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John Singleton Recites The Poetry of Cinema

John Singleton is one of those rare directors who would just as soon talk about other people's movies as about his own. He was in Chicago to promote his new film, "Poetic Justice," which is a good film and in some ways, a brave one, and he talked about it, all right - and why there are so few films about black women, and why Janet Jackson surprised him in the leading role.

But he talks about other movies, too. We sat for a few hours over lunch, and it was like a meeting with the chairman of the campus film society. He talked about Truffaut's "The 400 Blows," Coppola's "Apocalypse Now," and Bunuel's "Belle de Jour." He talked about "Juice," "Menace II Society" and "Last Action Hero."

And he was exploding with enthusiasm for a new film he had just seen in Africa, at a film festival in Burkina Faso. Listen to him: "There's this guy, his name Sedik Ali. He's, like, the African Kurosawa. You know how Kurosawa does stuff from feudal Japan? This guy does the feudal system of Africa. Like murder mysteries. Blew me away! I'm gonna get the tapes and I'm gonna send you one.

"His first film is about how this farmer is trying to scare the other farmers off with spirits and everything because he wants to buy up all the land because it has minerals under it that he wants to sell to this white man. But then the spirits turn on the guy. I was floored, man! And you know the way Kurosawa does . . ."

Singleton is leaning forward, his lunch forgotten, remembering the film he had seen. This is a young man in his mid-20s, whose first film, "Boyz N the Hood," put him on the Hollywood A-list two years ago. Two years before that, he was a student at the University of Southern California. And a few years before that, he was a kid from South Central who wanted to make movies so bad, he hung around in the halls of the film school, volunteering as a go-fer for student productions.

"Boyz N the Hood" was an enormous commercial and critical success; Singleton, at 23, became the first black director nominated for an Academy Award. Now here he was still talking about movies as if he were a fan, not a player in the Hollywood clout game. I asked him how he kept his head screwed on straight.

"I just sit up late and watch my laser discs. I make notes about things I see in films that really affect me, like the ending of 'Jules and Jim.' I think about how I can utilize things in my work. And I have a team of people who keep me down to earth."

Now here he is with "Poetic Justice" (opening Friday), starring Janet Jackson, until now known as a pop star, in the role of a beautician from South Central Los Angeles who loses a boyfriend in a gang killing and eventually, tentatively, trusts herself to love another guy - a mailman who takes her and two other friends along on a run up the coast in one of Uncle Sam's postal trucks.

It's a road picture. It isn't tightly plotted like a lot of 1990s movies. It's not "high concept," which means it can't be summed up in one sexy sentence for a TV commercial. It's more about character than about action. And it is unabashedly romantic.

Those are some of the reasons I think it is a brave film. "Poetic Justice" isn't the kind of film Hollywood is making right now. It's the kind of film that was made in the 1970s, when the best directors were aiming for artistic home runs, not box-office hits. A female road movie

I asked Singleton what motivated him to make a romantic road movie about a woman.

"Basically, I wanted to do something totally different from `Boyz,' but in the same area. You can only really write about what you know about. And this was an inverse take on the first movie. I figured, well, all these guys are getting killed on the streets. What's happening to their girlfriends? And then, boom! The story just came to me. I woke up at 4:30 in the morning. I said, 'I'm going to have this character. Her name is Justice, and she writes poetry.' And hence the title 'Poetic Justice.' And the whole story will spring forth from the effect of her boyfriend getting killed in front of her. The story would be just about how she learned how to love again. Just very simple."

In the story, Justice is at a drive-in movie with her boyfriend; a meaningless argument at the refreshment stand eventually leads to the boyfriend lying dead in her arms. She retreats into the closed world of the beauty shop where she works. It's run by Tyra Ferrell, who presides over a well-run operation fueled by a lot of gossip. She works and doesn't date.

Justice likes it that way. She doesn't want to take a chance on another man who might get himself shot; her heart has not healed, and she's content to stay locked away from the world. When a mailman (Tupac Shakur, from "Juice") comes into the beauty shop one day and tries to get friendly, she plays a mean trick on him. Later, her girlfriend talks her into going along on a trip to Oakland. They'll go with her friend, and his friend, who is a mailman - and of course, it's Shakur again.

The trip in the postal van takes them up some back roads, with stops at places like a black family picnic. Like all road pictures, it's about a seemingly unstructured journey, but by the end, of course, it's a journey of discovery. And Jackson is surprisingly effective in the central role. You'd think she'd be all flash and surface, but she's convincing as the no-nonsense working woman from South Central L.A.

"Everyone was coming at her in the wrong way," Singleton said. "They were like, 'Hey, we want you to do this musical! You'll be playing a singer!' And I figured if I wrote this film, and she doesn't sing it in, that would be growth for her, so maybe I could snag her. I met her while I was working on the screenplay, but I didn't tell her about it. I would talk to her about films all the time.

"I'd tell her, "I want you to really look at this movie 'Two Women,' with Sophia Loren. Notice how she was a really glamorous woman, but she didn't wear any makeup, and she played this unglamorous role, and it was great for her image, and she won an Oscar - because people weren't distracted by the fact that she was so beautiful.' And I would have her look at neo-realist films, gritty films, and then boom! I gave her the script and she loved it. She said, `Wow, this is good.' And I said, 'Do you want to play it?' She's like, 'Yeah, in a minute!' So that's how I got her."

Almost all the new films with African-American subjects are about young men. What were you trying to say about black women here?

"I think the movie speaks to the diversity of young black women. There are a lot of women like Justice, who's kind of a tragic figure, but at the same time, she's making her way; she's working as a hairdresser.

"In the neighborhoods, women who work as hairdressers, if they're really good, they can make a lot of money. They can make more than their boyfriends who are working as garbage collectors or even postal workers. What I was trying to get at was the fact that these women have complex lives, too. Their lives are just as important as the men who they date, and it's just a matter of telling that side of the story."

There's a theory that films about men tend to be action films, and films about women tend to involve personalities and situations. Why is it that so many Hollywood films - maybe 80 percent or 90 percent - are basically about men?

"Because they're made by men. That's the answer. And they're not even just about men; they're about their fantasies. That's sort of logical. You can't expect a man to just, like, hop up and make a woman's movie. The reason I did this was because I wanted to make a whole departure.

"I had female characters in 'Boyz' and everybody was, like, `You're treating the females bad in 'Boyz.' But people didn't understand. In 'Boyz N the Hood,' every female character was three-dimensional. Whether it was the mother or the young girl or the lady across the street. But it wasn't their story; it was about the boys. And this story is really about the woman.

"Hopefully, there'll be more movies about black women. This summer, 'What's Love Got to Do With It' came out really nice, so . . . Hollywood only knows what's profitable, so maybe this will start a new trend." Black new wave

When Singleton's "Boyz N the Hood" premiered at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival, two years after Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing" electrified the crowds there and ushered in a new era of black filmmaking, it seemed as if filmmakers might be able to help us understand some of the daily complexity of big-city life.

One-dimensional images on the TV news were being fleshed out; when Lee's character Mookie exploded in frustration, and when Singleton's young hero narrowly missed being the victim of meaningless street violence, audiences could catch some of the truth behind the headlines. They were seeing, I suggested, the reality of life in the inner city.

"A reflection of reality."

Are they doing any good? Do these films help?

Singleton shrugged. "In some ways, I think `Boyz N the Hood' helped get Bush out of office. Film is a powerful medium; it has a power to shape and change minds. It has a power to make people think in a way in which they wouldn't have thought otherwise, and you have to be responsible when you're dealing with it. Sometimes the media can be more powerful than a gun."

If Spike Lee was the standard bearer of the new generation, and Singleton, the Hughes brothers (of "Menace II Society") and others are also building important reputations, is this truly a black new wave in the process of forming?

"Sometimes I don't know. I'm like Spike with his budget on 'Malcolm X.' I feel like no matter how much money my pictures make, the studios only want me to make movies for a certain price. My movies can make $100 million or whatever, but they'll try to keep me to a price on the films. If my movies make a lot of money, then it means that I should have a right to paint on larger canvases.

"I mean, this film right, 'Poetic Justice,' only cost $13 million. That's half the average studio film. It has the No. 1 pop star in the country, and it's hip. The marketing surveys on this film show that 85 percent of the kids in the country know about it. And it's two weeks before the release and the advertising hasn't kicked in. But now, I'm fighting the battle of the budget on my next project.

"Yet they make a lot of films that cost so much more money, but they don't have any substance. Looking at the older films, you can see how it's degenerated over the last 15 years - and most of it is not just due to the boardroom stuff and all the lawyers or whatever. You have people who are only there to make a buck. And now, a hot book of a hot script costs $3 million just for starters.

"So, what do I do? I just feel that as long as I keep my head straight and I make films that you laugh at a little bit, and you feel something in your heart here and there, then I'm doing something right and nobody can mess with that. You know what I'm saying? Because my audience is the same age as me, or younger. And then there's other people who want to see the film. And I feel that people will be able to see me mature with every film. This film is a maturity over `Boyz N the Hood,' and my next film will be a maturity over 'Poetic Justice.' "

Your next film?

"People are so afraid to step on toes. I think now that I've done this little 'Poetic' movie, I can take a chance; you know what I'm sayin'? I'm gonna do it. I couldn't have done it right now because of how hard-edged 'Boyz' was. I had to do something that would smooth things over; I had to think of my career in terms of the rhythm of it. But now I can do that. Boom! Do something that's gonna shake people up."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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