Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Poetic Justice (1993)

That's the way love goes?

John Singleton, fresh off the smash Boyz n the Hood and Michael Jackson's Remember the Time video, wrote and directed this "street romance" starring two of music's biggest names: Janet Jackson and Tupac Shakur.

What Happens:

Janet Damita Jo Jackson plays Justice (ah, see what they did with the title there?), a young poet and beautician with a troubled past. In the film's first scene, her boyfriend is murdered in front of her eyes. After the murder (we're not told exactly how long after), her beauty shop "friends" are somewhat callously on her case about needing a man to complete her.

A candidate appears in the form of postal worker Lucky (Tupac, R.I.P.), a soulful single father with dreams of helping his cousin achieve rap stardom. Justice and Lucky have an instant attraction-slash-hatred for one another, and of course events conspire to throw them together. See, it just so happens Justice's friend Iesha (played by Regina King, Rod Tidwell's wife in Jerry Maguire) is dating Lucky's co-worker Chicago. And that's how all four of them end up on a weekend trip to Oakland.

A series of misadventures ensues, as the merry band scream and fight their way northward. They crash a family reunion BBQ, stop at a African market and carnival, and leave Chicago by the side of the road. Along the way, Lucky and Justice fall in love, culminating in an oceanside dalliance. When they reach Oakland, they arrive at Lucky's cousin's house they find he's been murdered. Lucky blames Justice, basically saying, "if I hadn't been fuckin' wit' you, I would have been there in time to stop it (the murder)." Nevermind that crashing the BBQ, where they spent at least two hours, was all his idea. Eventually, though, he apologizes, the two reconcile, and they live happily ever after.

What Really Happens:

Singleton imagines his story as a fairy tale, opening the film with the title card, "Once upon a time in South Central L.A." It's an interesting conceit, but other than the fact of it being a love story with a mostly happy ending, nothing much in the movie is very fairytaleesque. Fairy tales are much more gruesome and subversive than Walt Disney would have us believe, but as far as I know none of them feature these events: 1) The female lead asking the male lead if he "wants to smell [her] poonannie," 2) the male lead referring to the female lead as both a "bitch" and a "ho" within five seconds, and 3) the two romantic leads shouting "fuck you" repeatedly in each other's faces.

Okay, so look, I was not crazy about this movie, but I can't hate on it TOO much. In many places it assaulted my sensibilities, but honestly I believe that's a race issue. Despite many white folks' tendency to shy away from pointing out cultural differences, there are clear differences between the African-American aesthetic and the white aesthetic, and they won't always jibe. So I recognize that difference for what it is rather than simply saying, "This movie was awful." I respect the perspective and care Singleton took in creating this movie (I do have some separate issues with the film related to race, which I'll bring up in the Questions and Comments section below).

That said, there are non-cultural elements of this movie that just didn't work for me. There are two of these elements I'd like to spend some time exploring: music and characters.

First, is this a music movie or not? There are basically six categories of music films. There's the prototypical pop music movie, starring vehicles, documentaries, concert films, musicals, and biopics. Most of these categories are self-explanatory, but the first has a narrow, unofficial definition. Namely, it's a movie starring a musician, with music by said musician, and somewhat based on that musician's own life experience. By that definition, Poetic Justice is clearly a starring vehicle.

But wait! Janet's hit Again appears several times in the film. Mostly it's there in a muzak instrumental version whenever Justice is feeling sad or contemplative, but the full song plays over the credits. So that confuses things slightly. Even worse is the fact that at the end of the film Tupac's character seems intent on making a go of a rap career (he takes his murdered cousin's recording equipment home with him). And yet we never hear him perform a single rap. Now this is realistic from a storytelling point of view (it wouldn't have worked to show him as some sort of sudden rap prodigy at the film's end), but here's Tupac freaking Shakur in a movie and you're going to tease us with the possibility of him rapping, but not follow through? That's mean.

That, then, begs the question of why Singleton cast Jackson and Shakur if he wasn't going to cash in on their musical cred? Well, one might argue that both were already established actors outside of their musical careers, but one might also point out that their resumes were frightfully short (Janet had Good Times, Diff'rent Strokes, and Fame to her credit, Tupac had Juice and an appearance on A Different World). Certainly, neither had been proven as a lead. And that was ballsy on Singleton's part, because though the big names might get the proverbial asses in the proverbial seats, the movie's success hinges on the chemistry and magnetism of the two leads.

Tupac proves himself well. I didn't have a single issue with his performance. Janet's is a bit more problematic. It doesn't help that she spends at least 66% of the movie chewing gum. To her credit, it's not completely unbelievable to see her as a tough, streetwise girl when we know her real experience is nothing even close to that (it's certainly not as jarring as seeing her brother Michael try to act menacing in any number of his videos). But save for a few vacant stares here and there and one awful scene between her and Regina King (look for it and laugh, it's right after they pull over at a rest stop and Regina pukes), Janet does okay.

Besides Janet, there are several other good artists that appear on the soundtrack, including TLC (Get It Up), Snoop Dogg (Niggas Don't Give a Fuck), and the O'Jays (Backstabbers).

The other issue of the film is that besides the two leads there are no likable characters. Jessie, the beauty shop owner, is generally awful. Lucky's baby mama is literally a crack whore, who entertains gentlemen callers while her children sit in the next room and watch cartoons. His mother displays no faith in his abilities, says she won't take care of his child, and admonishes him for cussing while doing so herself.

Iesha, Justice's friend, lives by the following philosophy: "The world is just a place for us to go out and fuck up in it." As the film progresses she shows few redeeming qualities. She gets drunk on gin and juice, admits she's only seeing Chicago because he buys her things and she doesn't have to put out much ("I'm rationing it," she says), and unapologetically flirts with other guys. Later, she agrees to have sex with Chicago, then immediately proceeds to demean his endurance, and general manhood and character.

Chicago's response to her mean-spirited tirade is to slap her across the face. So, yeah.

Questions and Comments:

As the film moves along we hear 5 of Justice's poems. In fact they were written by acclaimed poet Maya Angelou (who also has a cameo in the film in the BBQ scene). Is it bad that until the final poem ("Phenomenal Woman"), they were completely believable to me as the work of an amateur? Maybe I just have a tin ear for poetry.

As promised, some thoughts on this film and race:
1) What responsibility does a film have to present positive messages? Poetic Justice has positive moments, but in the details presents an African American experience heavy on drug use and violence. This, unfortunately, helps promote stereotypes already held as gospel by white Americans. Is it fair that every film made by black writers, directors, and actors will be judged this way? No, but it is a fact. One might say that Singleton was merely writing about what he's seen in his own community, but it's hard to say that there's no self-fulfilling prophecy at work here.

2) The most disturbing scene in the film for me was a short exchange between Chicago, Lucky, and a Mexican gentleman (played, strangely by Rene Elizondo, Janet's then-secret husband) they work with at the Post Office. Basically they antagonize each other with racial epithets and prejudicial stereotypes. The scene isn't funny, adds nothing to the film's plot, and is basically offensive to both races. The only good thing about it is that Elizondo's character is throwing darts at a picture of George Bush Sr. during the scene.

Justice has a white cat named White Boy.

Singleton made some baffling filmmaking decisions. They are as follows:
1) There's a jarring scene on the beach where we suddenly are able to hear the dopey inner thoughts of the film's four main characters. What is this, Dune?

2) Did Lucky and Justice have sex or not? We're led to believe they did. There's the aforementioned "fuckin' wit' you" quote from Lucky, plus a VD joke, and a comment that Justice "even walks different" after. However, there's no sex scene. Instead, While Iesha sleeps it off in the postal truck and Lucky and Justice have an oceanside heart-to-heart, we witness their first kiss. The scene ends with a far shot of them kissing and the sun setting on the ocean in front of them with Again playing on the soundtrack. The film certainly wasn't shy about depicting sex, allowing Chicago and Iesha's horizontal tango to play out in full, so why not even a hint of passion between the two leads?

3) There's a fairly major continuity error. While at the BBQ, Justice guesses correctly that Lucky has a child. "How you know?" he asks. "You seem like the type," she answers. He then asks if she has any kids as she holds a baby. It's a fairly memorable scene. But then, after their unclear sex scene, Lucky says he has something important to reveal. As a viewer we wonder if it's something we already know but Justice doesn't. We rack our brains. And the revelation is: He has a daughter. Justice is angry and surprised. "Why didn't you tell me earlier?" Uh, he did.

Justice's awful boss Jessie (who as a license plate that reads MSBOOTE) is full of wisdom on sexual politics, including, "A man ain't nothin but a tool. You've got to know when to take him out of the box and use him," and "These young girls don't know their coochie from a hole in the wall." Enlightening.

Look for Q-Tip as Justice's murdered boyfriend (he shows up on screen, appropriately, with A Tribe Called Quest's Bonita Applebaum playing), Tone Loc as a droll drug dealer, a bald Billy Zane in a film-within-the-film, and Khandi Alexander (Katherine from Newsradio) as a bitchy beauty shop patron. And, listen carefully when Lucky plays the tapes of his cousin rapping. His cousin is apparently Coolio!

Has anyone ever done a comprehensive count of how many times the "car won't start" contrivance has been used either to create dramatic tension or as a plot device? Someone should get on that.

Did you know that a yam is a "young tramp"? I didn't either, until I saw this movie.

In Conclusion:

The definition of poetic justice is when virtue is rewarded and vice is punished. I don't really think that plays out in the movie. Everybody treats everyone else pretty awful, and some people end up happy and others don't. As a result, I'm not sure what conclusions I should draw from Poetic Justice. Love will improve your life? Definitely. Don't be satisfied with a job that doesn't fulfill you? Maybe. Give up sex only when a man supports me financially? For sure.


Richard said...

Don't worry, Paul. I'm sure you'll find the man who will support you financially one day.

Interesting review! I learned a lot...and won't be watching this movie any time soon.

Anonymous said...

The film "Poetic Justice" was very well written, I may say. Singleton did an excellent job. Far better than the average Black film Director.

The film wasn't at all stereotypical. It showed different types of African Africans. For one, Lucky was a black man with a job. Yes, he called Justice a few bad names here and there but overall he was a good person. She ignored him, let alone let a random woman blow her breath in the Lucky's face, so yeah, things got verbally foul. But overall, he was a black man with goals. He took care of his child, he had a job and although he lived in the hood he still managed to separate right from wrong.

As far as the poems went, they all made sense and he did a great job connecting the poems to his overall theme. The film showed how what a black man goes through in life affects the black women.
For example, one poem, Justice stated that, "The race of men are suffering and I can hear them mourn cause nobody can make it out here alone", notice when Justice read this poem she walked by a group of black men getting harassed by the police. She looked and kept walking because it's nothing a woman can do. In the beginning her boyfriend died, and this affected the way she lived for the rest of her life. Instead of writing Justice as a stereotypical woman (a black bitter woman) he made it symbolic. That's why she always wore the color black.

Yeah, she may have given Lucky the cold shoulder in the beginning, but her reason behind that was clear. Her experience with her first love (witnessing him die, him going to jail) changed her mind frame about a black man. It placed her in a situation where she didn't want to date black men anymore. At least not a street guy, no way.

This film was to woman, the way Boyz n the hood was to men. Of course, Boyz n the hood was more thematic and powerful but that's because Singleton is a man himself. But the film "Babyboy" did a good job as well with showing how some men treat woman and how woman allow it out of love.

But overall Singleton is a great writer. The message is always there and it is always clear.

LaLa Deon said...

LUCKY & JUSTICE DID NOT HAVE SEX. During the hotel scene at the end, her boss said, I thought you made love"? But then Justice said No, you should stop assuming.

Unknown said...

She said I thought you was in love