For all the wrong turns and right-minded preachiness that mar John Singleton's follow-up to Boyz n the Hood, you can still sense the fire of a writer and director who thinks art can help change the world. If Singleton, 25, stumbles, it is over ambition and not the complacency of a new Hollywood hotshot riding a trend. The drug deals and drive-bys of Boyz are on the periphery of Poetic Justice, which focuses on the sisters in the hood.
Justice, played by a refreshingly unslick Janet Jackson in a beguiling film debut, is a gum-chewing L.A. beautician who wears attitude like armor. In the prologue, she watches her dealer boyfriend (Q-Tip) get killed at a local drive-in. Two years later, Justice is still in mourning. At work, her boss, Jessie — the electrifying Tyra Ferrell — chides Justice for giving up on love. Iesha (Regina King), Justice's sassy girlfriend, tries to set her up with Lucky (rapper Tupac Shakur), a postman who works with Iesha's latest conquest, Chicago (Joe Torry). "I don't have time for no man," says Justice.
What she does have time for is her poetry, which she recites in voice-over. It's a daring device — meant to express her inner feelings — but it frequently stops the picture cold. Justice's homegirl banter ("I'm gonna fuck up your sorry ass, nigga") contrasts markedly with such recitations as "Storm clouds are gathering" and "The race of man is suffering."
The poetry is the contribution of the celebrated Maya Angelou, 65. The maturity and reflection of the poems ring false in the mouth of a character barely out of her teens. They also weigh heavily on the inexperienced Jackson. She is more comfortable and appealing telling Iesha that she's going on a diet because "my ass is getting too big" than waxing poetic about "The ride of my breasts/The grace of my style" while Singleton and cinematographer Peter Lyons Collister use the camera to ogle her, MTV-style. Jackson is best when being most direct. Fed up with hearing males refer to sisters as bitches and hoes, Justice lashes out at Lucky: "I am a black woman. I deserve respect."
Singleton, who finds variations of the word fuck that even David Mamet hasn't heard, is expert at capturing the way anger closes off feeling. In a road trip that makes up the core of the movie, Justice and Iesha join Lucky and Chicago in their mail truck and travel to Oakland along the Pacific coast. They slowly open up to one another. Very slowly.
But Singleton's measured approach also reaps rewards. Iesha's comic putdowns of Chicago's sexual inadequacies erupt in violence. Self-revelation eludes Iesha. And it comes hard for Justice, which makes her tentative reaching out to Lucky all the more touching. Lucky, forcefully played by Shakur, knows it is only the job he hates that keeps him from the gangsta life of his friends. He dreams of a career in music and getting his young daughter, Keisha (Shannon Johnson), away from her free-basing mother.
Ultimately, it is Justice's reaching out to Keisha that allows her to give up her anger and move ahead. It seems a simple thing, watching these two working together on a way to do Keisha's hair. But the scene is at the heart of the film's social agenda. Whatever Singleton doesn't know about women — and you can bet that women will be telling him — he's hit on something essential: The sisters are doing it for themselves.