In this postmodern age of Black cinema, one film stands above all the rest as an undeniable classic of contemporary African-American romance. That film is Love Jones. If you’ve seen it once, you’ve likely seen it a thousand times. Equal parts smart and sexy, bourgeois and bohemian, Love Jones wins hands down as the movie most likely to remind you of your own young adulthood love life. Poet Darius Lovehall (21-year-old Larenz Tate) writes his first book, Gypsy Eyes, on an old-school manual typewriter, as Gordon Parks-like prints score photographer Nina Mosley (26-year-old Nia Long) a gig at Vibe magazine. The movie’s loving details affirm the cosmopolitanism of twentysomething Black America.
Hollywood remakes romances like 1939’s Love Affair all the time. But Black romances don’t go back that far, unless maybe you’re dredging up seldom-seen reels from pioneer Black filmmaker Oscar Micheaux. Released March 14, 1997, Love Jones led a handful of late-nineties films (The Best Man, The Brothers, etc.) that proved African-American life couldn’t be completely summed up with drugs, guns or hip-hop narratives. The movie drew me in because it mirrored my own life—I was both writing a book and working at Vibe back then—and for most of its arty audience, Love Jones either reflected a life they wanted to live or one they were already living.
Darius Lovehall meets Nina Mosley at the Sanctuary, a Chicago poetry spot with open mic performances that come complete with live-jazz backdrops (Remember, this is the era of Slam and the mainstreaming of spoken word.) Darius meets Nina at the bar, accidentally spills her drink, and redeems himself onstage with the poetic come-on, “A Blues for Nina.” After some more seduction at a record store (remember those?) and reggae winding at a nightclub, they sleep with each other on the first date. Morning comes and Darius is fixing cheese omelets for breakfast, downstairs in the kitchen of Nina’s impossibly spacious duplex.
Cocky Darius gets rewarded quick for laying it on thick. He misquotes Mozart, shushes Nina when she interrupts some Charlie Parker he picks out at the record store, and borderline overplays his pretentious renaissance man shtick. Along those lines, he also uses a vintage typewriter and tools around Chi-Town on a sixties-era motorbike. For her part, Nina knows his Mozart quote actually belongs to Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw, and shoots black-and-whites worthy of photographer James Van Der Zee. But the two totally hold together as believable, mainly because we as Black viewers know the real-life Dariuses and Ninas of our community at least as well as the stereotypical characters more commonly seen on the big (and small) screen.
Director Theodore Witcher fills Love Jones with as many downpours as a rainy Woody Allen romance: when Darius and Nina make love, when they break up, when they reunite. By the end, Nina stands onstage at the Sanctuary reciting poetry actually penned by Pinkie Gordon Lane. The couple makes love to John Coltrane’s version of Duke Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood,” part of a sweet soundtrack made most popular by Dionne Farris’s “Hopeless.” Ingredients in the Love Jones recipe would be hard to replicate without veering into cliché, which partially explains why we haven’t quite seen the likes of Love Jones since. (In fact, Witcher—who also wrote the screenplay—never directed another feature film.) It’s a little hard to imagine how a Love Jones for millennials would even look.
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Miles Marshall Lewis is the Harlem-based author of Scars of the Soul Are Why Kids Wear Bandages When They Don’t Have Bruises, There’s a Riot Goin’ On and Irrésistible. Lewis is a former editor at Vibe, XXL and BET.com. Follow MML on Twitter at @furthermucker, and visit his personal blog, Furthermucker.