passionate about it, and we all hooked up. They said, "welcome aboard."

Did you specifically choose to do this episode? Or was this just the one that worked out schedule-wise?
No, they just handed it to me. They handed me a script and said, “Hey, this is what we want you to do,” and I said, “Cool.” They just picked the things that they thought would be right, the best script. It was so exciting for me because this is only the second time I’ve done television. I did Empire last year and then this.

It’s been what, 25 years since Boyz n the Hood came out?​ What was it like reconnecting with Cuba Gooding, Jr. on this project.
It was awesome man, we hadn’t worked together since Boyz, and he’s likemy brother we started in this whole game together.

You said you were coming up as the trial was going on, and I was reading you had actually interacted with O.J. in the past?
Yeah, I met him a couple times, but the most prominent time was when I was in college, and he was on this show called 1st and 10.

The old HBO show?
Yeah, I saw him on the set of that.

Was there anything you gleaned from meeting him back then that you imparted on Cuba?
I didn’t have to do anything, Cuba had the role down pat. He had already done four episodes before I even got there. I didn’t have to tell him anything. He was doing it.

Being that you're from Los Angeles and were heavily invested in the O.J. Simpson trial as it was going on, can you talk about what it was like watching such a high profile trial unfold?
It was just great theater. It was interesting to me how, through the course of the trial, O.J. became blacker and blacker. Before the trial, or any of this happened, black people wrote O.J. off. We weren’t thinking about him, because he wasn’t thinking about us.

In regards to shooting your episode, you've said that you were looking at how the prosecution and defense were like opposing forces. What exactly you did you do in the episode to bring that to light?
Just really making it interactive, and how different shots would go—how they’d be edited together in advance to show how when one person is doing one thing, and another is doing another thing, and the other person is doing another thing. And just in terms of how to shoot in graphically, so that the viewer would see how they’re really setting off against each other. And kind of the rhythm—the set-off and the pay-off and the rhythm of it. You never would have expected Johnnie to say what he says after shooting Darden down in court.

That was probably one of the most intense parts I’ve seen in the entire series and I guess it’s important—I believe when Johnnie made his comment, it was almost like the camera was shot up at him, then you were shooting downward for Darden’s response.
Yeah, because he was in a position of weakness. He’s in a position of weakness, and Johnnie’s in a position of power all of a sudden.

Now, were those things that you noticed during the trial, about the power struggle, especially how Johnnie Cochran was coming across as opposed to how Chris Darden was coming across?
You just knew Johnnie was a force of nature. You didn’t know whether or not it was going to lay out that way. You just knew he was a force of nature.

These days we’re in a situation of heightened racial tension, and it’s just kind of interesting to see over the years, from numerous murders to Black Lives Matter, then watching this show. After all of that, how important do you think it is for this show to come out now, at this time and in this current climate, racially in America.
Well, it’s good. It’s really funny, people say "this time," but it’s been like this ever since black people were brought here in bondage. This climate has always been. There’s always been a fascination between the Africans who were brought here, not of their own free will, and the people who came here of their own free will to escape persecution or whatever. It’s always been a struggle as to how, or what America can offer to the interaction of these people.

Last month, with the whole #OscarsSoWhite controversy going on, that's pretty much what you'd been saying, that it’s not like this anything new. And I believe you said, there was a small pool of films for the Academy to choose from. But I know you’ve also talked about how there’s been a disproportionate number of black directors making black films. So in light of the Academy saying they’re trying to fix their diversity issues, what would it take for the situation to change?
I don’t know. It’s the same discussion. I’m pretty much bored with it, the questions like this. Not every black director wants to make black films, and not everyone should. So it’s just like—the same old story over and over again. People should just do good work. You know that there’s a system that’s not going to help you. You know it’s not running into anybody to usher them in. So you know what you got to deal with. It’s just a matter of can you handle all this, and preserve your soul in doing it?

Are you trying to do more TV work now, after this and Empire?
I’m just setting up other stuff in the television space right now, because television is where it is. I’m working on a TV show now called Snowfall, which is with FX as well. I maybe want to do another movie this summer. We’ll see, but television is so immediate, and you can do it. It’s like making a little movie every week.

What can you say about Snowfall—when will we be able to see it?
All I can say is it’s about Los Angeles in 1982 and how cocaine changed the streets of LA. Hopefully, they’ll be able to get to see it in the fall. 

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