Love Jones at 25: Slam Poetry and Smart, Sexy Romance

Movies Features Theodore Witcher
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<i>Love Jones</i> at 25: Slam Poetry and Smart, Sexy Romance

For me, Love Jones will always be the movie that spawned oodles upon oodles of Afro-centric, spoken-word poets.

Man, after that movie came out 25 years ago this month, it seemed like there was an increase in brothas and sistas hopping on a mic to spit some mad knowledge. For a while there, HBO even began giving eloquent, erudite people of color exposure, whether it was offering them a showcase on Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry or snapping up spoken-word stars Sonja Sohn (The Wire) and the late Craig muMs Grant (Oz) for acting roles.

As someone who was deep in the Houston poetry scene in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, I can speak from experience. I frequented many poetry spots back in the day, basically being a smart-ass and doing spoken-word poetry that really made fun of spoken-word poetry. While the militant and the enlightened often recited their pieces with the utmost seriousness, I often hit the stage doing insane rants with titles like “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire (By Licking My Balls)” and “The Night Bobby Brown Tried to Sodomize Me with a Burnt Crackpipe.”

Although spoken-word poetry plays a minor part of the film, I’m sure many Black men who saw it most likely went to some poetry open-mic near them and tried to do some off-the-cuff rap in order to impress some ladies in the crowd. (I even had my own thirst-trap poem, aptly titled “Pussy-Pleasing Poem.”) That’s what writer Darius Lovehall (Larenz Tate) does when he first meets photographer Nina Mosley (Nia Long) at a Chicago open-mic, basically shooting his shot by performing the seductive ode “A Blues for Nina.” That poem sets off this Black-and-proud love story, which has the two characters “kickin’ it” (read: becoming friends with benefits) and eventually having an on-again, off-again relationship, before finally coming to terms with the fact that they’re friggin’ made for each other.

Jones is the debut film of writer/director Theodore Witcher, who has said he originally came in the film biz wanting to make The French Connection. Thanks to studio exec/executive producer Helena Echegoyen, who was intrigued with Witcher’s idea of making a progressive date movie for his peoples, he ended up making a jazzy, romantic dramedy that won over (and continues to win over) Black audiences.

Released at a time when Black movies were either bloody hood flicks or raunchy sex comedies (it came out the same year as such low-brow, low-down flicks as Booty Call, Sprung and How to Be a Player, starring ex-MTV VJ/Jones co-star Bill Bellamy), Jones was an anomaly. As Los Angeles Times writer Tre’vell Anderson wrote in a 2017 oral history, the movie “showcased a different aspect of Black life, one where struggle and strife did not dictate one’s circumstances… It was the kind of film that white communities had known well.”

If anything, Jones proved that young Black people can be hipsters too. Darius and Nina become the sort of annoyingly intellectual couple that you avoid at parties, spending most of their courtship quoting writers like Sonia Sanchez and George Bernard Shaw to each other and listening to jazz tunes from icons like Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington and John Coltrane. Hell, Darius is practically a Luddite, writing his first book on an old, rickety typewriter. Thankfully, the photogenic pairing of Tate (doing a complete 180 from his star-making turn as homicidal hoodlum O-Dog in Menace II Society) and Long (a dime worth chasing after TO THIS DAY!) ooze enough chemistry and charisma throughout this thing to keep you from finding these hopeless romantics exhausting. They also surround themselves with friends (including Bellamy, Ally McBeal alumna Lisa Nicole Carson and a pre-Grey’s Anatomy Isaiah Washington) who also ride that fine line of being both urban and urbane.

Made for $7 million, the stylishly-shot Jones was independent enough to premiere at Sundance that year, where it won the Dramatic Audience Award, along with the coming-of-age drama Hurricane Streets. But when it hit theaters a couple of months later, it only grossed $12.8 million worldwide. While it seemed obvious that Black audiences who saw it dug the film, that still wasn’t enough to make it a success story. While some involved with the movie have blamed New Line Cinema, the movie’s distributor, for not properly marketing the film, Witcher has wondered if he made a Black film that was too niche—even for Black people. (“Maybe the movie is pretentious,” he told the Times.)

As with most for-us/by-us films released during the ‘90s, its soundtrack was more successful than the movie. Titled Love Jones: The Music, the compilation (which reached the top 20 in the Billboard 200 chart and was number three on the R&B/Hip-Hop chart) is basically a neo-soul sampler, full of tunes performed by that era’s heavy hitters: Dionne Farris, Maxwell, Meshell Ndegeocello. Its crown jewel is “The Sweetest Thing,” the end-credits song performed by Lauryn Hill. Still a member of the hip-hop group The Fugees, it was the first instance of what she would give audiences a year later, when she went solo and became an international superstar with the Grammy-winning album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. The album was such a smash (a blonde, white, former co-worker of mine once told me she used to bump the hell out of it), it made New Line re-release Jones five months after its debut.

Despite its lackluster box-office receipts, Jones opened up the floodgates for other sophisticated, romantic comedies starring and made by African-Americans—Hav Plenty in 1998, The Best Man in 1999, Brown Sugar in 2002—to get their chance at the multiplexes. (Best, which also co-stars Long, was the biggest hit of the bunch, being the top grosser on its opening weekend and spawning a sequel, The Best Man Holiday, 14 years later.) You could even say it inspired TV shows like the recently-wrapped Insecure, where star/co-creator Issa Rae spent five seasons looking for love amongst the classy—and not the ashy.

At the end of this month, Jones will be receiving that most widely-respected honor: Its own Blu-ray/DVD release via The Criterion Collection. It’s the latest Black title from the prestige home-video distributor, still making up for the reported lack of diversity in its collection by dropping souped-up, special editions of such beloved Black films as Deep Cover, Love & Basketball and Menace II Society (which—full disclosure—has a booklet essay written by me). Complete with a 4K digital restoration of the film, the special features include a 20th-anniversary reunion/panel discussion, recorded in 2017 and moderated by Moonlight director/avowed fan Barry Jenkins. There are also two new video convos: One with Witcher and film scholar Racquel J. Gates and the other with music scholars Mark Anthony Neal and Shana L. Redmond, where they discuss the soundtrack. And even though he unfortunately hasn’t made a movie since Jones, Witcher gets back into director mode for the commentary track. It’s there where you’ll find him discussing his rookie mistakes and all the filmmakers (Woody Allen, Robert Altman, Dr. No director Terence Young) he ripped off while making this.

Ultimately, Love Jones gave us two things. First, it made people realize that smart, sexy films starring people of color can exist and be enjoyed by the public. Secondly, it made a lot of thirsty-ass African-Americans start reciting poetry.

Craig D. Lindsey is a Houston-based writer. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @unclecrizzle.