Writer-director John Singleton's follow-up to his acclaimed first film, BOYZ N THE HOOD, doesn't quite rate as a sophomore slump, but it comes awfully close. Overall, this is a fuzzy, unfocused drama that bites off more than it can chew, or viewers can digest.
Janet Jackson makes a promising debut as Justice, a lonely hairdresser living in South Central L.A. who writes poetry (written by Maya Angelou, who also has an amusing cameo as "Aunt June") simultaneously expressing her alienation and belief that no man (or woman) can make it alone in a world as
imperfect as this. She becomes further withdrawn when her boyfriend is murdered by gang members at a drive-in movie. What plot there is is set in motion when Justice and her fellow beauticians at the shop enter a hairdressing competition in Oakland. Justice's car breaks down, and she hitches a
ride with a friend at the shop, Iesha (Regina King), her boyfriend, mailman Chicago (Joe Torry), and his co-worker, Lucky (rapper Tupac Shakur). Chicago and Lucky are delivering a truckload of mail to Oakland. Lucky is also planning to get together with his cousin, an aspiring rap singer. Initial
friction stems from Lucky's earlier attempt to make a crude play for Justice at her shop. However, both prove to be kindred sensitive souls who grow closer as the trip goes on. Meanwhile, Iesha and Chicago break up acrimoniously over her drinking and his macho posturing, which eventually causes
Lucky to throw him out of the truck after he beats up Iesha and attacks Justice when she tries to intervene. Along the way they make stopovers at such events as a large family reunion picnic and an African renaissance fair.
The group arrives in Oakland just in time to see Lucky's cousin being loaded into an ambulance after being shot dead. Angry that he might have been able to prevent the shooting had he not been distracted by Justice, Lucky breaks off with her. He then asks his aunt and uncle to give him his
cousin's musical gear, feeling that his cousin would want Lucky to continue in his footsteps. However, back in L.A., Lucky remains distracted and almost burns down his house trying to connect the electronic gear. Yielding to the inevitable, a contrite Lucky returns to see Justice, bringing with
him his young daughter, who gets a fashion makeover at the beauty shop.
The flaws in POETIC JUSTICE stem more from an excess of ambition than a deficit of ideas. It tries to be too many films in one, from road-movie romance to trenchant drama to social commentary. The film sets out to offer nothing less than a panorama of African-American life, but lacks a story
strong enough to tie everything together. It rambles rather than moves, and its central characters remain oddly hazy and undefined. Though both Justice and Lucky are given pasts, they lack personality. It's never quite clear where either want to go in their lives. She's sort of a poet. He's sort
of an aspiring musician. But beyond that both seem to drift through, rather than participate in, their lives. Throughout, there's a sense that Singleton was so concerned with doing justice to his big themes that he neglected the small details that really make a film come alive on an intimate
Yet Singleton has lost none of his urgency or cinematic smarts. If JUSTICE is a trial from a dramatic standpoint, it never curdles into self-indulgent bloat. The performances are more compelling than the characters. Jackson and Shakur are both naturals in front of the camera, and King and Torry
bring realism and believability to their more overtly didactic roles. The settings along the California coast are lyrically and elegantly captured by Peter Lyons Collister's camera, and Stanley Clarke's music score, along with Angelou's poetry, give the film a unique audio personality to match its
visuals. The supporting cast is also fine, especially Tyra Ferrell's sexy, hard-headed salon owner.
JUSTICE is at its best when it's at its lightest, from the B-movie spoof of white melodramatics that opens the film, starring Billy Zane and Lori Petty as a most odd couple, to the reunion of a family so vast that nobody questions the main characters' presence, even though nobody is able to
quite remember who they are. On balance, Singleton's second film shows he's capable of doing more or less anything he sets his mind to. But, not unlike Lucky and Justice, he needs to narrow his focus and decide exactly what that is. (Profanity, adult situations, violence.)
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- Released: 1993
- Rating: R
- Review: Writer-director John Singleton's follow-up to his acclaimed first film, BOYZ N THE HOOD, doesn't quite rate as a sophomore slump, but it comes awfully close. Overall, this is a fuzzy, unfocused drama that bites off more than it can chew, or viewers can dig… (more)