In gang-ridden south central Los Angeles, director John Singleton grew up in an apartment next to a drive-in theater. "From the time I was born," says Singleton, 23, "I looked out the window and there was this 70-foot screen with movies on it."

Steeped in the larger-than-life images of stark morality tales like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Singleton went on to write and direct a compelling first film, Boyz N the Hood, that in its own way has loomed as large as anything he saw out his window. Made for a mere $6 million, the gritty coming-of-age story set in Singleton's old neighborhood was first a sleeper hit at Cannes. But when it opened in the U.S. in July, its arrival was marred by gang-related gunfire that left two dead and more than 20 wounded. Though appalled by the incidents, Singleton maintained convincingly that Boyz, a cautionary tale about the high price of violence, had less to do with these disturbances than did the social conditions the movie describes. When the shooting stopped, moviegoers kept coming; so far, Boyz has taken in $56 million at the box office.

A major reason for the film's success is that Boyz attracted whites, as well as blacks, by addressing social problems of concern to both. "My film deals with universal issues like the breakdown of the family," says Singleton. "That's affecting everybody."

Like his movie's hero, Tre Styles, the young director was raised alternately by mother Sheila Ward (a sales executive) and father Danny Singleton (a mortgage broker). The two never married, but they gave their only son a solid sense of self. He made his intellectual escape by bingeing on movies—anything by Steven Spielberg or Martin Scorsese—and he read the Screenwriter's Workbook until it was dog-eared. The dedication paid off. One month after graduating from USC film school in 1989, Singleton sold Boyz to Columbia Pictures. As abrupt as the transition may seem, he feels well equipped for swimming with sharks. "I bring a street sensibility to the business," he says.

Although he often goes back to the 'hood to see family and friends, Singleton has moved to L.A.'s upscale black Baldwin Hills neighborhood, But he can more often be found in his sparsely furnished Columbia office, where he puts in long days writing Poetic Justice, a "romantic parable" about a female poet, set to begin filming in April. Cagey, private and intense, Singleton has learned to play the game: He takes meetings with studio execs and talks shop with colleagues like Spike Lee. A fast learner, he takes nothing for granted. "In this business, success is determined by longevity," he says soberly. "It doesn't matter if you're young and you're doing a movie right now. You're only as good as your next movie, right? And I'm happy I've got my next movie."