For 20 years, I kept three voicemails on my
telephone answering machine and refused to erase
One was from Terry Sanford, the former governor, Duke University president and a person who almost singlehandedly let the rest of the world know we weren't all Junior Sample from Hee Haw down here in North Carolina.
Sanford had appreciated something I'd written and called to invite me to lunch. I, unfortunately, did not check my voicemail expeditiously, and by the time I discovered the message, he had died.
No need to kick me: I've been kicking myself for 20 years over that one.
The second voicemail that I kept was from UNC basketball coach Dean Smith.
The third was from John Singleton, the filmmaker who made what, for many, is the quintessential coming-of-age movie, Boyz N The Hood.
Singleton died this week after suffering a stroke. He was 51.
His death, like that movie, was a gut-punch.
How powerful was the movie's punch?
So powerful that, despite loving it, I could never watch it again.
Few of my buddies who have seen it have ever seen it twice, either. It's not like Claudine or Cooley High or Breakfast at Tiffany's, favorite movies you can watch and enjoy over and over. (Of course, you're excused if you can't watch the ending of Cooley High without getting misty.)
Even though my own N.C. childhood was more Stand By Me than Boyz N the Hood, the trauma of young boys living and dying in an inner city Los Angeles neighborhood was so craftily portrayed by Singleton that your heart strings just couldn't take rewatching it.
Sort of like To Kill A Mockingbird: loved the book, liked the movie, but could never read or watch after the first time.
Now, to my conversation with Singleton: I'd written in 1997 a column about calling up my friend Sonya, an Associated Press editor in Washington, and asking if she wanted to go see Singleton's latest movie, Rosewood.
"We'd better get there early," I giddily told her when she said yes, "because I've got a feeling it's going to be hard finding a seat."
We rushed to the theater, ready to brave the long lines - and discovered that we were two of six people at the theater that afternoon.
That was a harbinger, because the movie bombed at the box office. I wrote a column excoriating moviegoers - especially black ones - for not supporting it. I also told them not to come crying to me when the only movies available to us was un-nourishing pabulum along the lines of Booty Call XII: Lawd, Where'd I Put My False Teef?
Was Rosewood a great film?
Nope. But it told an important, historical story, was entertaining and deserved better than to be left withering on the vine, especially when it came out during the same period as the execrable but much more enthusiastically received Booty Call.
I lamented that Booty's take at the box office was double Rosewood's, and that if filmmakers stopped making serious or intelligent films, we'd have no one to blame but ourselves.
I’ll bet fledgling theater director Tyler Perry looked at the lines for “Rosewood,” compared them to the lines for “Booty Call,” and said “Eureka!” or, most likely, “Halleluyer! Hand me that wig and dress.”
Days after that column appeared, Singleton called. He left a voice message and I called him back. We talked about the challenges he faced bringing the flick to fruition, about how hard it was to raise money for something that wasn't a "Boyz" remake and how discouraged he was by the movie's reception.
I understood his point and was impressed that he was thoughtful and gracious enough to make such a phone call. Near the end of the call, I asked "So, what're you working on now?"
A remake of Shaft, he said.
"No, really," I laughed. "What are you working on?"
I cringed - and still do cringe - upon realizing that he was serious, but he just laughed, left his number and told me to call him anytime.
I never did, because I figured he was just being nice. If I could call him now, though, I'd say "Thank you, John, for the phone call and for the terrific movies."