Forget that it was released 13 years ago. Forget the striking cinematography, the star cast and the bomb-ass soundtrack. Forget that this was an artsy film that was accessible. Forget memorable scenes like when Darius tells Nina, “I just want to come up and talk.” Even if you forget all that, you still have to admit that no film in recent memory has come close to showcasing the struggles of black love—a film that’s unsentimental and breathtaking all the same.
So much is right with this movie. The chemistry of Nia Long and Lorentz Tate is remarkable. So much that we watch this film and begrudge the fact that this film represented the zenith of her career (and Larenz Tate’s for that matter). We even forgive the fact that Larenz Tate needs a haircut in this film. The characters hang out in smoky spots where men and women dress up and wear nice clothes. Not one gun in the entire film.
And when was the last time you saw a black film where the main characters quote George Bernard Shaw, invoke Gordon Parks, and play Charlie Parker? And whether you liked the poetry or not, you have to admit, it was sexy: ”Who am I? It doesn’t matter. I’m the blues in your left thigh, trying to be the funk in your right.”
For culture critic Mark Anthony Neal, Love Jones captured the zeitgeist of the hip-hop generation during its cultural peak. “Love Jones remains an endearing film to generation hip-hop because it showed that we had a concept of romance that we defined on our own terms. It was clearly a hip-hop film from everything from the casting of Larenz Tate and Nia Long to the rhythms of the dialogue, but at the same time, it embraced a notion of black love that was timeless.” You won’t find a Cosby-esque version of contemporary relationships.
There’s no pretense here. Darius says to his friend, Savon, “I just said the sex was good.” So many of us can relate to the dance that we all do at the early stages with someone we like. The seasons of emotion: fear, vulnerability and wanting to protect your interests and showing your emotions. What’s arresting about the film is its ability to present relationships in complicated ways. Darius and Nina’s relationship speaks to so many of us because it’s raw and intense. Even Darius’ friend, Savon, doesn’t pretend to know everything there is about love, and he’s married.
It’s difficult to discuss Love Jones without contextualizing the time period. It was the late 90s, and although we didn’t have a black president, some writers and pundits swore that we did. There was a budget surplus. Black music was booming. Lauryn Hill had recently released The Mis-Education of Lauryn Hill. The urban poetry scene was bursting at the seams, and poetry slams would take the world by storm. The work of poetry legend Sonia Sanchez was read in the film by Nina Mosley (Nia Long) giving poetry and art prominent positions in Love Jones. This hadn’t been done before. “Love Jones came out right when I started hanging on the scene,” says Tara Betts, former resident of Chicago and author of Arc & Hue, a collection of poems. “I watched it again a few months ago, and it’s still beautiful, lush, and such a reminder of that time when I was just coming into the open mic scene.”
It’s no secret that black audiences are starved for good art—especially good movies. And by good movies, I mean, the kind that are not only true to our experience but also include moments that make us think about subjects like love in new ways. That’s our inheritance from the black arts movement. How can our art serve the community? And raise its consciousness?
This film’s popularity is double-edged, signaling a great work but also a void in great work in African-American cinema. It also raises the question who’s harvesting the next generation of filmmakers—not entertainers—to do the heavy lifting of telling our stories in the way that writer-director Theodore Witcher does with Love Jones. Lest we forget, Love Jones was not a major blockbuster. It was an indie film: an example of how great stories do and will continue to come out of the indie circuit rather than Hollywood.
Thirteen years hasn’t changed black cinema. Has black America changed in 13 years? We have a beautiful black couple in the White House but no films to document all of those flirty winks, poetry and music events at the White House, finger snaps. Will the real lovers of black cinema please stand up!?
Abdul Ali writes about art and culture. His blog is Words Matter.