Brow Beat

What Happened When a Young John Singleton Met a Young Spike Lee

“Watch out for me.”

John Singleton and Spike Lee at the Toronto International Film Festival.
John Singleton and Spike Lee at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2008.
Alberto E. Rodrigues/Getty Images

John Singleton, the writer-director who was a guiding light for many black filmmakers, died on Monday after suffering a debilitating stroke earlier this month. He is known as the first black American to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director for his 1991 film Boyz n the Hood, an achievement that paved the way for black filmmakers like Steve McQueen, Barry Jenkins, and Spike Lee, who have each received directing nominations in the years since.

Lee and Singleton became longtime friends, and while discussing Lee’s BlacKkKlansman on the Directors Guild of America’s The Director’s Cut podcast in August, the pair reminisced about the time when they first met.

It was the summer of 1986, when Lee was promoting his debut feature, She’s Gotta Have It, in Los Angeles. Singleton, who was 18 at the time, says that he was visiting a Santa Monica theater to see Akira Kurosawa’s Ran when he first caught a glimpse of Lee’s film. “I saw the trailer to She’s Gotta Have It, with my man taking out tube socks on the street,” Singleton remembers, referring to the film’s high-concept movie preview, in which Lee peddles socks and begs moviegoers to buy enough tickets so that he can give up the side hustle.

Singleton remembered thinking, while watching the trailer, “I gotta come, I gotta come be here.”

When Singleton returned to the cinema the following week, Lee was greeting viewers out front. “I was outside the theater passing out buttons,” Lee says. “He came up to me—what did you say?”

“I said, ‘I’m going to film school at USC in two weeks,’ ” Singleton recalls. ” ‘Watch out for me.’ ”

Upon hearing news of Singleton’s passing, Lee wrote a remembrance of the initial encounter on Instagram: “Over many years people have told me ‘I’m going to be a filmmaker’, when John said that to me the 1st time we met, I believed him right away. It was no surprise.”

Less than six years later, Singleton became the youngest filmmaker ever to be nominated for the Oscar for Best Director, beating Lee to the honor, not to mention Orson Welles.

You can hear the two filmmakers tell the whole story around the 37:30 mark below.