Singleton's Poetic Justice

In l991, John Singleton made a big splash with his heartfelt black family drama, Boyz N the Hood, one of the most auspicious debuts in American film history. At 23, with two Oscar nominations (for writing and directing), Singleton became the youngest person to have been nominated for an Academy Award.

With such a stunning beginning, there were naturally high expectations of what his second movie would be. For Poetic Justice, his follow-up film to Boyz N the Hood, Singleton takes the focus off the violence of the gangs and their victims to tell the story of inner-city survivors. Poetic Justice marks another significant precedent: It's a major studio picture with a black woman as its central character and a love story as its central theme.

Poetic Justice centers on Justice (played by singer Janet Jackson), a product of a broken family in the South-Central ghetto of Los Angeles. Fatherless, with an alcoholic mother who committed suicide when she was a girl, Justice was raised by her grandmother. When Justice's boyfriend–her first love–is brutally shot in a drive-in theater, Justice withdraws into herself. But as Maya Angelou, whose poetry features prominently in the film, says, “Nobody, but nobody can make it out here alone.”

In the course of the story, Justice's life intersects with Lucky (played by rap musician Tupac Shakur), a mailman separated from his wife. On a chance road trip they take to Oakland, California, their worlds collide and their lives change.

Singleton began writing the screenplay in February l991. He wanted to tell a story about a “home-girl” who grew up in South Central. He determined that this woman would be strong, intelligent and possessed of heightened sensitivity. “Every young black woman in town wanted to read for this part,” Singleton says with a smile, “but I thought Janet Jackson would be perfect.”

The director and his singing star had attended the same junior high school. Years later, when they met on the set of Hook while paying a visit to Spielberg, Jackson told Singleton how deeply Boyz N the Hood had affected her. The two exchanged phone numbers and, after several conversations, Singleton suggested that she see the l960 neo-realistic Italian film, Two Women, as preparation for her role.

“I specifically wrote the role for Janet,” Singleton says, “everyone in town wanted to do a musical with Janet, but I thought that if I made her look different, it would also make her look better.” “Janet actually turned down other offers to do my movie,” the director says with a sense of pride, “I let her have her own input into the writing–some of the sexiest scenes in the film are actually her creation.”

Jackson's advisers suggested that she stick with what she knows and do a musical. “I listened carefully to their advice,” the singer recalls, “but my instinct said, 'This is not a way to grow.' For me, life is all about growth. When John offered me the role, I knew I'd finally found a dramatic non-singing role that was right.”

In Poetic Justice, Singleton proves that male directors can write strong female parts and can deal with romantic relationships in a mature way. This is refreshing as most black-themed movies have been male coming-of age stories, set amidst violence in the inner-city. The protagonists of Singleton's new movie are different: They are hard-working people, trying to maintain a decent lifestyle.

Instead of going to college, as her grandmother wished, Justice went to cosmetology school and now works in a beauty parlor. In her free time, she writes poetry–it's a creative outlet, a catharsis, for the hurt and disappointment that surround her existence. Justice's tough-talking exterior masks her shyness and inability to trust anyone. Says Singleton: “Most girls I knew growing up had a lot to deal with in life, and their only outlet was to write poetry. That was their only rite of passage. That's when I decided that it was time for a woman's story to be told.”

Singleton sees Poetic Justice as his “graduation ceremony.” He explains: “Boyz N the Hood was an American Graffiti set in my neighborhood. I knew that my movie would be successful, I knew that it would be sort of Easy Rider, endlessly imitated by other directors.”

Most of the picture is set on the road, but Poetic Justice is anything but a variant on the romantic road comedy. Instead, it's the tale of two couples: one of the verge of emotional involvement, the other on the verge of break-up. “The fact that in the first part, there is a lot of conflict and the characters are really at each other's throats is a measure of their youth.”

Singleton thinks that each of his characters is human, though he concedes, “My intention was not to encompass the entire black experience or create positive black images.” “All my characters have dichotomy and duality. All of them have hard time revealing their sensitivity. They all have soft insides and harder exteriors.”

In his portrait of relationships, Singleton shows subtlety. The friendship between Justice and Lucky evolves slowly and gradually–unlike most romantic interactions in mainstream movies. And the film's messages are much less explicit than those in Boyz N the Hood which, after all, was a family melodrama. The movie shows that many youngsters go into relationships with too high expectations–and for the wrong reasons.

It was an audacious decision to use Maya Angelou's poetry in a street film. Singleton says he tried to write his own poetry but couldn't do it. “Maya is my favorite poet. She is a Renaissance Woman. I am honored by her poetry in my film and by her presence; Angelou plays a small part.” Angelou came into vogue during the l993 inaugural ceremonies of President Clinton. Singleton holds that her poems were appropriate for his movie, because they “reflect the feelings of entrapment and haplessness of many black women.” In the movie, Justice's poems comment on the narrative and also heighten her emotions.

Janet Jackson says she knew “no one can recite Maya's poetry like Maya. But I gave it my best. Justice expresses her pain through poetry and I express my pain through music. That's what my album, Control, was all about: I was hurting, and in certain way, I felt I was alone.” According to the singer, channeling frustration and anger into creative writing is quite a common practice among black women.

As for the film's use of profane language, the director claims that the characters comes from the inner-city, and such language expresses their angst. This street language is authentic–it is based on Singleton's research, accurately reflecting how some of his female friends communicate. Singleton hung out with a lot of hairdressers and listened to the way they talked.

The acting in Poetic Justice is uniformly accomplished, beginning with Jackson, who carries out her role with natural grace and enormous charm. Tupac Shakur, who plays Justice's boyfriend, also gives a standout performance. Endowed with charismatic presence, Shakur, mostly known for his rap music, brings to his role the needed nuances in portraying a tough man who underneath it all is sensitive, even romantic. In what amounts to a role reversal, Shakur plays a single father, who takes his daughter away from her drug-addicted mother to provide her a better life.

Shakur sees Poetic Justice as novel, because it's about people who don't accept the status quo, but don't turn to crime as the answer to getting ahead. It's about African-American who can exist without violence. It's time to get the word out that brothers can solve the problems of their lives without using a gun.”

Singleton is critical of the hype in Hollywood which often mistakes popularity with quality. When Boyz N the Hood came out, he reminds, there were no black films with three-dimensional characters. For him, one of the strengths of Poetic Justice is that it defies easy categorization in terms of genre.

“First and foremost,” says Singleton, “I think of myself as a storyteller.” The director regards film as a tool for expressing his artistic personality. “I think I've grown in the way that I tell my stories,” he says, “in their complexity, their depth, their diversity. My goal is to make quality films that will inspire people.”

The director is determined to keep creative control over his work at all costs. “As a director, my perspective will always be African-American, but the characters in my films may not be black. Singleton hopes that his success will lead to the success of other black artists. “Many black people are creative,” he says, “but they don't have the outlet that I do for expressing their creativity.”

Though different in structure, Poetic Justice is a companion piece to Boyz N the Hood, prompted by Singleton's wish “to understand how all of these brothers getting shot was affecting their girlfriends and their sisters.” Because the director shot the film during the L.A. riots and their aftermath, it became all the more important to tell a universal story about love, hope and regeneration in a culture riddled with loss and despair.