How do you follow a phenomenon? More to the point, if you're writer-director John Singleton and your strongly felt debut film, "Boyz N the Hood," not only made money but made you the youngest person (as well as the first African-American) ever nominated for the best director Oscar, what do you do for film No. 2?
Variants of that difficulty have preyed on every Hollywood boy wonder from Orson Welles to Steven Soderberg. For Singleton, the most prominent member of the post-Spike Lee generation of black filmmakers trying to tell stories reflective of an inner-city reality only now reaching the screen, the pressures have got to be especially intense.
And "Poetic Justice" (citywide), Singleton's latest, indicates that he is aware of those expectations. Singleton has not abandoned the first film's South-Central Los Angeles location, but has broadened his range from drama to romance and chosen to make a woman--Janet Jackson in the starring role--his protagonist. And he has pushed gangbangers to the background, focusing instead on hard-working wage earners who form the neighborhood's core, in effect putting forward positive images of African-American society.
Yet despite all this, or maybe because of it, "Poetic Justice" is a disappointment. While "Boyz" was all of a piece, this film feels thrown together, an unfocused compendium of conflicting impulses and moods. And while his debut clearly came from Singleton's gut, this one lacks that singular passion. It feels like something undertaken in order to Do the Right Thing, not because its creator felt any kind of intrinsic emotional connection to the material.
Though "Boyz" was heartfelt, it also followed Hollywood convention in how it structured its up-from-the-underclass story. Similarly, "Poetic Justice" follows a familiar pattern of young people who can't stand each other when they meet only to discover they were meant for each other just in time for the final credits.
Janet Jackson plays Justice, a young woman from South-Central L.A. who works in a beauty salon but whose true passion is poetry. Scarred by personal loss, she is the despair both of her friends and her femme fatale boss Jessie (stylishly played by Tyra Ferrell, who was the opposite of glamorous as Doughboy's mother in "Boyz"). "A man is nothing but a tool," is Jessie's motto. "You have to know when to take him out of the box and when to replace him."
Justice has no time for talk like this, and even less for the tentative advances of Lucky (rap artist Tupac Shakur, last seen as the murderous Bishop in "Juice"), local postman and concerned single parent. When Lucky attempts to off-handedly flirt with her while he drops off the mail, Justice comes down on him so hard he practically winces. No love, you might think, will ever be lost between these two.
But it just so happens that Justice's close friend Iesha (Regina King) is involved with Chicago (Joe Torry), Lucky's best buddy at the post office. And that the very weekend that Chicago, Iesha and Lucky are going to drive a mail truck up to Oakland is the same one that Justice is attending a hair show in that same city and has unexpected problems with transportation. So, to no one's surprise but their own, Lucky and Justice end up on the road together.
While a scenario like this will win no prizes for originality, it is partially redeemed by how amiable a couple Lucky and Justice make once they finally decide to stop fighting fate and each other. And after having Hollywood place a For Whites Only sign on this kind of fantasy for so long, it can't hurt to let people of color in on the game.
Unfortunately, very little time in "Poetic Justice" (rated R for pervasive strong language and for violence and sexuality) is spent on sweet moments. Not only do Lucky and Justice bicker almost ceaselessly, they are verbally outgunned by Chicago and Iesha, who turn on each other with a remarkable viciousness. When the film's liberal use of hard-core profanity is added in (plus enough presumably authentic slang to confuse anyone not raised in the 'hood), a good part of "Poetic Justice" is more unpleasant than most romances want to be.
Singleton, not satisfied with making a mere fairy tale, has added more than this helping of grit to the mix. But situations the quartet stumble on on the way to Oakland, including a large and gregarious all-black family picnic and an African Marketplace and Cultural Faire, feel dramatically contrived, included largely to make sociological points. Other elements, like casual shots of burnt-out portions of South-Central L.A. and scenes of a friend of Lucky's dealing drugs, come off as either truncated or out of place.
For while it can be argued that these situations are taken from reality, that is not a guarantee that they will meld gracefully on screen. In fact, the fit is awkward, making for a movie that feels constructed out of elements Singleton was determined not to throw away even if logic called for their being discarded.
Singleton's virtues, his passion for the African-American community and his ability with actors (both Tupac and Jackson, whose character's expressive poetry was written by Maya Angelou, come off well) are in evidence here, and his desire to create role models on screen is the more sincere for not being fashionable. A filmmaker who is adept at saying what's on his mind, he will do better when he finds something he truly wants to say.
Janet Jackson: Justice
Tupac Shakur: Lucky
Regina King: Iesha
Joe Torry: Chicago
Tyra Ferrell: Jessie
Rogern Guenveur Smith: Heywood
Released by Columbia Pictures. Director John Singleton. Producers Steve Nicolaides, John Singleton. Screenplay John Singleton. Cinematographer Peter Lyons Collister. Editor Bruce Cannon. Costumes Darryle Johnson. Music Stanley Clarke. Production design Keith Burns. Art director Kirk M. Petrucelli. Set decorator Dan May. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.
MPAA-rated R (pervasive strong language and for violence and sexuality).