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John Singleton's poetic license

The director talks about his latest film, ”Poetic Justice”

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Certain questions piss John Singleton off. The then-24-year-old tyro returned to South Central L.A. last summer to shoot his second feature, Poetic Justice, only this time his home turf wore more devastating battle scars than usual. As the surrounding buildings smoldered in post-riot reproach, Singleton hung a quiet statement from his neck — a small wooden bust with short-cropped hair, wire-rimmed spectacles, an unmistakable goatee. Just a reminder.

”Who’s that?” a white female reporter asked him, pointing at the Malcolm X pendant.

Who is it?” Singleton exploded in fury and disbelief. ”Who is it? It’s the head of the last person who asked me that question!

In the year since he finished shooting Poetic Justice, a note of tension has crept into John Singleton’s preternaturally confident voice. The brilliance of his filmmaking debut guaranteed that his sophomore effort, due July 23 (see review on page 42), would face intense scrutiny. Still, the flood of questions about Poetic Justice — Why a love story? Why a female poet as the title character? Why a pop superstar to play her? — is proving unexpectedly irksome. ”There’s only so many movies you can make,” snaps the Oscar-nominated writer-director of Boyz N the Hood, ”where you have black people shooting each other and making people laugh and trying to shuck and jive.”

Indeed, as a member of the painfully small circle of Hollywood’s African-American royalty, Singleton has several minefields to cross. ”When you’re black,” warns actress Tyra Ferrell, who appears in both Boyz and Justice, ”if you’re an entertainer, if you’re in the limelight, man, don’t fall off your pedestal, don’t slip off your stool.” Her voice takes on establishment tones, ”Because all eyes are on you and you represent everybody, and oh boy, are we ready to get you.”

Singleton has until now enjoyed a more luxurious reception. Three years ago, Columbia Pictures enlisted the CAA-repped, former USC screenwriting major to direct his searing bildungsroman, Boyz N the Hood, at the peach-fuzz age of 22. The $5.7 million production reaped more than 10 times that amount at the box office, crossing over to become the highest-grossing film from a black writer-director in history and, more importantly, lifting 1991’s nascent Black New Wave to a new commercial level.

Poetic Justice looks to test his success: A California road-trip romance that tracks love’s bloom between an embittered South Central hairdresser-poet named Justice (played by Janet Jackson) and a homeboy postman (rapper Tupac Shakur), the film detours sharply from the energetic, war-zone reportage of Boyz N the Hood. With a budget easily double that of Boyz and location shooting along the Pacific Coast Highway as well as in Oakland and South Central, Justice is taking a decidedly chancy path out of the hood.

Singleton firmly stakes his claim to this more expansive turf. ”If I wasn’t able to make movies and get out what was on my chest, where would I be as a ) young black male in America?” he asks as Hollywood’s hail-the-rookie smile hardens into a barracuda leer. ”These same people who want to start some crap (are) the same people that should want more black men to be making movies (rather) than thinking about jacking them for their cars. If there’s not more John Singletons,” he laughs ironically, ”there’s gonna be a lot more carjackings.”