Poetic Justice Is a Movie-Long Exploration of Why Janet Jackson Isn't Smiling

Illustration for article titled iPoetic Justice/i Is a Movie-Long Exploration of Why Janet Jackson Isnt Smiling
Image: Columbia Pictures
Has It Aged Well?Has It Aged Well?There are few things more comforting than stoking the fires of nostalgia and revisiting old movies. In theory. Sometimes the cinema that we enjoyed when we were younger just does not hold up.

There are imperial phases—the period in a pop star’s career when virtually everything they touch is gold and received by the public as such—and then there is Janet Jackson’s imperial phase. It spanned her breakout third album, 1986’s Control, through 1993’s janet. In the U.S., both of those albums spawned a massive six hit singles (seven for Control if you count the quiet-storm radio staple “Funny How Time Flies (When You’re Having Fun”), and the album that came between them, 1989’s Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814, has the distinction of being the only album to turn out seven singles to peak in the top five of the Billboard Hot 100 chart (not counting reissued “deluxe” versions of preexisting albums like Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream). And all before Jackson turned 30.

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Between Rhythm Nation and janet., Jackson had her sights set on Hollywood, and she met the perfect person to take her there. Hot off his sensitive and lucrative portrayal of coming of age in South Central, Los Angeles, 1991’s Boyz N the Hood, the young director John Singleton met Jackson and suggested they work together. He promised her he had a script for her. She said she’d take a look. In truth, there was no script, but as he recalls in an extra on the 2019 Blu-ray release of Poetic Justice, the film that the writer-director would ultimately make with Jackson, he scrambled and within two weeks had a screenplay to show Jackson. It was what Singleton referred to as a “street romance”—the flip side of the coin Singleton tossed with Boyz that this time explored womanhood in South Central, L.A. Jackson loved it and signed on. Though she had yet to cross over to movies, Jackson was a veteran actor, initially penetrating cultural consciousness via television, years before her music made her a superstar.

However memorable her roles in Good Times, Diff’rent Strokes, and Fame were, in the 90s there was still a large status divide between TV actors and those in movies (those who crossed over from the former to the latter were the exception, not the rule and crossing the other way was seen as a step down). Poetic Justice would be Jackson’s first official attempt at adding “movie star” to her already impressive resumé.

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In the film, she played Justice, a part-time poet (Justice was poetic... get it?) who does hair and grieves the murder of her boyfriend Markell (played by Q-Tip in a cameo). She reluctantly tags along with her friend Iesha (Regina King) up the coast of California on a mail run undertaken by Iesha’s mail carrier boyfriend Chicago (Joe Torry) and Chicago’s colleague Lucky (Tupac Shakur). Lucky had previously macked on Justice while delivering mail to the beauty parlor at which she works, which makes the already prickly Justice even more on edge during the first half of their trip.

Insofar as that’s essentially the extent of the plot, Poetic Justice certainly feels like a script banged out in weeks. There are inspired moments, like the clip posted above wherein Justice dismisses Lucky by pranking him with the suggestion that she’s having sex with her employer Jessie (the perpetually underrated Tyra Ferrell), but Poetic Justice is in many ways a smaller movie than Boyz, despite it being afforded twice the budget.

In his director’s commentary on the home media releases of Justice, Singleton (who died last year) said that “putting the urban experience in a normal context” was his aim here. “I was really trying to show how two people with their own sets of problems and complex things going on, how they came together,” he continued. Whereas in Boyz, the hood was in the foreground, in Justice it’s the backdrop. This is a film about what it is to live with death, and how existential threats to Black lives shape characters. Justice is externally defined by her unsmiling nature, a point Lucky seizes on immediately. “Why you always so mad?” he asks her. “You must ain’t got no man cause you don’t never smile.” Poetic Justice spends much of its running time exploring why Justice rarely smiles.

It’s still rare to encounter a movie made by a man that is so invested in its woman character’s interior. If Justice appears blank, that’s merely a superficial impression. You aren’t looking deeply enough. Jackson and Singleton’s collaboration invites you to do so. Justice is numbed by her reality, and her voiceovers (in which she frequently recites her poetry, in actuality preexisting works by Maya Angelou) allow us a peek into a life to which Justice’s associates are rarely privy. A spellbinding scene finds Justice cycling through emotions as she listens to a 45 of Stevie Wonder’s “Never Dreamed You’d Leave in Summer.” Jackson stares directly into the camera saying more in about a minute of screen time than much of her dialogue permits.

Including a scene like this is bold not just because of Jackson’s emotional candor, but because of Singleton’s willingness to experiment in a heavily anticipated summer release. Despite the respect Singleton commanded with his debut (for which he was nominated for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay Academy Awards) and Jackson’s star power, Poetic Justice was regarded as an overall risk. “I was warned by powerful forces in Hollywood that an all-Black movie was the wrong move,” Jackson told Rolling Stone in 1993. “Conventional wisdom said I should make a musical. Go for the mainstream white market. Play it safe. John had the same feelings I did – do something different. Then when I accepted the role, other voices started asking, ‘How can a rich girl from the burbs play a homegirl from the hood?’ My reaction was ‘Well, watch me.’ Besides, isn’t acting about entering the soul of someone else?”

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I think, though, that Poetic Justice is ultimately more admirable in its ambition than its execution. The emotional crescendo via the “Never Dreamed You’d Leave in Summer” means that Poetic Justice peaks too early. Though this is not for lack of trying. Singleton attempts to incorporate a host of social issues—AIDS, alcoholism, freebasing, single parenthood, police harassment, gun violence (the opening scene at a drive-in, during which Justice’s boyfriend is shot and killed, seems to directly reference and humanize the tragedies of the theater shootings that occurred at various screenings of Boyz n the Hood)—but with too light a hand. What were intended to be realistic elements woven into the film’s backdrop are actually just glossed over, a fact underscored by how much time his characters spend just sitting around in a mail truck.

The road trip scenes are fraught with crabbiness. Iesha and Chicago fight and fuck and fight (their tension ultimately results in domestic violence, another pinged issue), and Justice and Lucky bicker for much of the first half of their association. While it was novel at the time for Jackson to be saying “fuck” so much, given the squeaky cleanness of her pre-janet. image, Jackson’s continued use of profanity and sexual frankness in the decades since have neutralized the power this scene once had:

And without the sense of novelty of casting Jackson against type, Poetic Justice is rendered flatter and far less exciting than it was upon its release. In fact, that might have been evident very early on. Poetic Justice opened to a healthy $11.7 million its first weekend in theaters after it was released July 23, 1993, but ended up with a cumulative domestic gross of just $27.5 million, about $30 million less than Boyz’s.

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Still, it’s nice to revisit Shakur’s deftly versatile turn as a charming young man with prickish tendencies and ultimately a heart of gold. A not-so-fun fact: Singleton and others behind the scenes requested that he get an AIDS test before kissing Jackson onscreen, which was rumored to be at her request, though Shakur stated, “I don’t know if it’s Janet that it came from.” He found it insulting and refused.

And without Poetic Justice, we may never have had janet., at least not in its finished form. “When the movie was complete, I suppose I did want to shed some of Justice’s physical frustration,” she told Rolling Stone. “Rhythm Nation was a heavy record, and Poetic Justice was a heavy movie. I wanted to do something lighter but also daring. Mostly, though, I wanted to do something that corresponded to my life. My concepts are never bright ideas; they’re never notions I think will sell or be trendy or attract new fans. I don’t think that way. All I can do is sing from my life. When I wrote the album, I was still in a poetic frame of mind, inspired by Maya’s beautiful language. You can hear that inspiration on the interludes and especially on the song ‘New Agenda’ This time I felt much freer expressing myself.”

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With her collaborators Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Janet developed “Again” specifically for Poetic Justice when a ballad was requested for the film’s soundtrack. (However, though “Again” plays at the end of the movie, it was not included on the film’s soundtrack album.) “Again” has been criticized for being treacly and for its melodrama that includes audible weeping from Janet, but I always thought it captured her delicate sweetness well.

The janet. train kept going after Poetic Justice. Jackson’s seminal artistic expression of sexual awakening spawned several more singles, including “Again,” which was finally released that fall, months after Poetic Justice had come and gone. Jackson’s film debut was ultimately a blip in an otherwise astonishing run of releases that managed to synthesize expression and commercialism into an impossible-to-ignore statement of sexual and artistic agency.

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One of the best scenes in Poetic Justice, in fact, subverts most of the presented content. The traveling foursome come across a family reunion that they crash and it breaks their collective funk. For a fleeting moment, in a park surrounded by Black people, there is true joy. And then subverting that is a monologue from Maya Angelou herself (as Aunt June) on the irresponsibility of kids today with our heroes as her main target.

It’s exaggerated, sure (I love the side-eye veteran actor Norma Donaldson gives Angelou as she rants), but the older I get, the truer this sounds. I don’t know if that means the movie is aging well or I’m just aging, but either way, this checks out.

Some Pig. Terrific. Radiant. Humble.

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DISCUSSION

kca915
Moses Hightower

I was a 90s Janet Stan, probably peaking with my purchase of the janet deluxe cd set, featuring a 2nd cd of remixes and stuff. On there, you will find Janet singing Again in French, which is, uh... look, I’m not fluent in French, but I live in Canada so I hear a lot of it. Her accent is no bueno. It lacks all the breathy nuance of her English singing.

On an equally irrelevant note (Things I Liked in the 90s, Pt. II), Poetic Justice began my appreciation for Stevie Wonder.