Once upon a time in South Central LA...

The American cinema - like Molire's bourgeois gentilhomme - has been speaking prose for most of its adult life: it moves within a narrow naturalist mode that's hard-pressed to accommodate high flights of lyric fancy. Unlike the art of the painter, the novelist or the musician, a poet's fragile miniaturism doesn't lend itself to the broad strokes of the big screen; it might work, just, in an arthouse film - Cocteau's The Blood of a Poet, say, or Tom and Viv, but in the multiplex it risks sounding pompous and hollow.

Having a poet as one's main character is already risky; having a young, unpublished poetess might seem suicidal. But that was the way John Singleton decided to go after his acclaimed first feature, Boyz N the Hood. Like Spike Lee's Crooklyn, the new film, PoeticJustice, tries to break out of the gangsta ghetto occupied by the majority of current Afro-American movies (indeed, Singleton tries for something that has so far eluded Lee: a complex female protagonist). And, also like Crooklyn, Poetic Justice finally limps on to British screens after over a year in limbo, the prize for trying something different.

Singleton delineates his world with bold, swift confidence: not only the two main players, who both give good accounts of themselves (Janet Jackson, in her first screen role, effectively conveys a bruised solitude, while Tupac Shakur is raffish and ingratiating as the postman who coaxes her out of her shell), but also the secondary cast. The bustling sequences set in the trendy beauty parlour where Jackson works, and in Shakur's postroom, teem with lively, likeable characters.

The film starts out like a preposterous sex melodrama (Billy Zane and Lori Petty send themselves up good-naturedly) which makes you momentarily wonder whether you're in the wrong cinema. It turns out to be a movie within the movie, playing at a rowdy inner-city drive-in in a black district of Los Angeles: Singleton shows how little the dopey, upscale Hollywood picture connects with these lives, but also how much the audience obviously enjoys it. His own film begins "Once upon a time... in South Central LA" - not a place where fairy-tales generally happen. But, for all the surface realism, it also contains a strong element of romantic fantasy.

The poetry, read by Jackson in voice-over, is clearly intended to give her character an added inner dimension. Singleton resists the obvious temptation to present her as a gifted artist - in one way, it doesn't matter whether she has talent; the writing isn't a ticket out of the 'hood, just a means of maintaining some kind of sanity.

And yet in other ways it does matter very much: the verse comes from a respected source (it was written by Maya Angelou) but, within the context of the story, it seems contrived and even embarrassing - the changes of gear between the literary language of her writing and the rough, expletive- laden dialogue are too brusque and shocking. A brave failure notwithstanding.

Some critics have compared the New Zealand film Once Were Warriors to the new wave of black movies: both are concerned with oppressed racial minorities and extreme social deprivation. But Warriors, which follows the disintegration of a violently dysfunctional family, argues something slightly different: that the Maoris' plight is caused by the the humiliation of a once proud and great warrior race and its enforced migration from beautiful, rural ancestral lands to the stark, concrete inner city. Their self-destructiveness, especially the men's, is, above all, the result of having all that energy and nowhere to go.

The director, Lee Tamahori, previously worked in commercials, and (although all the performances are very committed) his film, shot with heavy filters and a camera in perpetual motion, has that stylish Ridley Scott sheen. A biker gang comes from the same school of apocalypse-chic as Mad Max, all leather and really serious tattoos. These are slum-dwellers with attitude; Tamahori lingers on their erotic power and physical beauty. The film contains much brutality, but the most startling body count is the number of dead beer bottles on display.

Arts and Entertainment
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
    Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

    'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

    Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
    Compton Cricket Club

    Compton Cricket Club

    Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
    London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

    Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

    'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

    It helps a winner keep on winning
    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'