Beverly Hills — His movies have made more than one billion dollars, but when you talk to Los Angeles born filmmaker and two-time Academy Award nominee John Singleton he’s as hyped about his latest movie, “Illegal Tender” as if it’s his first day on a film set.
Again, Singleton finds himself ahead of the Hollywood crowd. This time – producing a Latin gangster/crime thriller movie with a predominately Latino and Black Latino cast.
“I just know that whatever I do is next level, I’m always ahead of the curve,” said a matter-of-fact Singleton.
“Out of every cell of John’s being oozes pure joy of making films,” says Illegal Tender co-star Wanda de Jesus. “It’s contagious. He’s visionary. He gets what the future can look like in Hollywood.”
The future, according to population estimates and Singleton is brown or Afro-Latino as he calls it. And in “Illegal Tender” which opens Friday, August 24, Singleton and write/director Franc. Reyes tells the story of Latino college student Wilson Jr. (Rick Gonzalez) and his courageous mother Millie De Leon (Wanda de Jesus) fleeing from the thugs that killed his father (Manny Perez). After years of uncertainty about the true meaning behind their life on the run, Wilson Jr. and his girlfriend, Ana, (Dania Ramirez) find themselves in life-threatening danger. Wilson Jr. returns to Puerto Rico to unveil the dark secrets from his family’s past.
“There hasn’t been a mainstream film that showed the vast Diaspora of Latinos. Just like there are Blacks in this country. There are Black Latinos,” said Singleton. “It’s exciting for me to bring Illegal Tender to the screen with talented writer and director Franc. Reyes. It is something we have both been anticipating this for several years and it’s thrilling to see it come to fruition.”
Even though Latinos drive the national box office every weekend (up to 18 percent of the market by some estimates), Singleton says the studios are not actively making “cool commercial films” for this huge audience. “We have a great director telling a great story with a hot cast, plus plenty of cars, romance, adventure, action and music. Illegal Tender brings a full entertainment experience that Latinos, Blacks, and all young people will love.”
Filming in Puerto Rico was a phenomenal experience for Singleton who learned a thing or two about Latin culture. “I went into a neighborhood and I thought I was in South Central LA or even Memphis (where he filmed Hustle and Flow), the people there look like us, act like us, they even do the brotha nod,” he says still in amazement. “Folks are folks. They just speak Spanish.”
Also featured in the film: the JayZ of Latin rap world, Tego Calderon. “People keep saying me to me the dude with the Afro steals the film,” says Singleton about his new found acting talent. As for Calderon, he’s thrilled to star in a John Singleton film. “I’m a huge fan of his and now I’m in his movie.”
To his credit, it was Singleton who green lit the film. After his success of Hustle and Flow and after learning he can bankroll his own movies, the hot young director started looked for forward thinking type stories that he wanted to tell. He hooked up with Reyes, who’s a Black Puerto Rican, and gave the brotha three weeks to write Illegal Tender and months later the two were in production. Reyes in the director’s chair. Singleton wearing the producer’s hat overlooking the entire production and cutting checks.”
“I know how to make a commercial movie,” said Singleton who turns 40 soon. “But I also know how to put flavor, heart and culture in it. That’s what I wanted to do with this picture. I’m doing what I’ve done over and over; I’m just doing it with a different flavor on it.”
Hands down the movie is violence. It’s appropriately rated R. In the film, Wanda De Jesus gives female empowerment a new visual. The sexy yet two-fisted, pistol-packing momma knows how to handle not one, but two 9mm as she seeks revenge against her husband’s killers.
Singleton strongly defends his decision to make a Latin movie involving drugs and guns.
“It’s not stereotypical at all,” he says. “The lead character is a college student who lives in Connecticut in a middle class neighborhood. You have to have a juxtaposition of forces to have really good storytelling.”
“I get this question all the time from black journalists,” says Singleton seemingly disturbed by the question. “I got this on Baby Boy, Shaft, no matter what I do. People complain about that stuff, but no one complains about all the successful movies coming out with Black men with dresses on,” he points out.
“I applaud Tyler Perry for his independence, when it’s Tyler Perry, Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence and nobody is telling young black kids and boys – you know this is just a joke, right? And they call those movies family movies and people give me beef when I make something with the hood. When I make a hood movie – it’s Shakespeare,” said the USC film school alumnus. “There’s Greek tragedy in there, those who have a background in literature get it.”
Singleton was both the youngest person (then 24 years old) and the first African-American ever to land an Academy Award nomination in the Best Director category for “Boyz N the Hood’. He also earned another nomination for the picture’s screenplay.
In 2003, he received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Singleton has also enjoyed tremendous success as a producer, financing the independent feature Hustle & Flow (2005) which landed an Oscar for Best Song and a Best Actor nomination for Terrence Howard.
“I just know that whatever I do is next level, I’m always ahead of the curve and people say wow – that’s new,” says Singleton. “That’s what good filmmaking is and that’s part of what good entertainment is about – forward thinking and not just trying to do what everybody else is doing. Anybody can emulate or not everybody can innovate.”
What’s next for Singleton? He will direct Tulia, TX starring and re-teaming Halle Berry with Billy Bob Thornton. “It’s about what happened in Texas in 1999 when they arrested 47 black people in this town and said they were all drug dealers and they weren’t. Production starts in two months.
Singleton who has never shied away from controversy knows it means something when fans read, “A John Singleton Film” and he wants it to remain that way.
“I do things to shake people up. The hardest thing to do is to be controversial to black people and that’s what I like to do,” says Singleton.
“I like to spark dialogue and have people look at my movies more than once. It’s one thing to look at movie and you don’t remember what you have watched. There’s another thing to come out of a movie and you keep talking about it over and over.”
Illegal Tender is one of those films. Perhaps that’s why Singleton is so hyped. He knows he’s done it again.