Poetic Justice

(John Singleton, USA, 1993)


It is always a sad media spectacle when a young director, whose debut feature was mercilessly overhyped, is crucified on the release of his second.

John Singleton's Boyz N the Hood (1991) was a stylistically amateurish, dramatically naive film wildly embraced by many critics for its supposedly true reflection of urban Afro-American life. Poetic Justice is in many respects a better movie, but it has generated only disappointed, angry or derisive responses from those same critics.

It is not hard to figure out the unspoken contract that Singleton broke, to his misfortune, with this film. It is not a preachy, neo-realist number about poverty and violence in a black ghetto, but a love story placing its urban characters in tranquil country and beach locations. Worse still, its main character is a woman named Justice (Janet Jackson) who has a constant thought-track of Maya Angelou poems running through her worried head.

In truth, Singleton has trouble keeping a feminist, or even a feminine, focus on this material. The cross-country trek of Justice and postman Lucky (Tupac Shakur), whose tentative relationship is mirrored in the more dysfunctional and explosive union of two of their friends, keeps sliding uneasily from the realm of the personal to that of the political. And politically, Singleton's concerns are resolutely male-centred, as his film increasingly becomes a lament over the loss of men and of masculine self-esteem in the black community.

If Singleton has borrowed the ideological myopia of Spike Lee's Jungle Fever (1991) in this regard, he also copies Lee's noisy, busy filmmaking style, not always to good effect. The film is clumsy, too, in its strained, sometimes patronising attempts to glorify the little lives of "ordinary" people.

Yet, for all Poetic Justice's faults, the naivety which so crippled Boyz N the Hood here carries a saving grace. The characters' wish is to find a "green world" far from the city where their wounds can be healed, their differences reconciled. Singleton succeeds in capturing the desperate fragility of such a wish in the collapsing ruin of the present-day.

MORE Singleton: Shaft, 2 Fast 2 Furious

© Adrian Martin July 1994

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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