Poetic Justice: A Movie Review

Janet as Justice in profile

This piece was originally written for Epinions.com. An archive version of it can be found here. This is a slight revision.

This movie is a little special to me. By that I mean, this is the movie where my two favorite (and in my opinion the most underrated) recording artists share the screen. And better still, they are love interests who set the screen on fire. And it is directed by John Singleton, a man with enormous talent, and a good deal to say. Boyz in the Hood was a great film that humanized the poor black male for a society socialized to be terrified of them.

But Poetic Justice, as good as it is, is nowhere near as hard-hitting, passionate, honest, and as truthful as Boyz in the Hood was. It is a movie that tries to be many things all at once and never quite finds that balance. But the movie is not bad, it is just unfocused.

The film is set in South Central LA. Miss Jackson (if you’re nasty…oh, you know I was gonna say it.) plays Justice, a young hairdresser who has just lost her man (Q-tip, in an effective cameo) to the streets. She wears black, lets her braids grow out (which you know sisters don’t like to do…I digress), sequesters herself away in her house, eating popcorn, and making evocative faces in the mirror (a wonderful montage that speaks volumes). Her boss, Jessie (Tyra Ferrell, in a nice turn) and best friend Iesha (Regina King, in the film’s standout performance) want her to snap her out of it. But Justice is resistant. She ends up on a road trip to Oakland with Iesha, her man Chicago (Joe Torry), and his friend Lucky (Tupac Shakur).

You can guess what is next. People fight, people have sex, people bond…blah blah blah.

Herein lies the problem. The opening 20 or so minutes set up a very fascinating double character study. We see Lucky with his baby mama and his kid, trying to do right. We see him interacting with his mother (played well by Jenifer Lewis…ASIDE–someone give this woman a real role, I’m convinced she’ll blow up big as Angela Bassett…mark my words.) who wants him to do something with his life. We see Justice doing hair; we see her walking through her neighborhood, in her house in real pain.

In short, we get to know them.

But then the road trip comes in and it all unravels, slightly. Justice deteriorates a little into a b*tch, and Lucky deteriorates into a misogynist. For the purposes of what Singleton is trying to do I can understand it, but then why create these complex characters to then manipulate to make a point? I see that he is trying to say that beyond the environment of the ghetto, is a generation of people who cannot communicate with each other and resort to insulting each other. And that the world is hard, and one should be wary of love.

This in and of itself isn’t bad but the road motif creates an insular environment where we only see Justice, Lucky, Chicago, and Iesha. That is a little tiring after 30 or so minutes. Had they stayed in LA and we got to know other people and saw other interactions, not only would the point be stronger, but we wouldn’t get weary as quickly (or at all, perhaps). And more importantly, Singleton wouldn’t have had to work so hard to make Lucky and Justice fall in love. The effort is strangely evident and had we spent more time in Lucky and Justice’s environment (like the romance in love jones for instance) the natural warmth that Singleton invests in Lucky and the sweetness in Justice would have did all the work for him.

But then once they get to Oakland, a tragedy strikes that beats the audience over the head with yet another message and tries to bring back the three-dimensionality of the Lucky character, but again it is just plot contrivance and shameless manipulation for plot and message sake.

All that said, there is still much to like in this movie.

Janet Jackson is so convincing that it is a little scary. It may be asking you a lot to suspend your believe in Janet, the icon, but trust me watch the scene where Lucky comes into the salon. Close your eyes and just listen. She sounds so natural and beguiling it’s astounding. Justice is a shell. She has lost everyone, and she is not interested in any bullshit. Her pain is in her voice, in those quiet moments between her and Iesha, and between her and her Jessie. That is where she shines. Watch the scene where she and Lucky are at the carnival and he grabs her braid. Look at the body language. It is astounding.

Tupac Shakur is every bit as convincing playing a romantic hard-working brother as he was playing a man seduced by the gun in Juice. It was an amazing thing for him to do this part right after having Juice because this is right around the time when his public persona started to get scary and eclipse his brilliance. Watch his quiet moments too. Tupac is like Sean Penn in that he is a physical actor. Even if he is being loud and foul, there is this warmth that he invests in Lucky that is astounding. His main crutch is that once on the road trip, Lucky turns into the archetype of the “angry brother” and many of the facets and levels Singleton started with leave him.

Regina King gives the most complex and astonishing turn. And it isn’t just because hers is the flashiest role. Even though the script wants her to be the most dynamic she never truly upstages either Jackson or Shakur. She exemplifies the supporting actor who does what the character does, despite the manipulation of the screenplay. Iesha is the fun-loving, trifling, round-the-way girl who does what she wants and doesn’t fully realize how badly she hurts people. What is best about King’s portrayal is she allows us to see that Iesha isn’t so much mean or inconsiderate as she is self-involved. It is a subtle difference, but it is what makes her performance click.

Joe Torry and Tyra Ferrell are good in smaller roles. Ferrell, in particular, is quite good at being the role model and morality of the film, to an extent. She functions in many scenes as the Greek chorus of sorts, or better yet, Singleton’s voice. She of the many platitudes and astute observations still manages to rise above the one-dimensional writing and give a good performance. Torry has the same problems but he is never clearly defined, and his dialogue is so cliché ridden that he can’t overcome it. But he isn’t bad, just short-changed with a one-note character.

So, the question becomes, should I recommend this film. I think it is worth seeing because it does raise some relevant issues, and the lead performances are nothing short of phenomenal. But it isn’t a good movie in the nominal sense. But it isn’t even close to being a bad movie. Like I said before, it is a bit unfocused and over ambitious. So, I have to say if you watch it don’t expect a great film.

And DO NOT expect another Boyz in the Hood.

3.5 stars

About tlewisisdope

I write. I live in DC.
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