I had hoped that John Singleton’s Poetic Justice would be the first black version of what feminist film critic Molly Haskell once called a ”women’s film.” A heady, ambiguous mixture of sentiment and feminist ideas, a women’s film creates a universe in which women’s thoughts and aspirations are at the center.
Certainly Singleton had an idea worthy of an Alice Walker or a Toni Morrison novel: A black woman named Justice writes poetry in order to mourn the death of her lover as well as the violence and dissension in the black community.
But he failed to look in the right places for role models. His job would have been a lot simpler if he had chosen to use, instead of the light lyrical verse of Maya Angelou, the work of one of the many black feminist poets — Lucille Clifton, Audre Lorde, Ntozake Shange, June Jordan — who focus on that painful intermingling of racism and unrequited love that makes black women blue.
As a consequence of his unwillingness to take this work, or, indeed, black female thought seriously, his poet has no voice. He invents in Justice a character who seems capable of morality and intelligence, but then he gags her.
I suspect that Singleton researched the film by interviewing black women, and that they told him what many black women continue to say even though it isn’t true: that feminist ideas have nothing to do with black women, and that black women and white women don’t share role models. In fact, though feminism has never been a mass movement in the black community, black female thinkers and writers have always figured significantly in the women’s movement. And like all women, black women are deeply split along class and educational lines over women’s issues.
It can be very confusing. So it isn’t surprising that Singleton hasn’t succeeded in forging the lessons of black feminist poetry and classic Hollywood women’s films. But I hope he will try again. In the meanwhile, I also hope that Poetic Justice will stir further discussion in the black community.