'Poetic Justice': Not quite well-versed

July 23, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

Poetry hasn't been celebrated in an American movie since 1966's "A Fine Madness," where Sean Connery played a goatish versifier spilling his seed and his lyrics up and down the East Coast with equal abandon. It earned him a lobotomy. The poetry in "Poetic Justice" isn't as erotic or dangerous, but it's lovely nonetheless, coming originally from Maya Angelou.

And the movie loves poetry. It stops and lets Angelou, through the vessel of a vibrant Janet Jackson playing a Los Angeles hairdresser with a great well of hidden talent, do exactly what a poet does: define a mood. Make a statement. Capture a feeling. Freeze an image. In fact, the best moments of "Poetic Justice" owe far more to Angelou than they do to John Singleton, who directed.

Singleton, who achieved instant fame with "Boyz N the Hood," is clearly trying to grow. He's not just remaking "Boyz," but, heroic with ambition, he's trying to do the Big Thing: a kind of mythic journey through African-American culture, tracing an evolution from anger to self-awareness to love and peace. Here's the final score: Myth 1, Singelton 0.

He gets all the big things right, but almost none of the little things. For example, the film begins with an urban atrocity. Jackson, whose character is named Justice, and her then-boyfriend, are necking in a drive-in. But, because he's irked another set of kids, her boyfriend is a target; someone puts a Beretta up to the car window, and blows him away. Thus she's an embittered survivor from the start. Except that in their brief time together, Singleton hasn't been able to convincingly dramatize their affection; worse, the young man hasn't been given any humanity or uniqueness. Thus her grief has no dramatic foundation; it feels arbitrary, rather than organic.

In the other part of the story, a young South Central postal service worker named Lucky (Tupac Shakur) who has just reclaimed his illegitimate daughter from her crackhead-prostitute mother, is at loose ends. He and another postal employee (Joe Torry) are assigned to drive a shipment up to Oakland. As a plot device, that feels extremely shaky, too: really, would out-of-uniform postal service employees drive 600 miles over picturesque back roads in a little delivery van to deliver what appears to amount to two or three sacks of mail?

But the journey is conceived as "symbolic" rather than realistic, as indeed is the whole movie, once it manages, by cheesy, old-fashioned movie contrivance, to get Justice in the van with Lucky on the road to Oakland. As comic foils, Torry and his girlfriend Regina King also go along, and their vicious, blackly comic squabbling gives the film much of its energy; but, being rife with hostility, it also creates a great deal of edginess.

The trip up the coast seems to take the journeyers through dioramas -- that is, dramatically inert visualizations -- of themes in African-American culture, to no meaningful purpose. At one time, they stop at an extended family reunion, so the issue of family coherence is raised. Not explored, merely raised. Then they pass through an African-culture celebration, so that the issue of ethnic heritage may be evoked. Not studied, not dealt with, not examined: merely evoked. Finally, arriving in Oakland, they come across a violent tragedy, so that the issue of black-on-black crime may be flashed. Not mourned, not protested, merely flashed. You don't feel the characters struggling to deal with these issues.

What they are struggling with is their feelings toward each other and eventually Lucky and Justice make some kind of emotional commitment to each other. Yet again, Singleton isn't entering, he's merely showing. One can't begin to imagine what these characters have in common or begin to imagine that they could have a life together after the movie ends. Their attraction is far more a contrivance of plot than a meaningful expression of emotion.

In short, the movie's pretty much of a mess, as it struggles with big themes but hasn't figured out what to do with them. Despite its flashes of brilliance and the pungent, stinging Angelou lyrics, it's the audience, not the poet, that gets the lobotomy.

MOVIE REVIEW

"Poetic Justice"

Starring Janet Jackson and Tupac Shakur

Directed by John Singleton

Released by Columbia

Rated R

... **

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