***After watching Love Jones again last weekend, I was urged to revisit and revise something I wrote about the film for the Loop21 a few years ago***
Approximately halfway through Love Jones, the iconic 1997 romantic drama centered around a Chicago-area couple, protagonists Darius Lovehall (Larenz Tate) and Nina Mosley (Nia Long) attend a dance together—their first real “date” since a few somewhat contrived situations caused them to momentarily break away from each other. Predictably, the date goes extremely well. The otherworldly connection and chemistry Darius and Nina share is palpable, and, despite any romantic roadblocks (contrived or otherwise or just named “Bill Bellamy”), you know that things are going to work for them.
But, while this date night dance scene’s main purpose was to give the audience a visual segue from Darius and Nina’s short-term separation to their impending romance, writer/director Ted Witcher does something else, something a bit subtler and a bit more poignant. With the vibrant music, colorfully coordinated dance steps, and equally colorful (and equally coordinated) attire, Witcher introduces the audience to the world of Chicago steppin’—a derivative of swing dancing popular in the South and Midwest. Although the scene is only a couple minutes long, Witcher presents this dance phenomenon and the anonymous steppers to us with the same regard, enchantment, and love exhibited when the lens is focused on any of the main characters.
“There’s electricity when they go on a date to the weekly steppers’ ball hosted by Herb Kent the Cool Gent, who plays himself. Steppin’ is a Chicago dance style that comes out of jitterbug, cooled down, and as we watch this scene we get that interesting feeling when a fiction film edges toward documentary and shows us something we haven’t seen before.”
In the 16 years since its release (damn, just typing that made me feel old as f*ck) Love Jones has gone from underappreciated romantic drama with a banging soundtrack to the cinematic standard for realistic black romance. (Well, “realistic” other than the fact that it featured a bunch of underemployed negros living in lofts…with exposed brick…in Chicago. But, who’s nitpicking?)
And, while the story and the chemistry between Tate and Long are the most memorable aspects of the film, Love Jones is held in such high regard because Ted Witcher was so obviously in love with everything he put into this movie. More than just a drama, it was an ode to Black culture, to Chicago, to music, to movies, to love, to words, to sex; a paean to the possibilities of people not constrained to 140 characters or less. It’s loved and appreciated because it loved and appreciated both its characters and its audience, a trait also found in Soul Food—a movie that, although not necessarily a romantic drama and not as universally praised as Love Jones, shared Love Jones’ love for its characters and their customs.
These movies, and the level of love and exuberance they were shot with, stand in stark contrast to much of today’s Black romantic fare—both at the theater and on the small screen—which seems to be content with browbeating the audience with messages so heavy-handed it feels like you’re being kicked. (Before this devolves into another angst-ridden conversation about all things wrong with Tyler Perry, I do think that Perry loves his characters. But, Ike loved Tina too, didn’t he?) Instead of a peek into a world we may not have been completely familiar with, we’re left with 60 to 120 minute long psychotherapy sessions and self-help pamphlets featuring people who have never existed on Earth, After Earth, or any other planet humans have ever lived on—movies where writers and directors use the screen as a palate to work out their own issues instead of allowing the audience a chance to be vicarious.
Maybe this cinematic shift is our doing. Maybe our expectations have devolved to the point that we wouldn’t be able to handle a Black movie with more love and nuance than ill will and temple knocking. Still, after watching Love Jones again last weekend, I think we’re ready for another one. We just need to find the love needed to pull it off.
—Damon Young (aka “The Champ”)