Poetic Justice

In 1991, director 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) to his credit, Singleton became the youngest person to have ever been nominated for an Academy Award.

With such a stunning beginning, there were naturally high expectations of what his second movie would be. But, alas, I regret to report that “Poetic Justice,” his follow-up to “Boyz N the Hood,” is a major disappointment—a sophomore jinx.

For this picture, 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.

The tale centers on Justice (played by popular singer Janet Jackson, sister of Michael), 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 true 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.” Indeed, 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 for Poetic Justice in February 1991. He wanted to tell a story about a “homegirl” who grew up in South Central. Early on, 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 its hot singing star had attended the same junior high school. Years later, when they met on the set of Hook while paying a visit to Steven Spielberg, Jackson told Singleton how deeply Boyz N the Hood had affected her. The two exchanged phone numbers and, after several conversations about Poetic Justice, 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 wanted but ultimately failed to show that male directors can write strong female parts and can deal with romantic relationships in a mature way. The protagonists of Singleton’s new movie 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.”

Seeing Poetic Justice as his “graduation ceremony,” Singleton 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 familiar romantic road comedy. Instead, it’s the tale of two couples: one of the verge of intense 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.”

Oscar Nominations: 1
Song: Again, music and lyrics by Janet Jackson, James Harris III, and Terry Lewis.

Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context:
The winner was Bruce Springsteen’s “Streets of Philadelphia” from the movie “Philadelphia.”