1 Hr., 49 Mins.
Poetic Justice September 4, 2019
hat Janet Jackson and Tupac Shakur are the stars of Poetic Justice (1993) is enough. The South Central-set hair-salon-then-road movie is pretty flat; it’s been written as an emotionally stirring, epiphany-ridden cinematic journey toward self-discovery but never convinces as one. Yet Jackson and Shakur are engrossing, and not just because they have the musical careers to make a dilettantish transition to acting worth seeing
25-plus years later. Jackson has a soft poignancy to her that you get transfixed by. Shakur’s a bedraggled youth in something of a fated-to-be-temporary type of arrested development. His uglier behaviors feel rooted in something we want to dig up. Jackson and Shakur give the kinds of performances that provide us with joys the screenplay doesn't. Which is a good thing here, since the script, though always roving, doesn’t give them or us a great deal to work with.
The movie begins with a tragedy. Jackson, playing a young poet and hairdresser named Justice, is seeing a movie at a drive-in theater with her boyfriend (Q-Tip). (Being projected isn’t any old creature feature, as we might expect from the venue: it’s replaced by a pretend neo-noir starring a gloriously bald Billy Zane and a bewigged Lori Petty.) But shortly into the night out, the boyfriend is gunned down through the car window, apparently by a couple of neighborhood toughs he did dirty.
Poetic Justice jumps ahead in time. Exactly how long we’re not told. But the incident is fresh enough that Justice moves about life perennially shaken up, like a jolted-around can of Diet Coke. Her co-workers note that these days she seems especially partial to wearing black and baggy clothes. She’s a mourner who’s settled into her grief like a Barcalounger. When she goes out, she persistently wears Lennon-circular shades, as if attempting to become one with the shadows. In almost any social situation she mopes. The way she watches walls, it’s strange she doesn’t smoke cigarettes to enhance the being-miserable experience. Any mending Justice sees is entrenched in her love and practice of poetry, which she often shares aloud at work. Her clients take to her sonnets so much that they ask her to read one with the fever of a junkie begging their dealer for the stuff after a dry spell.
Justice doesn’t need her buttons pushed. But toward the end of the first act of Poetic Justice, the movie becomes a tour-de-force in button-pushing. Soon into the movie, Justice is invited to attend a hairdresser’s convention, representing her salon with her cool and kempt boss, Jessie (Tyra Ferrell). (We expect Jessie to be an intimidating minx: the first glimpse of her in the film is of her spiky, red high heels and toned legs sensuously moving out of a convertible onto the hot pavement. But she’s warm, if a smidgen too forward — an honest and good-hearted confidant for everyone who works for her.)
The convention is in Oakland; Justice will just drive there. But when she tries starting her car, it gasps for life to no avail. Justice doesn’t have time to get it fixed. So her buddy Iesha (Regina King), who is her opposite — talkative, impulsive — invites her to go on a road trip. Iesha is headed to Oakland with her boyfriend Chicago (Joe Torry), a one-minute man who obsessively combs his hair. Justice accepts the offer, if reluctantly. Then she almost backs out entirely when she finds out Lucky (Shakur), a post-office worker who unsuccessfully tried flirting with her the other day at work, is tagging along as the driver. He’s one of Chicago’s pals and co-workers. Based on the interaction they had earlier in the movie, and based on Lucky’s distinctive language — he instinctively tells us that all women are bitches, some even fucking bitches — Justice has a couple of reasons at minimum to not like him.
The premise of Poetic Justice, mostly, is that they will learn to like each other. Eventually love each other. Iesha and Chicago will become ancillary, though Regina King makes it a challenge for us to not be smitten with her whenever she’s in a scene. (And she’s in a lot of them.) There are a few reasons why the movie thinks Justice and Lucky should get together. They’ve both been damaged — Justice by the early-film shooting, Lucky by rocky relationships with his baby mother and mother-mother — and that damage has led them both to act up in ways that don’t reflect who we’re supposed to think they are. Justice isn’t ordinarily this sulky and prone to rather acidic conversational offerings, but she has to relieve the hurt inside her somehow. Lucky isn’t really a misogynist, perhaps: he just wants people to think that so he can stay away from getting himself into another bad romantic relationship.
I didn’t buy a lot of what Poetic Justice tried to hand over to me, though it can be penetrating, particularly in the way it ruminates on what gun violence can do to a person, community. I had a particularly difficult time with the Lucky character, who gets an I’ll-admit fairly convincing redemption — then suddenly tragic — arc despite being an insufferable misogynist for so much of the movie. The writer and director of the film, John Singleton, tries to persuade us that because of this road trip, these youths learned a lot about themselves. (The toughest realization belonging to Chicago, who’s deservedly booted out of the car when he and Iesha have a spat that turns barbaric.) But while Singleton’s direction has an affectionate and almost mournful gentleness to it, which at least got me on a visceral level, his dialogue isn’t so revealing. We get details about these characters’ outer and inner lives that invite inference, but inferences are more prominent than understanding — a tilted ratio that begets a little distance.
The emotional adventures on which these people go are supposed to have a sweep to them — an introspective underbelly, too. But there never comes a moment in the all-important road trip where there’s a distinguishable heavy shift in the air. There’s the great interlude where Lucky and Justice finally get together. I like it mostly because it’s not a rose-colored moment where the love’s all-encompassing. It’s more a revelation that there are feelings but not outright love-love here — a narrative rarity in your standard-fare rom-dram. But aside from that, the emotional divots feel more inevitable, last-minute, even, than earned. The climactic aforementioned fight is important to fixing up Lucky’s perceptible misogyny but is out of place. And a languorous sequence where the prickly road-trippers crash a paradoxically huge and middle-of-nowhere family reunion doesn’t go anywhere. This is a road movie where there isn’t actually that much characteristically fascinating talking; and when there is talking, it doesn’t evince much. The detours, which irregularly pop up, don’t do much except feel like detours.
But back to my original point: Having Jackson and Shakur star in Poetic Justice is enough. We’re already happy to see them in a movie individually in the first place; together, they seem among the world’s wonders. Another wonder is that they’re both terrific — something you’d think would cause a lot of sweating and underconfidence on their parts when both characters aren’t only difficult to psychically and emotionally navigate but also underwritten by Singleton. Jackson and Shakur give the feature a vibrancy I don’t think it would otherwise have. It’s a must-see because they’re in it; without them, it’d probably just be Singleton’s woebegone follow-up to Boyz n the Hood (1991). B