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‘Poetic Justice’ (R)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
July 23, 1993

"Poetic Justice" contains more cussing ("bitch," " 'ho" and that familiar M-word) than the last three black gang pictures. It doesn't lack for gangland slayings, fistfighting, drug dealing and crack use. In short, it's got everything you'd ever want in a love story.

Writer/director John Singleton returns to the troubled neighborhood of his "Boyz N the Hood." But this time, he uses the social ills as a reality backdrop for a rap-screwball romance between Janet Jackson (a poet-sister by the name of Justice) and Tupac Shakur (a happy-go mailman called Lucky). If Singleton keeps the sex and violence close at hand, it's only because these things regularly touch the lives of his characters -- as the film's explosive beginning demonstrates.

But Singleton concentrates on human rather than hammer action, on foibles rather than feuds. As far as he's concerned, there's drama to be found among the survivors -- riveting, funny and even poetic stuff. Who needs to charge up a movie with bloody gang rivalry when you've got something far more vindictive and scary: the war between the sexes?

Romantic battle lines between Justice and Lucky are drawn upon first meeting. Lucky, a nose-ringed, backward-capped mail carrier, tries the tired old pickup routine on Justice. But the funereally dressed, reclusive hairdresser puts him in his place. As you might imagine, this is just the beginning. When Lucky's workmate Chicago (Joe Torry) takes girlfriend Iesha (Regina King) on a scenic mail run to Oakland (free ride, privacy, sea view), she brings along pal Justice. Chicago invites Lucky and fate is sealed. Lucky finds himself in a road movie with the poet from hell.

The running Justice-Lucky battle continues in the front seat, while Chicago and Iesha mix it up in the back. Screaming fits, cussing and counter-cussing, passenger dumpings and even fistfights last all the way to Oakland. The journey is broken up with allegorical stopovers at a "Johnson Family Reunion" (where the hungry foursome crashes a black reunion picnic) and an "African Marketstand and Cultural Faire." But the bickerings are never far away.

In her acting debut, Jackson has pulled the role around her like a close-fitting, perfect cape. She's believably eccentric and self-obsessed, an appealing mixture of hard-edged self-assertion and vulnerability. Her poetry is composed by Maya Angelou, who makes an amusing little cameo in the movie. Shakur is wonderful too, with an immensely appealing, laidback sexiness. And as the subplot lovers, Torry and King are a sassy hoot.

Singleton passes the director's acid test: the difficult second movie. This proves he's no flash N the pan. Often graceful, sometimes brilliant, "Poetic" is an absorbing, amusing symphony of sound and image; it also gives equal weight to its male and female characters. Says Lucky at the Johnson picnic: "I ain't seen so many black folks in one spot and there ain't no fight." Says non-mincing Iesha, encouraging reluctant Justice to make the Oakland trip: "Girl, don't you know the world is one big place to go out and {expletive} up in?"

There are times when Singleton gets a little too taken with his poetic sections. The movie coasts here and there, as characters look meaningfully over the California coastline. There's also a little narrative grinding of gears, as Singleton hastens to bring the story to a close, with a little tragedy, lover's quarrel and other easy-fit story staples. But the ending still feels satisfying thanks to the pleasant momentum, thanks to a journey in which normal, sympathetic characters did the driving, instead of a hooded collection of Crips and Bloods.

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