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Having a poet as one's main character is already risky; having a young, unpublished poetess might seem suicidal.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.

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