Actually, Poetic Justice Isn’t All That Romantic — But It Is Real

Welcome to Love Like This?, a romance column where we, Kathleen Newman-Bremang and Ineye Komonibo, revisit some of the most romantic — or not, in hindsight  — scenes in Black film and TV history. 
If you look up any “Best Black Romances of All Time” lists, Poetic Justice will undoubtedly be there, perched somewhere between Brown Sugar and Love Jones. It’s been immortalized as part of the Black love canon, with the romance between charismatic postal worker Lucky (the late Tupac Shakur) and melancholic poet Justice (Janet Jackson in her first major film role) sitting at the film’s center, acting as its beating heart and its sole bright spot in otherwise rather dark material. 
Poetic Justice is a mess, but it's an adventurous one,” the New York Times declared in 1993 when the film was released. The adventure seemingly lies in the road-trip aspect of the film — Justice and her friend Iesha (played by Regina King, long may she reign) hitch a ride with Lucky and his friend Chicago to Oakland for a hair show — while the mess is more comprehensive. So much of this movie is messy and traumatic (Justice’s boyfriend, played by a young Q-Tip, is literally murdered in front of her in the first scene), but within the dichotomy between love and hardship lies its charm. Director John Singleton set out to tell a very specific story about South Central, L.A., and his legacy is the authenticity he brought to portrayals of that neighborhood on screen. “Poetic Justice turns hood love into a universal text, insisting hope and love can bloom anywhere, even from the cruelest violence. Even in South Central,” wrote Stephen Kearse for Pitchfork last year. 
Looking back on Poetic Justice almost 30 years later with fresh eyes, one thing is absolutely certain: this movie falls apart real quick without its superstar leads, Jackson and Shakur. “Having Janet and Tupac was huge, because he was one of the biggest hip-hop stars and she was definitely the biggest pop star,” Regina King said in Jackson’s recent self-produced documentary series. “I think they were both impressed with each other, but I don’t feel like either one of them wanted to let the other know.” That sounds like the exact dynamic Justice and Lucky have in the film. It’s no wonder their chemistry is so good that we’re still talking about it decades later. It’s also why we even still hold up Poetic Justice as a romance. Most of the film isn’t romantic at all; Jackson and Shakur are yelling at each other for three quarters of the story, but the sheer power of their connection and their performances make it so that you can’t look away. And against all odds, you’re rooting for them to fall in love. 
It’s Valentine’s Day, Black History Month, and the day after Janet Jackson Appreciation Day, so there’s no better time to revisit the classic film and find out once and for all: would we really want a love like Lucky and Justice have? And more importantly: is Poetic Justice even a romance? 

"I really don't know exactly how this got into the canon of Black love stories. This movie is very chaotic, and the stakes for the relationship are extremely low."

ineye komonibo
The Scene: By the last scene in the film when our leads finally make it official, Lucky and Justice have spent days together in the cramped USPS truck traveling to Oakland with their friends. Though much of their time on the road is spent arguing, there’s an obvious romantic vibe between them. In typical enemies-to-lovers fashion, each frown and petty rebuttal slowly gives way to flirtatious grins and even a steamy kiss. But after tragedy strikes and separates the fledgling couple before they can even really begin, they resume living their separate lives, burdened by the respective grief — Lucky, burdened by the tragic loss of his cousin, and Justice adding their sudden split to the long list of heartbreaks she’s lived through. The last time Lucky and Justice spoke, he was blaming her for the fact he didn’t arrive in Oakland in time to save his cousin. He shows up at the salon where she works with his daughter in tow and asks for forgiveness. Lucky quickly takes him back — too quickly? — and the two share a kiss. “They live in a fairytale,” one of the loud-mouthed salon patrons says right after their reconciliation. “I wouldn’t have forgiven you!” she tells Lucky. But Justice does. And after all the trauma they’ve both endured throughout the film, Lucky and Justice finally get their happily ever after. 
Does The Grand Gesture Hold Up? 
Ineye Komonibo: I think that Lucky took too much time to spin the block, to be honest, but given he was grieving his cousin so recently, I do think it was a good gesture. I like the fact that he wanted to introduce his daughter to Justice. I saw it as, "I want you to meet this important person in my life because I think you're that important." And he came very earnestly. No nonsense, no making excuses. "I made a mistake. I was wrong." I really liked that.
Kathleen Newman-Bremang: I actually disagree with Lucky bringing his daughter. Justice hadn't even met her yet, and he just rolls up with this little girl. And then, this little girl has to watch her daddy and a random woman make out!
IK: Not to be rude, but the girl has seen worse.
KNB: [laughs] You’re right. She has seen worse. I like that he's being a hands-on dad and that he's spending time with his daughter, because I was worried about her the whole movie. But it seemed like he was supposed to be hanging out with his daughter, and then he was like, "Oh, on my list of things I got to do today, I'm going to go by and see if Justice will take me back." It felt like he was just running an errand. It was rushed. When they kissed, it took me out of the moment knowing that the daughter was right there. Of course Justice is going to have a big role in this girl's life if they stay together, but he doesn’t beg enough for me. Anytime a man admits he's wrong, I'm in. And I like the simplicity of the moment, but the daughter being there doesn’t hold up for me. 
IK: It felt like he's bridging the gaps between his two worlds. He's a man, but he's also a dad. 
The thing that doesn’t really work for me is that I’m not sure if Justice’s forgiveness is earned. Lucky says, “Listen, I want you to know I'm sorry. I made a mistake.” What about, I love you, I know I made a mistake, I don't want to live without you, I need you? It's not giving enough desperation. He's not begging. Like you said, we love a man who begs, but realistically speaking, these men don't be begging!

"In South Central at the time, there was a lot of trauma, and these are two very beautiful Black people who found love in the midst of it all — I think that was [director] John Singleton's point but I remember the movie being more romantic, less traumatic."

kathleen newman-bremang
Could It Be Me? 
KNB: All that said, as usual, in this specific scene it could absolutely be me. Because again, a man admitting he's wrong works on me. A man with a little kid also sparks something in me where I'm like, "Yes, I would also like to procreate with that man." However, I don’t think I would have let Lucky talk to me the way he speaks to Justice. I know that this was 1993, the John Singleton/ 90s hip-hop era, and everybody was calling everybody “bitches and hoes.” But if a man ever referred to me as a “bitch” or a “hoe,” I'm not getting past that and dating this man. Lucky calls Justice a bitch multiple times throughout the movie. But he’s so fine. SO FINE. I probably would've forgiven him at the end if I looked into his eyes, but I don't know if I would've let it get that far because of the vitriolic language. 
IK:  It's a no for me all around. They were so mean to each other, and I really don’t like that. I'm in my baby girl era. I want people to talk to me nicely. "I love you. You are a queen. You're stunning." I don't want any man to approach me like, "Oh, you're a problem." Sir, where is the adoration? Even if I have an attitude, I want a man to be obsessed with me and treat me well. Also, I don't date guys with kids, so the kid thing would've been a deal breaker for me.
KNB: Wait — you were just defending the kid.
IK: I like it for the gworls, not for me. I don't like things to be complicated. In my love life and my personal life, I like things to be very neat and simple. Lucky’s baby mama is still alive, and she's dealing with addiction. I don't like messy situations like that, and I think Justice feels the same. Lucky’s circumstances aren’t the best, so if I was Justice and didn’t have my life together, how could I get with a person who doesn't have their stuff together either so we could just be existing in perpetual chaos?
Rate The Kiss: 
IK: It didn't make me swoon, so I'm going to give it a six out of 10. They kissed, and it was appropriate given the circumstances. What I really loved is Janet Jackson's shy, coy flirting. "Come here, come here." "No, you come here." I think that's so cute! Plus, Janet Jackson is so beautiful that I was like, "Oh my gosh, she is so pretty, kiss her!" But the kiss itself, it just wasn't giving. And I think if it had given what we wanted, it wouldn’t be inappropriate because the baby is right there.
KNB: Agreed on all of it, except I would give it even lower. A good kiss needs to be high on the horny scale, and this was not horny at all, but of course it wasn't — there was a child in the room. I'll give a five out of 10, and it gets a five because of their chemistry. I agree that so much of that is Janet being so just cute and adorable and playful. Tupac is just clearly so into her, and his laugh and his smile is so beautiful, so them smiling back and forth at each other, is adorable. The chemistry is there, but when they're actually kissing, again, there's no passion. There's no heat. It's so interesting to me that their chemistry is so electric, and their final kiss isn't that great. They do have some better kisses earlier in the movie, but no love scenes. 
The original story about the film was Janet demanded that Tupac get an AIDS test before they do a love scene and then Tupac was like, "Well, if we're actually having sex, yeah, sure I'll take one." But he's like, "If you're asking me to take it and other leading men don't have to, then f*ck y’all." It came out later that John Singleton made up the story to drum up publicity for the film. 
IK: That’s so weird. The movie would've been better with some more sex in it, and we all know it! I would've loved to see Janet on top of Mr. Pac or vice versa. John Singleton, rest your soul, but you really played us with that publicity stunt, sir! 
I want a love scene in every romance movie. I just think it should be a prerequisite. We're all grown here. This is a grown folks movie.
KNB: It’s a grown folks movie, but is it romantic? The movie isn't that romantic, if we’re being honest. I get that the overarching story is the romance between Lucky and Justice but everything else is pretty traumatic. And I think that was John Singleton's point. In South Central at the time, there was a lot of trauma, and these are two very beautiful Black people who found love in the midst of it all — I think that’s the point but I remember it being more romantic, less traumatic.  

"This story is so realistic though — we all know those couples who fight and make up so frequently even when the best option is for them to just…not be together anymore." 

ineye komonibo
IK: But was it love that they found? I really don't know exactly how this got into the canon of Black love stories. This movie is very chaotic, and the stakes for the relationship are extremely low, so that’s why I can’t justify putting it up there with some of the other films and TV shows that we’ve talked about in this column. 
KNB: I would put Lucky and Justice in the canon of Black couples in movie history, but not their romance. I love them and their chemistry, but the love story itself is lacking.
Would You Want A Love Like This?
KNB: I like that they're both artistic. He wants to get into music and be a rapper, she's a poet. They clearly connect on that level. I love that they're similar souls with similar creative visions and artistic inclination. They're obviously bonded by grief as well, which I think is important. But I think when shit gets hard for both of them, their instinct is to run. Especially for Lucky, when he found out about his cousin’s death, he immediately blamed Justice for “distracting” him and bounced. To me, that's not a stable love. You can’t have a good foundation of love and respect if shit gets hard, and you immediately leave. And then I think that Justice needs a lot of therapy before she's ready to love somebody else after her boyfriend’s murder and her grandmother’s death. I don’t think she has a lot of love for herself because of the grief. She doesn't really know what she wants to do with her life, and she’s ashamed she didn’t go to college. She says, at one point, "My grandma would be rolling in her grave if she saw me now." 
IK: The timing of it is just bad. It's so messy and complicated. They both need to go to therapy or at least figure out how to get past the loss in their lives because there's too much going on, and they're not the type of people who are able to handle that properly. Again, I also don't like men talking spicy to women that they're interested in; there was too much negging, insults and arguing for me. If you’re a man and you're interested in a woman, the way that you approach her should be on some, "Baby, please, baby, please” energy. That's how I feel. You’ve gotta approach me with that soft energy from the beginning. So I personally would've liked a more flirtatious vibe between them. Plus, Lucky was giving strong misogynistic vibes throughout the film.
KNB: I mean, other than being extremely attractive… what does Lucky have going for him? 
IK: Not a lot! Also, this movie is an example of one of my least favorite tropes: enemies to lovers. I hate that. If you were ever mean to me, you're basically dead to me, and you would never be able to lay up with me or kiss me. You were disrespecting me for what? No. Now I have all of this antagonism and animosity towards you. Get out of my face.

"I think that hate and love are two sides of the same coin... You can passionately hate someone. You can passionately love someone. It's a thin line, and when that trope is done well, it’s really entertaining."

kathleen newman-bremang
KNB: I love an enemies to lovers trope! I think that hate and love are two sides of the same coin — the common denominator between them is passion. You can passionately hate someone. You can passionately love someone. It's a thin line, and when that trope is done well, it’s really entertaining. I actually think it’s done really well in this movie because you can feel the passionate hate for each other in the beginning. You're like, "Wow, these people hate each other. They do not want to be in the same room, let alone in the same f*cking car, let alone on a road trip together." Their love is a slow burn — I love a slow burn. But I also think a hate-to-love romance doesn't last because that passion fades in any romance. Eventually, those super strong feelings just fizzle, and what you have left is just respect, love, and admiration for your partner. I don’t know if these two have that. 
IK: Just as quickly or as slowly as the pendulum swings from hating someone to loving them, it can swing back to hating them again. Pick a side and stay there.
Is This Couple Still Together? 
IK: They might be the type to break up and get back together, but ultimately, these people will not be in each other's lives long term. And I think the split would be a very bad one.
KNB: Oh, absolutely they break up a lot. Their personalities are too fiery, and they yell at each other too much. But I do think that if Justice becomes a stepmom to Keisha, Lucky’s little baby girl, I can see that keeping them together. But they definitely break up all the time. And one of the reasons is that Justice thinks she’s too good for Lucky. Everyone around her is like, "You are too good for this man." I don't think Lucky's ego is going to withstand everyone in their lives saying Justice is too good for him. Justice believes she's too good for him, too. 
IK: This story is so realistic though — we all know those couples who fight and make up so frequently even when the best option is for them to just…not be together anymore. 
KNB: I definitely know those couples. You watch them interact and you're like, "Oh yeah, they hate each other." But they take each other back every time. So, is this couple still together? No, but they're going to get back together next week.

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