DIRECTED BY

Theodore Witcher

 

STARRING

Nia Long

Larenz Tate

Isaiah Washington

Lisa Nicole Carson

Bill Bellamy

 

RATED

R

 

RELEASED IN

1997

 

RUNNING TIME

1 Hr., 48 Mins.

Love Jones January 20, 2020

he meet-cute in the romantic comedy Love Jones (1997) is so contrived that it makes the movie seem smarter. It shows us that this is a film ultra-aware that rom-coms in spades are so overrun with contrived meet-cutes (e.g., the car crash in 1994’s Reality Bites; the bookstore-set scene that ensues after Hugh Grant spills orange juice all over Julia Roberts in 1999’s Notting Hill) that there’s no reason it shouldn’t go all out. 

Nia Long and Larenz Tate in 1997's "Love Jones."

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The film opens, in 1990s Chicago, at the Sanctuary, an upscale nightclub specializing in jazz shows and poetry readings. There we meet Nina (Nia Long), a recently unemployed photographer, and Darius (Larenz Tate), a writer. They catch eyes and begin a flirtation, though Darius seems much more into Nina than she is him. In a ruse to win her over, Darius goes on the Sanctuary’s stage and refashions a preplanned love poem into a piece called “A Blues for Nina.” Nina isn’t amused — she tells Darius that he’s embarrassed the shit out of her. But eventually a courtship will ensue in part due to his insistence, bonds soon forming over music and art.

 

A romantic comedy cannot work unless we believe in the couple on which the film is built. We almost immediately like Darius and Nina both separately and together; no matter the contrivance, we’re always gunning for them. These are smart and passionate people; the writer and director of the movie, Theodore Witcher, shows us that these are artists who have not yet made it but assuredly will. Love Jones comes with the usual rom-com complications. There’s a period during which Darius and Nina, after fooling around for a few weeks, take some time apart, thinking they aren’t that serious. (The decision proves unwise.) For a time they see other people. 

 

A happy ending doesn’t come easily; the lead-up belabors things in a way a lot of viewers won't like. Still, I appreciate the way Witcher has it so that big professional developments, which also come with some geographic adjustments, temporarily take precedence over romance. Sometimes it’s like that. When the final kiss in the rain comes and hints at the blissful — maybe even again rocky — times ahead, it feels earned. It’d be too facile, fake-feeling, to provide Darius and Nina with too painless a journey.

 

Love Jones should be in the pantheon of the great romantic comedies of the 1990s. It’s without hyperbole on the same level as what Nora Ephron was putting out at her peak. The movie takes the time to clearly render the interior lives of its characters, following each individually as they work on their writing, photography. We can see and understand what fuels them; we know them apart from their are-they-or-aren’t-they significant other. And their social lives (which bear an almost equal importance to the romance) are well-developed and real to us. Witcher also brings to the screen an immersive environment of black intellectual life not often shown in mainstream movies, which most often spotlight more stereotypical representations of urban black life.

 

This is a movie where romance and comedy are of course the things that get us the most emotionally involved but also where not too much rests on either. Which is something many rom-coms doesn’t get quite right: a feeling that you know and care about these people and their worlds as much as you think you do the relationship you’re hoping will turn out successfully. 

Black Romantic Comedies." (Which is to say, something as simple as just-OK box-office performance is not solely to blame for the way Love Jones has seemingly been forgotten by the cinematic hegemony.) In the piece, Roberts talks about how because the romantic comedy is often marketed, covered, and remembered as white by default, with black-led romantic comedies in contrast not being advertised or rhapsodized by the mainstream press the same way a movie like Pretty Woman (1990) might be, they are not typically given equal mainstream-culture credence.

 

As a result, they tend to go underrated, even ignored, in the white-washed mainstream as additions to the genre as time passes. Dominantly white rom-coms are never publicized as anything other than a romantic comedy. Dominantly black rom-coms might be filed away as extensions of “black cinema” — a broad, pretty nebulous term that speaks to the problem at hand. (Roberts’ essay was inspired by then-recent comments from the actress Rebel Wilson, who stated that as the lead of 2018’s Isn’t It Romantic?, she was the first fat woman to star in a romantic comedy — seemingly unaware of actresses like Queen Latifah and Mo’Nique who had most definitely starred in not one but several movies within the genre.) 

 

Love Jones was among the forgotten (by the white-washed mainstream) black-led romantic comedies Roberts invoked in the piece, in which she indicts both herself and other myopic white viewers for unwittingly participating in the problem. (This includes myself: I had never heard of Love Jones until I read her article.) “Those of us who have been complicit in the white-washed culture that surrounds us must acknowledge it and strive for lucidity, rather than blocking it out like Wilson did,” Roberts said. “Because as filmmakers of color are given more opportunities to create their work, it’s on the rest of us not to erase it.” Witcher never made another movie after Love Jones. When a first-time director makes what should very well be dubbed a genre classic with their debut, that shouldn’t be everything we get to see from them. A

ove Jones is considered something of a cult classic. It’s not really talked about when entertainment-focused websites are putting together lists or publishing articles reminiscing about the essential romantic comedies of its decade. Love Jones certainly is. What gives? The under-doggedness has to do, I think, with something the cultural critic Soraya Roberts astutely discussed in the column “RomCon: Our Failure to See

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