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Film / TV

john singleton’s black love and ‘poetic justice’

May 3, 2019
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Poetic Justice, John Singleton’s second film, is a meditation on love, examining its multiple manifestations — with self-love especially prominent. The 1993 film starred Tupac Shakur and Janet Jackson, who were then two of the biggest stars in America. When Poetic Justice was released, Tupac had, months earlier, put out his breakout sophomore album, Strictly 4 My NIGGAZ, and a year earlier had taken over the film Juice from a supporting role, and making the coming-of-age drama his. Jackson had, just months earlier, released her fifth studio abum, janet, which debuted at #1. The two were massive celebrities at a career zenith and they were feeling themselves. John Singleton was too, fresh off the massive success and historic Academy Award nomination of Boyz N Tha Hood, a celebrity director who Black audiences expected a lot from. Poetic Justice was “An Event” before it was even released and Singleton used his cameras to capture the self-love, self-assurance, and self-esteem that these two superstars were effortlessly exuding from their pores. They thought the world of themselves and it radiated out.

Tupac plays Lucky, whose alpha strut and big, beaming smile are evidence of how highly he holds himself — Pac’s “It” factor is shining even as his character dons a postal service uniform. Janet plays Justice, who recites Maya Angelou’s poems throughout the film, with the poet’s regal self-regard resonating loudly. To hear Jackson read Angelou’s legendary poem, “Phenomenal Woman,” is to get chills. Their friends are also full of self-love — Joe Torry plays Lucky’s friend Chicago, who brushes the back of his hair so often it becomes a sight gag. Regina King plays Justice’s friend Iesha, and she too carries herself like she thinks the world of herself. The screen is full of young Black people filled with self-esteem and highly positive self-image. It’s a selfish “I’m the shit” sort of self-love, but it’s thrilling and powerful to watch Black people who love themselves on-screen. This like a part of Singleton’s desire to use film to positively impact Black people..

Poetic Justice is a boy meets girl story mixed with a road trip. The four of them travel from South Central to Oakland to deliver mail, see Pac’s cousin, help Pac get closer to his dream of making music, and have some fun on the way. It seems like the journey is, in large part, the destination because South Central is so stressful just being anywhere else is relaxing. Singleton presents his neighborhood as so violent so often that it’s normalized. Massive fights and police arrests of numerous Black men are in the background of many scenes, yet aren’t even commented on, they’re just part of the scenery, so frightening in their commonality to these characters that they’re hardly mentioned. At one point, as Janet lies alone in her room, mourning her beloved boyfriend Markell (played by Q-Tip) who is murdered in the opening scene, Stevie Wonder’s stirring, emotional, painful “I Never Dreamed You’d Leave In Summer” is playing and tugging at our heartstrings, while the sound of a police helicopter buzzes loudly through. Even at a poignant moment, Singleton forces us to remember the ubiquitous violence and police occupation that marks these lives. He was the visual auteur of South Central — and to talk about South Central, you had to include the LAPD’s intrusions, as if they are a foreign occupying army.

There’s a lot of friend love in Poetic Justice too. Each of the same-sex pairings has an easy connection, and seeing their interactactions makes the viewer long for that kind of relationship. I always love the gas station scene where the girls go inside to get snacks and drinks while the guys stay with the car and fill the tank. As Iesha is inside telling Justice about their relationship, Lucky is outside interrogating Chicago about it, and the two stories converge to reveal that Iesha is the alpha figure in their pairing, but the scene also shows how real and honest and connected all seem to be with one another. Their friend love is clear.

One of the best scenes in Poetic Justice is when the foursome decides to slip into the Johnson Family Reunion. They seem to think they’re doing something naughty, pretending to be family to get free barbeque, but the Johnsons embrace them immediately. No one ever questions their family ties, making it feel like any African-American is assumed to be a relative. It is a symbol of fictive kinship, the notion that all African-Americans are, indeed, family. So even though the foursome think they’re sneaking their way in, their Blackness makes them automatic invitees. They’re given welcomed into the fold without question. One strange exception is Maya Angelou who is given a prominent role in the family reunion scene so that Singleton can have her play… a snarky auntie. Huh? She sweetly asks Iesha “Are you in love?” Iesha says yes. Angelou curtly retorts, “What would you know about love?” Well how’s she supposed to answer that? I’m not sure why Singleton has Angelou sitting there setting verbal traps meant to humiliate kids but I love that they used her poems throughout.

So self-love, friend love, and familial love all flow easily here, alongside the audience’s love for Angelou, Jackson, Tupac, and Singleton. Alas, the one sort of love that struggles to flow is romantic love. Poetic Justice is a love story without much romantic love in it. Lucky and Justice fight for much of the film — seeing Pac and Janet yell “fuck you!” at each other is epic — and they don’t become a couple until the end. Most movies built on a love story have the couple get together in the first act, but this film is about the rocky road that leads to the coupling. There are several reasons that Singleton waits. It definitely makes their love feel like something they had to fight for and build towards, so that, when achieved, it feels momentous and earned. Hollywood often presents people falling in love too quickly, but Singleton resists the lure of aiming Cupid’s arrow at his characters —instead, showing Lucky and Justice zigzagging down the long, hard road to love, through vicious fights and lovely beachside chats. I read it as a comment on the challenge of creating romantic love in general, and building Black love in particular. Relationships are hard, bringing two lives together is hard, and Singleton shows that. There’s not a single model couple in the whole world of the film.

We simultaneously watch Lucky and Justice creep toward each other with all the grace of two mating porcupines, and Iesha and Chicago devolve from romance to intolerance to shaming and violence. At one of the film’s critical moments, Iesha verbally attacks Chicago. She’s been building up to it, challenging his sexual ability, to which he has no real retort because her tongue is smarter and sharper than his. But in this moment, they stand on the side of the road, face to face, as she unleashes a torrent of disses meant to emasculate and trigger him. When she finishes tearing him to shreds, he gathers himself and punches her in the mouth, leaving her a bloody wreck. We see both Lucky and Justice react in shock — and the audience should too. No matter how caustic and nasty her words are, it’s horrifying to watch.

At first, Lucky declines to get involved, saying it’s between them, but then Justice jumps in to save her friend and kicks Chicago in the balls, literalizing the verbal emasculation Iesha began. Chicago ends up attacking her, too, and at that point Lucky leaps up to beat him down and drive off with the women, without his friend. Writing one of the film’s romances as a troubled descent, Singleton dramatizes the difficulty of maintaining such a relationship. While Chicago and Iaesha are rapidly spiraling into the hell of domestic violence, Lucky and Justice are slowly ascending into relationship heaven, but they don’t really get there until the moment when Lucky introduces Justice to his daughter. Then she knows his full self.

We don’t know what happens after Lucky and Justice become a couple. I wish we could’ve gotten to see Poetic Justice 2, to find out how Lucky and Justice fared. Did they make it through the pivotal first three months? Did they end up married? Was Justice visibly pregnant at the wedding? With their second child? And could they continue to be good to each other, til death do us part? In John Singleton’s film world, the answer may have been “yes,” that they’d make. Such was his admiration of Black love.