Alone. Lying, thinking. Last night. How to find my soul a home. Where water is not thirsty. And bread loaf is not stone. I came up with one thing. And I don't believe I'm wrong. That nobody. But nobody can make it out here alone.

-- Maya Angelou

He looks more inhospitable than he is, with a face closed to scrutiny, eyes locked behind small round shades. That's primarily because John Singleton, like many other young African Americans, sees the world at large as "tha police." The government, the media, law enforcement, anyone with a piece of the Establishment's power -- they're all "tha police," all interconnected and poised to pounce on anyone who looks like him. So why give them an opening?

"{Expletive} tha police," Singleton says matter-of-factly. "I'm just a 25-year-old black man, you know, living in America, no criminal record, two feature films to my credit, two Academy Award nominations under my belt ..."

"Boyz N the Hood," Singleton's first feature, was a low-budget, high-grossing film about boys becoming men in the disaster that is south-central Los Angeles. It's about "growing up in the Reagan era," says Singleton, who used many scenes from his own young life to make the story grippingly real. "Boyz" bagged him Oscar nominations in 1992 for best original screenplay and best director. He thus became the first African American ever nominated in the director's category, and the youngest of any color -- beating out Orson Welles's nomination at age 25 for "Citizen Kane."

Singleton's new movie, "Poetic Justice," which opened Friday, is a black urban romance, for which he snagged the princess of pop, Janet Jackson. She plays a hair- dresser who writes poetry to ease the pain of the gangsta slaying of her boyfriend. The riveting lines she recites were penned by Maya Angelou, who was chosen by Bill Clinton to write his inaugural poem. Rapper Tupac Shakur plays the male lead.

"Boyz N the Hood" was a surprise success: Made for less than $6 million, it grossed almost $100 million (including overseas sales). Commercially -- and critically -- it may be a hard act to follow. But publicly, at least, Singleton seems to have no doubts about the new film (which cost approximately twice as much to make). It will, he confidently predicts, be another hit; it's "better {than 'Boyz.'} I think the characters in this film are more complex."

Singleton is chuckling now, his mask beginning to crack a bit.

"All right? I'm having a measure of success. Little kids are starting to look at me and see alternate ways of living their life. So I'm an inspiration. ... It's like they {tha police} try to tear down any black male who's trying to do anything. Anything they can find. Any little niche... .

"Look at Mike Tyson," he continues, now rolling comfortably on ground he's obviously covered before. "Mike Tyson is a political prisoner right now, you know, in Indiana."


"Because, I mean, he was an inspiration for every young black kid in the ghetto, and they put him in jail and stuff. It's just another way of slapping every black man in the face... . I don't know if he was guilty of the crime or not. I mean, I don't want to get into the ramifications of that case and stuff, right?"

Well, yeah, except there are some awfully big ramifications for a lot of men and women out there who have been in similar situations.

"Yeah, I know. I know. It's a big issue, and it's an issue I plan to deal with in some of my other films, right? Because nobody has the right to violate anyone. But I'm just talking about -- now I just want to deal with the fact that he's in jail now, okay?"

Well, okay. But can you really separate cause and effect?

"Oh boy," Singleton says. "Well, you want to talk about that case? ... I know women who actually have been violated, and when I saw that woman {Tyson's accuser}, like on TV, giving her side of the story, it wasn't like something bad had happened to her. ... Being, like, a director, looking at people who act, I interpret human behavior constantly. And I just didn't think she was telling the truth. That's my honest opinion."

Is it true the ribs can tell the kick of a beast from a Lover's fist?

The bruised bones recorded well. The sudden shock, the

Hard impact. Then swollen lids ...

Sorry eyes, spoke not of lost romance, but hurt.

Hate is often confused. Its limits are in zones beyond

itself. And Sadists will not learn that ...

Love by nature, exacts a pain unequaled on the rack.

In "Poetic Justice," love is a trip from L.A. to Oakland in a U.S. Mail truck. Two postal workers (played by Shakur and comedian Joe Torry) making the run bring along a couple of women (Jackson and Regina King) for the ride. Singleton has said that one of his influences was the Italian film director Federico Fellini, and "Justice" combines scenes of whimsy (an African festival near Big Sur, with a stage on which the Last Poets perform, suddenly appears) and reality (the breakup of Torry and King). It's a black fairy tale up there on the big screen, the likes of which have not been seen in these times.

"The black people survive in this movie," Singleton says of "Justice," which he wrote, directed and co-produced. "It's a love story with a happy ending."

"Justice" started out to be a film from a woman's point of view, as a counterbalance of sorts to "Boyz." Singleton said he got the idea for the plot while he was shooting "Boyz" and began wondering what happens to the girlfriends of all the guys who get blown away in gang wars. However, in "Poetic Justice: Filmmaking South Central Style," a book about the making of the film that Singleton wrote with Veronica Chambers, he concedes that the film ended up being primarily about Lucky, the postal worker played by Shakur.

"The more I look at this movie, the more I think it's about women, but it's still from a man's perspective," Singleton admits. "You still got the booty shots, the breast shots. ... The fact is that I'm going to emphasize certain things in certain ways. I don't even know it until after I see it. It just comes from an innate part of who I am. ... But you gotta admit, you've never seen so many black women in any movie in so many different sizes, shapes and colors."

Perhaps so. But after a premiere screening of "Justice" 10 days ago in Washington (a benefit for the acting troupe Voices From the Streets and the mentoring group Concerned Black Men), many people expressed dismay over the film's profanity. "I'm sick of all that cussing," said one middle-aged man, summing up the feelings of others in the audience.

"I've heard that," Singleton says. "But that's the mark of youth. When people are young, they can't articulate their feelings." So they curse.

There was also an element of gender-bashing in the film's dialogue that some found particularly offensive. One woman at the benefit screening screwed up her nose and said, "All those 'bitches' and 'ho's.' " (The film even introduces a new anti-woman term -- "yamp" -- which evidently means "young tramp.")

"This wasn't the film to deal with that," Singleton says, moving on quickly, when asked about the politics of the sexes. Thoughts about the effects of such language on the many girls and boys who will see "Justice" are not articulated. Perhaps that's youth too.

In fact, Singleton is confident that, overall, women will like the film. "Specifically, black women," he says. "I don't think it'll be controversial. I don't think there's anything in here they don't know about. I don't set out to do controversial films, you know? I just set out to tell a good story, so that at the end of the day you can leave the theater and feel like you read a book or something, or you feel like you've been enlightened in some way."

He points to Spike Lee as more of a master of controversy, a "P.T. Barnum" of film, a "showman" who sparks social debate by shoving an issue in your face and forcing you to deal with it.

"My stuff just creeps up on you and bites you on your ass," Singleton says.

It's hot, and Singleton is dressed all in black, except for the rubber-soled cotton camouflage shoes he picked up while in Burkina Faso for an African film festival. He's a slight man with a gentle fade, soft-looking facial hair and hard features. The light is dim in the Washington restaurant where he's eating his chicken, but he still sports his dark glasses.

He made the unlikely choice early on of Janet Jackson to play Justice, the "round-the-way girl" lead character. He also decided early on to use Maya Angelou's poetry. And for months, fans and critics who follow his work closely have been twisting the concept around in their minds, trying to visualize the combination: ditsy diva vs. earth mother.

"Doesn't that seem interesting?" Singleton says buoyantly. "You're talking about the difference between sophisticates that know about Maya, and the whole mass population that doesn't know about Maya. After this movie, and what's happened this year {with Clinton}, everyone will know about Maya, and hopefully this will spark a lot of other girls who like Janet Jackson to go and read Maya Angelou's poems... .

"And Janet is deeper than most people think. She just don't let everybody know what she thinks. People are like that. I don't either. You don't tell tha police everything."

He laughs. Right. Wasn't it Jackson who sang about "Control"?

Singleton says he settled on Angelou -- after abandoning attempts to write his own verse -- because he wanted poetry that had "some depth to it" without being "ultra-political or ultra-sexist or ultra-feminist."

"I just wanted it to be these, like, poems that everybody can get into," he says. "Maya's verse has a universal feel to it."

That's why, Singleton says, it was no surprise to him when Clinton asked Angelou to write an inaugural poem.

"We're two men from different backgrounds, going through difficult times," Singleton says. "I've been out of college two years and I'm still defining myself as a person, and Bill Clinton's been in office for six months and he's still defining himself as a leader of the Free World."

Clinton's showcasing of Angelou "was kind of a vindication," Singleton says, " 'cause a lot of people thought I was crazy for doing a movie about a poet."

Singleton's first step in making Jackson believable in the role of his poet -- a "regular" sister -- was to feed her waffles for three weeks to boost her weight by 10 pounds.

"Her manager and all of them hated it," Singleton recalls. "I told her to have some fun. I told her to remember Robert De Niro in 'Raging Bull.' ... I just wanted her to look different. No makeup. Like Sophia Loren did in 'Two Women.' "

Next, he gave Jackson "home girl" lessons by having her hang out with young women who live the part. Some of them were hairdressers, whom Singleton considers "artists" and "professionals of the black community. ... They can make more money than black men." He says they helped him write the script, offering tips on authentic dialogue and reality checks on the salon scene.

Jackson turned out to be a dream to direct, Singleton says. When she first came on the set, actress Tyra Ferrell, who plays the beauty salon owner, confronted her skeptically and asked whether she could be "hard." But in his book, Singleton says that the street isn't the only breeding ground for toughness: "I was telling Janet that in her character, being hard isn't just {a matter of} where you're from. There's a certain amount of pain and tragedy that Janet has been through that she can draw from. If I wasn't aware of this, I wouldn't have cast her."

Tupac Shakur -- whose violent rap lyrics were recently (unsuccessfully) cited as a motivating force by a Texas man convicted of killing a state trooper -- apparently was not as cooperative. He was often late getting to the set.

"I'm always looking for a young De Niro, and it always gets {expletive} up," Singleton says in his book. "I don't think a lot of young people respect what it takes to do great work. When you have things handed to you so easily, you don't respect it." (Shakur was fired from the film "Menace II Society" and is currently being sued for damages by its directors, Albert and Allen Hughes.)

Singleton was raised in south-central L.A., shuttling between his father and mother, much like the lead character in "Boyz." His parents, a financial planner and a pharmaceutical saleswoman, were stable achievers, also much like the parents of the "Boyz" protagonist, who is pulled back from the edge. And Singleton -- like many African Americans regardless of their particular circumstances -- came up with a constant awareness of the abyss that awaits those who lack a sure footing.

Singleton also grew up loving the movies, an affection his father shared and encouraged. So it was natural that Singleton chose to attend the University of Southern California's film school. He took what he said were the "hardest courses, honors classes, even though I wasn't an honor student in high school." That was his way of "getting more education for my buck, you know? And after some trial and error and getting some bad grades, I finally learned how to whip it."

Two years in a row, Singleton generated scripts -- including an early version of "Boyz" -- that won USC's Jack Nicholson Writing Award. The $8,000 prizes paid a nice percentage of his tuition, as well as bringing him to the attention of a major agency -- Creative Artists -- which took the unusual step of signing an untried, unknown student. (CAA's Bradford Smith says Singleton has "a singular vision... . It's not the community's vision, it's not Hollywood's vision... . That's what makes him different from the bumper crop.")

"I got in there on my brain and I got out of there on my brain and I got a job using my mind," Singleton says. "That's what my job is, you know, juxtaposing all these different things -- camera, actor, sound, lighting, everything. I use my mind. My father has a saying: 'Work smarter, not harder.' And that's what I'm trying to do with my life."

In a time when kingdoms come.

Joy is brief as summer's fun.

Happiness, its race has run.

Then pain stalks in to plunder.

Singleton was in town again last weekend to appear at Black Entertainment Television's Teen Summit. It's part talk show, part showcase for entertainers such as Cultural Revolution, a group Singleton is producing as he experiments with the music business.

He talks to the teens about various writing techniques. Then he pulls a large black notebook from his backpack.

"This is one of the secrets of the trade," Singleton says, explaining that he has kept a journal since he was a boy. He writes in it every day, recording thoughts and bits of dialogue he overhears that he will someday use in a movie whose plot begins as a paragraph scribbled on the fly.

"Everybody has creative energy," Singleton says by way of encouragement to the young people. "It's just a matter of whether that energy is going ... to be positive or negative."

It takes Singleton a while to get out of the BET studio, for he pauses to take a picture with everyone who asks, prescribes reading lists for aspiring young screenwriters and stops to banter with his band.

Once in his limo, completely calm even though his staff is frantic with worry that he won't make his flight, Singleton says: "If a person isn't articulate, then that creative energy is going to express itself in other ways. If you don't allow a person to have a creative outlet, then you've made that person dangerous." Or, as John Singleton once said, "If there's not more John Singletons, there's gonna be a lot more carjackings."