By Dr. Lisa Doris Alexander
I was late to John Singleton’s cinematic view of the world. When his critically acclaimed debut film Boyz n the Hood was released in 1991, I was fifteen years old and not quite old enough to see the film in theaters. The first film of his that I saw in theaters was Rosewood and I still remember the anger and sadness I felt watching that film. As cinephiles grapple with the loss of Singleton, I want to reflect on one of his films that flew under the radar.
Growing up in Chicago, I fell in love sports before I fell in love with film. Like many sports fans, I was drawn to ESPN’s 30 for 30 series which chronicles high-profile sports figures and events. In 2010, John Singleton directed and narrated the 30 for 30 episode “Marion Jones: Press Pause.” It was one of the few episodes that focused on a female athlete.
In retrospect, Singleton’s take on Jones is fascinating. The documentary doesn’t focus on Jones’ fall from grace due to her use of Performance Enhancing Drugs. At the time of the film’s release, that portion of Jones’ life story was well-worn territory. Instead, Singleton seemed to be interested in exploring whether Jones could redeem her legacy. Let’s be clear, there is no attempt by Jones or Singleton to downplay or dismiss Jones’ mistakes. Yes, she took PEDs. Yes, she lied about it to the public and to the feds. Yes, she paid a stiff price: Jones served six months in Carswell Federal Prison. Both Singleton and Jones want the audience to believe that Jones’ story doesn’t end there. As I re-watched the documentary, I thought about how much Jones must have trusted Singleton. Given her ordeal, I doubt Jones would have agreed to go back to Carswell with someone she did not trust. Jones and her husband probably wouldn’t share video of Jones in labor with their third child with someone they did not trust. The documentary doesn’t need either of those moments; however, they tell us as much about Singleton and his approach to filmmaking as it does about Jones. Singleton could have had Jones tell her story of spending more than 45 days in solitary confinement from any location. Having Jones tell that story while the prison itself looms large in the background makes the low point in Jones’ life even more visceral. Singleton doesn’t leave the audience in that low point; we move almost immediately to one of the high points of Jones’ life: the birth of her daughter. Jones could have faded into the background and devoted herself solely to her family. Instead, Jones begins another chapter of her life by signing to play professional basketball four months after giving birth. Singleton ends his documentary here showing the audience that the future looks bright for Jones (her WNBA career only lasted two seasons, but Singleton makes you root for her).
Like most, if not all of Singleton’s protagonists, Jones isn’t just one thing. Whether his work spoke to you or not, Singleton was not here for one-dimensional African American subjects. He was often interested in exploring the people that mainstream society wasn’t interested in or had written off. We will miss his voice and his vision.
Lisa Doris Alexander is associate professor of African American studies at Wayne State University. She is the author of When Baseball Isn’t White, Straight, and Male: The Media and Difference in the National Pastime. Her book Expanding the Expanding the Black Film Canon; Race and Genre across Six Decades will publish in September.