Each week I write something about Cinema’s use of poetry. Taken together, I believe it leads to a deeper understanding of both film and poems. This week it’s John Singleton’s 1993 film Poetic Justice and Maya Angelou’s poems “Alone” and“Phenomenal Woman” and I can’t write this without a reference to Tupac Shakur.
A link to the poems here:
John Singleton made Boyz in the Hood in 1991 at only 21. He was the youngest and first black man nominated for best director Oscar. He died in 2019 aged only 51. I think it’s important to mention it’s importance in Black American Culture – as distinct from American culture. As the film progresses we see how different the worlds are, how far the kids need to travel to even glimpse ‘white’ American culture. Yet black American culture has influenced many aspects of culture in some way.
The film has three of the biggest black icons; Tupac Shakur as Lucky, Janet Jackson as Justice, and Maya Angelou’s poetry and her performance as aunt June.
Set in ‘South-Central’ Los Angeles, it’s a portrait of ordinary kids where life is a daily struggle. The themes are self love, love of each other and the overcoming a lack of parental and state guidance due to trials of poverty, race and sex that often the very young are facing. The film is also about the treatment of women within the context of race and class. Justice (Janet Jackson) is a poet, she writes because she feels alone, she has a series of losses and is companioned by poetry. It is Angelou’s poetry we hear in Justice’s voice, how she is trying to make good choices in a world where bad choices are sometimes the only choice.
Poetry is woven through the film and unlike many of the other films where poetry is featured – it takes centre stage. It is worth noting that Singleton started the trend of using established poets as a voice to the film’s protagonist.
The film highlights all the issues facing young black people in the 1990s; (and depressingly still today) early death, poverty, poor mentors, poor housing, health care, children bringing up children, drugs, prostitution, prison. The first poem we hear is ‘Alone’ in the voice of Justice (Janet Jackson) as she writes in response to the assassination of her boyfriend. Justice wonders how she will endure.
how to find my soul a home
where water is not thirsty
and bread-loaf is not stone”
Maya Angelou writes in ‘Alone’ that “no one can make it out of here alone”. The word ‘Here’ is the key, traveling from ‘this place of poverty’ to the world itself.
How can people endure these traumas of indignity and poverty? The film shows how these go to separate men from women, fathers from children, people from their heritage. That word ‘Alone’ becomes a rallying cry to ‘togetherness’ but also to the power of art to ‘companion’ us. Angelou writes with strong rhythm and repetitions, in plain language and arresting images. The word ‘Alone’ also summons up who can be with us. Justice’s main companion through her life is her ‘notebook’ of poems. Lucky (Tupac) is also companioned by music and art.
The impact of Maya Angelou on art, civil rights and this filmcan not be underplayed. She endured unimaginable brutality (including rape at age 7) in an era where black people were routinely lynched by white supremacists. Yet she became a singer, a poet and read her poetry at President Clinton’s inauguration. She inspired countless people and one of those was Tupac Shakur.
It’s hard to explain the lasting and shattering legacy Tupac has had on both spoken word poetry and rap music over the last 30 years if you don’t already know. Tupac’s mother was linked to the Black Panther movement, his early life was one of civil rights and power struggles. This film is based loosely on his brief love affair with a New York poet and his love of Angelou’s poetry, made more poignant that in three years from this film’s release he would be killed.
The film shows what’s left for the women in a hyper masculine world of violence, women resort to the hair salon, a contrast to aggression until we see Jessie (Tyra Ferrell), the salon owner, using sex and beauty as weapons and a way outof poverty. “A man is nothing but a tool” she says.
The film turns road movie and Lucky tries out his gangsta rap lyrics on the road trip which do not impress poet Justice. “I’m a black woman – you call me a bitch you call yo momma a bitch”. As they get to a Barbecue of a random black family which they gate crash they get a sense of ‘family’ and being ‘parented’. Here we meet Maya Angelou, as Aunt June, the wise elder.
“What would you know about love?” She asks the hapless Iesha (Regina King).
The film turns into a road movie exploring the relationship between Lucky and Justice, their bonding over art and understanding of each others sense of aloneness.
Later as Justice processes falling in love and her choices her poems come like a mystical spell for her own life and she births, ‘Phenomenal Woman’, perhaps one of the best known Maya Angelou poems.
Angelou published this poem in 1978 in ‘And Still I Rise,’ a collection that speaks of freedom. The poem has been adapted and used by groups world-wide involved in issues around inequality. The choice of this poem in the film is interesting because Justice seeks liberation from her own need to be an object for men, to not use men like tools and be used by them. The poem speaks of desire, for one’s own beauty and for love;
“It’s in the reach of my arms
the span of my hips,
the stride of my step,
the curl of my lips”
The repetition of the word ‘phenomenal’ is important, because it spans the cultural heritage of being a woman in the mix of so much suffering. Just to exist, to love and to be be a person in many contexts is a political and phenomenal act.
Jessica Mookherjee’s poetry appears in many journals including Agenda, Poetry Wales, The North, Rialto, Under the Radar, Birmingham Literary Review and in various anthologies including the forthcomingBloodaxe’s Staying Human. Her pamphlets are The Swell (TellTale Press 2016) and Joyride (BLER Press 2017). She was highly commended in the 2017 Forward Prize. Her first collection, Flood, was published by Cultured Llama in 2018 and her second, Tigress, by Nine Arches Press in 2019. She is a joined editor of Against the Grain Poetry Press.