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How the introverted black writer girl became visible in ‘Poetic Justice’

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How the introverted black writer girl became visible in ‘Poetic Justice’

Alone, all alone. Nobody, but nobody can make it out here alone.

Poetic Justice brought the modern literary black woman to film in 1993 when John Singleton, the Oscar-nominated director, wrote it and had pop performer Janet Jackson breathe life into the role. The film deserves a spotlight for its innovation at the time with Hollywood reflecting on the works of Singleton, who died at 51 today.

Justice (Janet Jackson), a young black woman living in South Central LA, is reeling from the murder of her fresh-out-of-jail boyfriend at a drive-in theater. Depressed, Justice adjusts to her loneliness and writes poetry in a notebook she carries with her everywhere. At the hair salon where she works as a beautician, she shares her gift of poetry with her boss and her best friend, Iesha (Regina King). When a hair show comes up in Oakland, it turns out Iesha can get them a ride that same weekend with her postman boyfriend who has to drop off packages there. Justice says no, like she’s been voicing since she lost her own boyfriend while her boss and Iesha keep telling her the best way to get over one man is to get another. She decides to ride to the hair show alone, but her car won’t start, so she has to call Iesha for help who arrives with the large white postal truck with Iesha’s boyfriend Chicago and his friend Lucky (Tupac Shakur).

Justice has already met Lucky as the hair salon’s thirsty postman, so she’s not happy to see him. The group then embarks on an adventurous road trip. Annoyed at the situation, Justice ignores Lucky, who becomes bothered by it until they begin cussing each other out on the side of the road. Justice hops out of the truck in the middle of nowhere rural desert California and walks with her stuff on the side of the highway with Iesha trying to convince to jump back in. Eventually Justice does. They then go to a convenient store, a family reunion, and an African festival. During these events, Justice and Lucky bond while Iesha and Chicago deteriorate.

Janet Jackson as Justice and Tupac Shakur as Lucky / Columbia Pictures

Along the way, Chicago is abandoned on the side of the road after he punches Iesha, who claims to have slept with someone else after they had another cheating-related altercation at the reunion. By the time they get to Oakland, Lucky sees his rising rapper cousin being wheeled into an ambulance with bullets to the chest. Not only dropping off packages is Lucky’s plan in Oakland, it really is to join his cousin and make music in the rap game. With his cousin dying, Lucky blames Justice for him getting there too late as if he could’ve saved his cousin. Justice is hurt as she’s dropped off at the hotel for the hair show with Iesha. As Lucky comforts his aunt and uncle and convinces them he should inherit his cousin’s music equipment, Justice is at the hair show stoically perfecting hairstyles on models. Days later, Lucky brings his daughter to the hair salon where Justice works and apologizes to her. They realize they’re in love.

What’s lit about this classic film is it told the story of the black girl poet, a character rarely seen on the silver screen, internalizing what she sees and putting pen to paper despite the chaos around her. And she’s a soft-spoken poet where she’s not performing her poetry aloud on a stage—a common place to see poets in real and fictitious worlds when in actuality it might take the average poet a long time to work up to such confidence. Justice lives among ruins left behind by the 1992 LA uprising amid arrests, drug sales, and other inner city troubles. On top of it, Justice lost her mother to alcoholism and lives in a home alone with her cat. She’s trying to come to terms with the loneliness and depression caused by loss. Though she’s a hairstylist, for example, she wears hats to hide the new growth from her box braids. Her appearance alone screams a stereotype of urban black girl with also wearing  trapezoidal gold bamboo earrings, but society wouldn’t expect the melodious words coming from her crafted behind the scenes by Maya Angelou. The film still deserves its props more than 25 years later.

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