In a companion book to John Singleton’s current film, “Poetic Justice,” director Spike Lee warned his 25-year-old colleague about the reception his second outing was likely to get: “The same people who said you were the second coming of Orson Welles will now say, ‘What happened?’ They’ll feel it’s their duty to ‘knock you down a peg.’ ”
Lee’s caveat to the Oscar-nominated director and writer of the 1991 low-budget smash hit “Boyz N the Hood” could not have been more prophetic. The new film, starring pop singer Janet Jackson as a poetry-writing South-Central Los Angeles hairdresser named Justice, did indeed get a battering from the critics, and it failed to draw many of the white moviegoers who flocked to Singleton’s debut film.
Yet this was not the classic sophomore jinx. Exceeding expectations, the film pulled in an impressive $11.7 million in box-office grosses its opening weekend, propelling it to the No. 1 slot. But then “Poetic Justice” went on to lose a whopping 57% of its audience the following weekend. And by the weekend after, attendance had dwindled by another 58% in only a slightly reduced number of theaters. Audiences have been estimated as two-thirds black.
“Poetic Justice” had several things going for it, in addition to the Singleton name. An international star, Jackson had released a new album, “janet.,” in May. Another popular recording artist, rap singer Tupac Shakur, portrays Lucky, a postal worker and would-be musician who gradually wins Justice’s affection after they are thrown together on a trip to Oakland. Justice’s poems were actually written by Maya Angelou, who has a cameo role in the film and was catapulted into prominence by her participation in President Clinton’s inaugural ceremony.
Also enhancing the film’s initial prospects was Columbia’s decision to open it on a weekend when the only other two new releases were “Coneheads” and “Another Stakeout.”
The film’s slide is attributed to a variety of factors: the clutter of a summer season with no fewer than 60 major movies, including several by African-American filmmakers or featuring major black stars; white filmgoers’ lack of interest in black-themed films, especially when reviews have been mediocre or worse; fears of violence, particularly in the wake of Cineplex Odeon’s decision to delay the film’s release at its Universal City complex; and--perhaps most important--the absence of strong word of mouth once the film had opened.
“It just wasn’t a must-see,” said Byron Lewis, chief executive of Uniworld Group Inc. of New York and a consultant to studios on the marketing of African-American films.
The polling organization CinemaScore said opening night audiences gave the movie a B-plus rating. “The grades are OK, not great,” said CinemaScore President Edward Mintz. “They would not snowball word of mouth.” The group that had most looked forward to the movie--the “couldn’t waits,” in CinemaScore parlance--gave the movie an A-minus. “That group should have given the movie an A-plus,” according to Mintz.
Even so, “Poetic Justice,” which cost less than $14 million and has so far grossed more than $25 million, is expected to return a modest profit for Columbia Pictures. Video rental prospects are considered good, according to executives of both the Blockbuster and Tower chains. In addition, Singleton’s promising career--he was both the youngest ever Oscar-nominated director and the first African-American--is not believed to be in jeopardy, although he may incur closer supervision from Columbia executives the next time around.
Singleton has two projects in development at Columbia--a campus-based movie he wrote while at USC film school with the working title of “Higher Learning” and a Western called “Drumfire.” Also, Columbia has acquired “Burnout,” an action thriller written by Tony Peckham, for Singleton to direct. “Nothing’s definite,” said his spokeswoman, Cassandra Butcher. “John’s got movies lined up in his head for the next five years.”
Studio officials declined comment on “Poetic Justice,” but co-producer Steve Nicolaides, who also produced “Boyz N the Hood,” said: “John is in my opinion and in Columbia’s opinion still a very substantial solid artist-filmmaker, and his best films are yet to come.”
Singleton, whose production company is based at Columbia, was not available to discuss “Poetic Justice,” but Butcher said he is philosophical about his attempt to chronicle the experiences of a young female inner-city artist. “He personally doesn’t feel it’s done bad,” said Butcher. “It’s a different movie--a movie about a poet. There are not many movies you could have made about a poet that could have done as well.”
Butcher said Singleton was not crushed by the bad reviews: “He took it as constructive criticism.”
“Poetic Justice” garnered a few favorable notices, but most major critics expressed disappointment--respectfully if not downright apologetically--that Singleton had not come up with a film to match “Boyz,” a powerful and moving story about a father’s struggle to provide his son with an alternative to gang violence.
The Times’ film critic Kenneth Turan, for example, started his “Poetic Justice” review by recalling that “every boy wonder from Orson Welles to Steven Soderbergh” has had to cope with the kind of pressure Singleton must have faced on his second film. Turan’s assessment: “While ‘Boyz’ was all of a piece, this film feels thrown together, an unfocused compendium of conflicting impulses and moods.”
Time magazine’s Richard Schickel did not move in for the kill until he had noted that most of Singleton’s career is “ahead of him.” Then he wrote, “What must be said is that the new movie is simply awful: poorly structured, vulgarly written, insipidly directed, monotonously performed.”
Black critics did not necessarily embrace “Poetic Justice,” either. Armond White charged in the black New York City weekly the City Sun that Singleton was neglected by the studio. ". . . No one at Columbia Pictures seems to respect (Singleton) enough to confer with him on structuring his script to better focus on his star couple’s personal and social circumstances,” White wrote.
Producer Nicolaides conceded that Columbia’s top brass pretty much left Singleton to his own devices. “We were allowed to start filming a script that wasn’t perfect,” he said.
Pointing out that “Boyz” was made under a previous Columbia regime, Nicolaides said that when Mark Canton succeeded Frank Price as studio chairman, “Mark was really making his first film with John, and I think he felt a little less aggressive toward the filmmaker out of the respect he had for the success and quality of ‘Boyz N the Hood.’ ”
The hands-off posture is likely to be abandoned when Singleton makes his next film, according to a source close to “Poetic Justice.” “I think there will be a little more scrutiny on the script,” he said.
Many mainstream films can survive negative notices--"Rising Sun” is a current example--but films by and about African-Americans are said to be especially sensitive to poor reviews. “We were unable to generate any strong compelling reason for anyone other than young black people to go see the movie,” said Nicolaides. An African-American writer who did not want to publicly criticize “Poetic Justice” said studios cannot expect black filmgoers to automatically gravitate to a film because of its director or theme. “Black audiences are not going to vote in an affirmative action way to see a movie,” he said.
Critic White said that even though he had misgivings about the movie, he expected it to do better. “I think of the movie as a ‘Sleepless in Seattle’ for black teen-agers,” he said. Its performance has led him to conclude that “the only thing people--white or black--want or expect (from movies by black filmmakers) is violence. That strikes me as a sad state of affairs, but the box office tends to prove that out.”