(On Cable TV, March 2015) For a concentrated dose of nineties ghetto-Los Angeles atmosphere, Poetic Justice is a blast from the past. Starring none other than Janet Jackson (in an iconic performance) and Tupac Shakur (in a pretty good dramatic role), Poetic Justice plays with an unusual structure that marries ghetto drama with a road trip from Los Angeles to Oakland with numerous episodes along the way. There’s a blend of genres and influences that’s hard to describe as romance clashes with comedy (the drive-in film excerpt is hilarious) and straight-up drama. Writer/director John Singleton has made an unusual film here, and it’s that lack of formula that makes it work even more than twenty years later. Part of the film’s eccentricity can be found in the small role given to Maya Angelou (whose poetry makes up a chunk of the film’s narration), but also in an unusually romantic role given to Shakur, who more than honorably performs. The ending could have been a bit stronger, and more continuity in the episodes would have been appreciated, but this is definitely what Singleton wanted to show on-screen, and the off-beat nature of the result speaks for itself.
(In theaters, October 2009) Don’t be fooled by writer/director Chris Rock’s comic reputation, the frivolous-sounding subject of “Black Hair” and the constant laughter from audiences watching this film: Good Hair is a serious film tackling real issues with a substantial impacts on a number of us. Hair is not just hair: It’s a political statement, it’s a booming business, it’s a signifier of relationship intimacy, it’ s a measure of how much people with non-straight hair are willing to sacrifice in order to fit in. But as Rock comes to discover in his quest to understand the way black women feel about their hair, the topic quickly expands to touch upon economic servitude, third-world exploitation, dating patterns and appearance alteration. Thanks to Rock’s comic instincts, Good Hair touches upon those issues with a deft touch, sometimes even extracting jaw-dropping ignorant statements from simple showboating. It’s a deft balance, especially given the number of time where the images on-screen call for outrage. What’s also noteworthy are the candid celebrity interviews that dot the film, with a number of black actresses willing to speak frankly about the nature of what’s on their hair. Some of the interview moments are fantastic: Al Sharpton actually makes sense, Ice-T gets to be the voice of reason, Tracie Thoms is both hot and funny, while Maya Angelou manages to one-up one of Rock’s punchlines to earn an even bigger laugh than him. Hilarious, but also eye-opening (Rock does a good job at mirroring white viewers’ “You’ve got to be kidding me” expressions.), Good Hair will make quite a few viewers wonder “ Why didn’t I know that?” and give them a renewed appreciation for women with short hair. See it, if you can, with a big vocal crowd: It’s a movie that demands and benefits from audience participation. It’s an open question as to whether the same subject could or should be treated with self-righteous indignation and rage… and whether such a documentary would be better, or even appropriate. The real tragedy here may not be the unimaginable sacrifices made to the ideal of good hair, but the “eh, what are you going to do?” acceptance that this is what people do.
(Second viewing, on DVD, April 2011) The documentary holds up to a second viewing: The laughs are still there, the insights are just as sharp, and Rock’s exploration of his subject seems just as revealing. What’s frustrating is the DVD: Aside from a commentary track with Rock and the co-producer of the film, there’s nothing else… even though the commentary repeatedly refers to a number of deleted scenes intended to be included on the DVD. It doesn’t help that the commentary itself is average and perhaps a bit drier than one would expect: While it does a lot to explain how a documentary can evolve into something quite different than envisioned (and how production challenges arise to meet heightened expectations), it doesn’t soar anywhere near the film itself.