As powerful as Boyz proved to be—earning Singleton Academy Award nominations for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay—the wunderkind would stray from this formula for his sophomore project. His 1993 follow-up, Poetic Justice, wasn’t the lightning rod that Boyz was, but it deserves equal consideration when discussing his canon. The film featured the young superstar Janet Jackson in her first starring movie role, playing a hairdresser plagued by grief after witnessing the retaliatory gang killing of her boyfriend. It presents a softer side of South Central and its inhabitants, a movie that the film critic Odie Henderson said “meandered like Éric Rohmer and swore like Richard Pryor.” Poetic Justice debuted after the Rodney King riots, when much of Los Angeles was in disarray and in need of rebuilding. With this in mind, Singleton shifted the narrative focus toward romance, family, and friendship.
Read: John Singleton changed how Hollywood sees black America
Justice was also Singleton’s way of responding to critiques that he had largely diminished the experiences of young black women, namely single mothers, in Boyz, with one-dimensional characterizations. The late media critic and director Jacquie Jones, writing in Cineaste in 1991, said that the women in Boyz were cast “to symbolize the oppressions facing black men, as either barriers or burdens … Here, the female characters have carefully calculated, though secondary, roles which affirm the central theme of their blame and ineptitude.” Jones goes on to say that “as long as the humanity of young black men rests on the dismissal of black women, we, as black people, are not making progress—cinematic or otherwise.”
In creating Justice, Jackson’s character, Singleton had a definite vision. During a 1993 interview with The Washington Post, he revealed that the idea for Justice germinated from his thoughts about the girlfriends left behind once their partners’ lives were claimed by gang violence. In his book, Poetic Justice: Filmmaking South Central Style, Singleton wrote that he asked himself, after dealing with the insecurities of black men in Boyz, “Why not do a movie about a young sister and how all the tribulations of the brothers affect her?” He attributed that inspiration to his observation that “some of the most complex, sexy, diverse, three-dimensional women I’ve ever seen in my life all came out of my neighborhood. They all had a certain mold of substance.” From this vantage point, Singleton fashioned a black woman rarely seen on-screen to sit at the focus of his screenplay.
Singleton was similarly precise in his rendering of Justice’s style—the right image was essential. The box braids she wears were the collaborative choice of the director, Jackson, and two female choreographers he had worked with while directing Michael Jackson’s “Remember the Time” music video. Singleton also drew inspiration from the works of Italian neorealist filmmakers—most notably Vittorio De Sica’s Two Women, which he used to recreate Sophia Loren’s natural makeup look for Justice.