Once Tyrese Gibson starts talking about John Singleton, he does not stop.
The memories — the love, the grief — come pouring out about his friend and collaborator, the man who directed him in his first two movie roles, in Baby Boy (2001) and 2 Fast 2 Furious (2003).
“We had a running joke that we were going to catch Martin Scorsese and Leonardo [DiCaprio], as far as the amount of movies they’ve done,” Gibson, 40, tells PEOPLE, adding, “We had more to do.”
On April 29, Singleton, the Oscar-nominated director of Boyz n the Hood (1991), died in Los Angeles weeks after suffering a major stroke. He was 51.
Singleton’s passing weighs heavily on Gibson, who teared up at points while speaking with PEOPLE this week from London, where he is filming Morbius, a Spider-Man spinoff with Jared Leto. But mostly what Gibson wants to share is what Singleton meant to him and so many others — a constellation of actors and crew who all trace back to his films.
Gibson lists some of them in a rapid list: Morris Chestnut, Ice Cube, Laurence Fishburne, Taraji P. Henson, Regina King, Nia Long. “It’s just too many people to name,” he says.
“Long before it was cool to be diverse in Hollywood, this has always been John Singleton’s message,” Gibson says. Singleton “has always seen the value in his people.”
That legacy won’t fade.
“He’s left us with so much and we all are an extension of his tribe,” Gibson says, “and we have to use it.”
The Final Goodbye
Gibson was in production in the U.K. when Singleton was first hospitalized in mid April, reportedly with weakness in his legs following a flight back from Costa Rica.
Singleton had been to visit Gibson at his Georgia home last fall, and then gone to Los Angeles to see his young daughter, Soraya. It was there that Gibson asked if Singleton would be Soraya’s godfather. His answer “was classic John,” Gibson later wrote on Instagram: Who else would it be?
Singleton’s sudden decline and death still seem surreal.
“He was just there, man, in both places,” Gibson tells PEOPLE. “Same old John, just happy.”
Gibson visited Singleton twice in the hospital, the first time with Henson, his Baby Boy costar.
There at Singleton’s bedside for about 45 minutes, “We both said ‘thank you’ over and over and over, just thanked him for believing in us, seeing the value in us, giving us an opportunity that changed our lives and our family’s lives forever,” Gibson recalls.
As Henson spoke to Singleton, and though he was comatose, Gibson says Singleton “physically jumped in response to hearing her voice.”
“When you’re in that state, you can still hear,” Gibson says.
Then they prayed.
“We kissed his forehead, we touched his forehead, we touched his chest. We just wanted to give him all the love we could possibly give him,” Gibson says.
He returned to the hospital the next day for a last, lasting moment of connection.
While at Singleton’s bedside, talking to him, Gibson says he noticed a tear out of Singleton’s left eye. He took it on his fingertip and touched it to his own face.
“This may not mean anything, but it meant a lot to me,” he tells PEOPLE.
“At that point, I found myself accept and coming to terms with whatever God is going to decide to do,” Gibson says. “It was a moment of just kind of letting go and letting God.”
Grief and Celebration
Within days of his passing, Singleton’s family organized an “intimate” private memorial service for him in L.A.
“I don’t remember the last time I’ve ever seen or witnessed with my own eyes a level of strength and compassion and heart that has ever been displayed by anybody’s family while dealing with a tragedy,” Gibson says.
Among the memorial attendees were Ice Cube, Long, Ludacris, and Tina Knowles.
“People were sharing stories. We were laughing. It was a celebration,” Gibson says.
“Every once in a while, the mood would change, somebody telling a different kind of story that would make you cry,” he says. “It was classy, it was beautiful and we all knew specifically that we were there to stand together and honor that man in the best way we could.”
Gibson spoke at the service. “Everyone that was in that room wasn’t just friends and family,” he says. “We were looking at any and everybody that John has touched and affected in a real way. We were all in that room.”
He remembers telling them: “I don’t think we can think of anyone who has lived and died and left us with so much, so many tools, so many things, so much wisdom, brotherhood, fellowship, mentorship, being a visionary.”
“So the question is, What are we gonna do to make use of everything that John instilled in us? What are we going to do?” he says.
It’s Singleton’s decades-long drive for inclusivity that Gibson returns to, and the director’s certainty that talent can trump bias. Gibson points to costume designer Ruth Carter, who worked on Baby Boy and Singleton’s 2005 film Four Brothers and who last year won an Oscar for her work on Black Panther.
“I remember early conversations with John saying that if no one wants to hire Ruth Carter as the main costume designer because she’s black, we will,” Gibson says.
“We have to rely on our people to put our people on, and now she wins an Oscars,” he says. “She’s from the school of Spike Lee and John Singleton.”
He says there is talk of a John Singleton Diversity Clause, to be signed on by studios, stipulating that a minimum of 15 to 20 percent of each crew needs to be diverse.
“He emptied himself of everything and literally came here, had a problem with the state of Hollywood and he changed it,” Gibson says.
“I think there is no greater way of honoring him than to keep his messaging alive and to keep implementing everything that he taught us,” Gibson says. “Period.”
Singleton’s passing was the second major loss in the Fast & Furious franchise, after the 2013 death of star Paul Walker, another friend of Gibson’s.
Soon after SIngleton’s death, Gibson posted a photo of him and Walker on Instagram, writing, “No words.”
“You got to take these blows and just got to pray that your feet just keep walking, and if you pause you just got to invite God in,” Gibson tells PEOPLE. “We all go into that place where we’re swimming, anxiety, depression, sadness, whatever that might be, we all respond very differently to these type of traumas, and I believe in therapy. I believe in going to church. I believe in talking and communicating about it. I believe in speaking on it and getting out because otherwise you’ll carry it, and you’ll swim in it.”
At next year’s Academy Awards, when Hollywood will likely honor Singleton, Gibson plans to be in the audience “because he [Singleton] was just there in the audience clapping for Spike Lee and Ruth Carter.”
Remembering this moment, Gibson begins to cry.
“John was standing up in the audience, cheering, clapping, smiling and genuinely happy because he’s always believed in his tribe.”
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