Ask Twitter on any given day to define a #classicblackmovie and you'll find a wide range of opinions, from Mahogany and Claudine to The Best Man and The Wood to even, um, Belly and I Got the Hook Up.
One thing's for sure: Ask any black film junkie to rattle off a few of his or her favorite black movies, and some of the same films will come up over and over. It doesn't matter how well it did at the box office on opening weekend or how many times BET runs its edited — and often poorly dubbed — version. If Baby Boy or New Jack City is playing, a pretty sizable group of die-hard fans is undoubtedly watching, quoting Jody's and Yvette's every word or telling whoever else is in the room to "Sit yo' $5 ass down before I make change!"
Welcome to the cinematic world of the black cult classic, where nostalgia and black popular culture meet to produce some of the most ride-or-die fans this side of the '90s. Even here at The Root, we've chronicled some of these classics, from Juice to Do the Right Thing to Boyz n the Hood. And as we celebrate the 15th anniversary of Love Jones this week, we figured we'd take stock of a few cult classics and why we watch them again and again.
"Movies considered cult classics often feature a legion of fans who, for example, know the movie so intensely that they can quote lines of dialogue at random and can sing songs off of the sound track lyric for lyric," says Todd Boyd, professor of critical studies at the University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts and co-writer of The Wood. "For this reason, cult classics are more about the audience than the films."
So for a Gen Yer like me, there's nothing better than that late-'90s wave, when a steady stream of entertainment was available on-screen. It's the reason my DVD collection is certified gold in the so-bad-they're-good brand of film. B.A.P.S? Check. How to Be a Player? Got it. Love Jones, Love & Basketball, Brown Sugar and The Best Man? Bought them all on Amazon.com for about $5 apiece.
"In the '90s, black culture got bigger on TV, bigger in film; folks financed their own projects knowing they'd do well," says Thembi Ford, a pop-culture writer in Los Angeles. "That in the span of a few years, there was a New Jack City, a Boyz n the Hood, a Menace II Society and a New Jersey Drive [that] would make no sense in today's landscape."
After talking to these pop-culture aficionados and consulting a few cult-classic lists, I came up with criteria for defining a black cult classic: a) really bad reviews or low opening-weekend box office numbers; b) a questionable plot (at some point during the movie, you'll side-eye some action or motivation); and c) snappy one-liners. Bonus points for a dope sound track.
With the criteria laid out, let's dive into five black cult classics — starting with Love Jones.
Love Jones (1997)
Directed by Theodore Witcher
Box office: $12.5 million domestic, $3.9 million opening weekend
Quotables: "I'm the blues in your left thigh, tryna become the funk in your right."
"I must admit, girl. You da sh—, girl. And I'm diggin' you like a grave."
Sound-track standouts: "Hopeless," by Dionne Farris; "The Sweetest Thing," by the Refugee Camp All-Stars, featuring Lauryn Hill; "In a Sentimental Mood," by Duke Ellington and John Coltrane
Don't you dare talk bad about Love Jones, especially in the company of HBCU grads, people from Chicago or anyone who has ever participated in a dimly lit spoken-word showcase. But how corny are those lines from Darius' spoken word when you read them now? (Insert snaps here for emphasis.) There are sure to be (more) talks of a sequel and how Love Jones started an onslaught of black romantic comedies in the late '90s and early 2000s. But has the film held up over the past 15 years? Could Darius and Nina make it work in 2012?
Directed by F. Gary Gray
Box office: $27.5 million domestic, $6.6 million opening weekend
Quotables: "And you know this, MAAAN!"
"I'm gonna get you high today, 'cause it's Friday; you ain't got no job … and you ain't got sh— to do."
Sound-track standouts: "Keep Their Heads Ringin'," by Dr. Dre; "Mary Jane," by Rick James
In 2003, Entertainment Weekly made a list of the 50 best cult classics of all time, and Friday ranked No. 49. These lists don't seem to be complete without a few stoner comedies. And the success of Friday spawned a whole trilogy. Just last week, Ice Cube said he's started writing the fourth installment — with hopes of getting Chris Tucker on board.
The Five Heartbeats (1991)
Directed by Robert Townsend
Box office: $8.75 million domestic, $1.6 million opening weekend
Quotables: "Nights like this, I wish raindrops would fa-ah-ah-ah-allll."
"My office hours are 9 to 5."
Sound-track standouts: "A Heart Is a House for Love," by the Dells; "We Haven't Finished Yet," by Patti LaBelle, Tressa Thomas and Billy Valentine; "Nights Like This," by After 7
Thembi Ford calls The Five Heartbeats a "glorified TV movie that put the Dreamgirls treatment on the Temptations." Based on the stories of several '50s and '60s R&B groups, it's a musical that laid the foundation for actor Leon to become the first person anyone thinks of when you mention David Ruffin.
New Jack City (1991)
Directed by Melvin Van Peebles
Box office: $47.6 million worldwide, $7 million opening weekend
Quotables: "Sit yo' $5 ass down before I make change!"
Sound-track standouts: "For the Love of Money/Living for the City," by Troop and LeVert, featuring Queen Latifah; "I Wanna Sex You Up," by Color Me Badd; "I'm Dreamin'," by Christopher Williams
New Jack City is one of those films that are repeatedly referenced in several other pop-culture works. One of the funniest episodes of Martin — and perhaps one of the funniest in '90s sitcom history — is when Martin's $400 Discman comes up missing and he has a New Jack City-style meeting with Gina, Tommy, Cole and Pam. More recently, Lil Wayne's lyrics tell someone to "cancel that b—ch, like Nino," and Bow Wow's last album was called New Jack City II.
The Mack (1973)
Directed by Michael Campus
Box office: unavailable
Quotables: "Now we can settle this like you got some class or we can get into some gangster sh—."
"N—ger, next time you hear grown folks talking, shut the f—- up, hear?"
Sound-track standouts: "I Choose You," by Willie Hutch
The Mack ranked No. 20 on Entertainment Weekly's top 50 list of the best cult classics of all time. Released in 1973, it, too, is referenced in all sorts of songs and television shows in the '90s and 2000s. Remember the episode of Martin when they're recounting how Gina and Martin first met? (Nostalgia setting in.) Martin assumed he was a smooth player who swept Gina off her feet — with the silver-tongued voice to boot. (Pretty Tony — RIP — also appeared in a later episode in which they had a Player's Ball.) On Nelly's album Suit/Sweat, there is a short interlude in which he mimics Max Julien. (And Julien even appeared in his music video for "Pimp Juice.")
Of course, there are several more cult classics that could be explored here. And I'm sure that if we left out your favorite, you'll want us to know about it. Let's get going on creating a master list for black movies we would watch all day, every day. Tweet us your favorites with #blackcultclassics.
And remember, Twitter's office hours are not 9 to 5.
Erin E. Evans is a writer in New York. Follow her on Twitter.
Plus: Check out the slideshow 11 Black Cult Classics of the 1990s for our favorite black cult movies from that decade.