Revisiting Poetic Justice, a Coming-of-Age Moment for Janet Jackson

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The follow-up to Boyz n the Hood shows a different side of the pop superstar, who does the film’s heavy emotional lifting.

Janet Jackson in the movie Poetic Justice
Photo by Anthony Barboza/Getty Images, graphic by Drew Litowitz

In this ongoing series, we revisit some of our favorite music movies—from artist docs and concert films to biopics and fictional music flicks—that are available to stream or rent. Our selections this month focus on musician-actors finding their perfect roles. Stream Poetic Justice on Starz.


John Singleton’s debut film Boyz n the Hood opens with a collage of frantic voices and whooping sirens. The sounds intensify as the Columbia Pictures logo and the credits stream by, voices hardening, tires screeching, guns clicking. By the time the title appears, there’s been a murder, and a bleak statistic—“One out of every twenty-one Black American males will be murdered in their lifetime”—suggests there will be more to come. All of this happens before we see any faces or learn any names, marking everything that follows with death and pain.

Singleton’s second feature, 1993’s Poetic Justice, opens with a wink. “Once upon a time in South Central L.A. …,” the prologue teases, hinting that we’re right back in the tragic land of Boyz. Instead, we see a white couple on a date in a posh penthouse, a gag Singleton maintains before zooming out and showing we’re at a drive-in theater in South Central and the real focus is a young Black couple, played by Justice (Janet Jackson) and Markell (Q-Tip). The gesture assures us that Singleton hadn’t gone Hollywood. He was still committed to Black characters and concerns. This time, though, he would be more focused on the women of South Central than the boys. 

Justice quickly becomes the fulcrum of the movie, showing that the women of South Central also suffer from the ambient violence. When Markell leaves the car to go buy some popcorn from the concession stand, he’s spotted by two dudes he’s got beef with, whose youth Singleton hints at by introducing them playing an arcade version of Street Fighter II. Moments later, when Markell returns to the car, he’s shot and killed, his blood splattering onto Justice. The grim statistic of Boyz is instantly flipped. For every murdered Black male, there’s family, friends, and lovers who feel the ricochet of those deaths.

The story follows Justice as she copes with her loss. Peeling back Jackson’s demur public persona, Singleton portrays Justice, a poet and hair stylist, as a young widow, youthful yet withdrawn. At the eccentric hair salon where she works, Justice banters with her boss, Jessie (Tyra Ferrell), and her friend, Iesha (Regina King), but she’s closed off. Dressed in black and donning a matching newsboy cap that hangs over her head like a cloud, she’s the quietest person in the room. The script does not treat her grief tenderly, either. Jessie, profane and cocksure, tells Justice that men are like tools: replaceable, and thus not worth crying over. Iesha, in so many words, informs Justice that she needs to loosen up and move on. A support group they are not, but there’s a semblance of affection within their crude remarks.

Their tough love is contrasted by the hard lust of Tupac’s Lucky, a postal worker with a wandering eye and a foul mouth. Romances often highlight the initial differences between lovers, but this one is especially pronounced. Lucky is a chauvinist. Justice isn’t passive, though. She parries Lucky’s unsolicited commentary as easily as she blocks that from Iesha and Jessie: with eye rolls, comical grimaces, and snappy insults, many of them hilarious. Whereas Jackson’s record-shattering music and vigorous choreography at that time often celebrated her tireless work ethic and boundless ambition, Poetic Justice allowed her to be exhausted and playful and ornery. While she doesn’t completely unwind or transform as Justice, she’s more accessible and down-to-earth. Instead of a Jackson, she’s a mortal.

To prepare for the role, she spent weeks hanging out with a hairdresser and three women from South Central and eating waffles to gain weight, moves intended to make her more believable as a homegirl. Addressing critics who doubted she, a Jackson, could be relatable, she noted she had history in South Central. “All my life I’ve had friends—all through elementary and junior high—who came from Crenshaw and South Central,” she told Essence. “I’d hang out in their homes, where I never felt alienated or out of place. Look, I grew up Black and proud. And because I come from a wealthy family doesn’t mean I can’t relate to a working girl’s pain.”

 

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