A few summers ago, I was keeping company with a lovely young lady who let it slip that she had never seen love jones, the moody 1997 romance starring Nia Long and Larenz Tate. Among young, aspirational creative class Negroes, the film had taken on mythical dimensions as a portrait of the kind of lives they led. We were both making entrees into that world, and I teased her for what seemed like a gaping hole in her cultural literacy.
“You never saw love jones?” I exclaimed. “We need to make this right.” So we immediately went out to the local video store to scoop it up, before retreating back to her apartment. But about 45 minutes into the movie, it was clear that it had been magnified significantly in my memory, and neither of us was really feeling it.
“Um, yeah. I’m sorry about this,” I said. Clearly something had curdled since I saw the film as a teenager.
“This isn’t good,” she exhaled, as if she suddenly had permission not to like it.
A synopsis: an attractive couple meets at a poetry club in Chicago, go out on a date, sleep together, and end up in a torrid love affair (but not before he cooks her eggs, which means…something). She wants to be a photographer. He wants to be a writer, and we know he is serious about his art because he uses a vintage typewriter. (Yes, in 1997. Yes, it makes infinitely more sense to save his writing on a computer. But a typewriter looks more writer-y, I guess.) There is spoken word poetry recited in smokey jazz clubs, and it is replete with spoken word-y tropes, like euphemisms for sex. But then: perfunctory plot contrivances split the couple up, adding “drama” to a plot that otherwise lacks any real tension. Bill Bellamy drives a hearse, and is a dick. Larenz Tate is in a writer’s funk, because he can’t that girl off his mind. (We know he is frustrated because he angrily shoves his old typewriter off his desk. Good luck getting that repaired, chief.) Nia Long, freed from their relationship, moves to New York to work for Vibe magazine. There is the perfunctory scene where he races to catch her before her train leaves.* He fails. Time passes and she comes back to Chicago. She goes to their club and reads poetry about love. The couple then kisses in the rain. That’s it.
love jones is not a terrible movie, by any means. It’s a pretty, paint-by-numbers romance with a fantastic soundtrack and some occasionally corny dialogue. So you know, it’s pretty average.
But like the musical entrants in the neo-soul movement it presaged, love jones was and is often tellingly lauded more for what it was not than for any merits it may actually possess on its own.
The characters hang out in smoky airy 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? …
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 and indie film: an example of how great stories do and will continue to come out of the indie circuit rather than Hollywood.
Okay, so obviously Ali’s essay is kind of all over the place. But it’s emblematic of annoying penchant by middle/creative class Negroes to wax hyperbolic in making their cases for films and popular culture about and for middle/creative class Negroes.* (Not one gun in the entire film, you guys!) love jones can’t just be a nice little romantic movie; it has to be The Antidote for The Ignorance That Is Ailing Contemporary Black Popular Culture. (In his essay, Ali also dutifully shouts out Lauryn Hill’s Miseducation… album, another solid-but-overrated piece of pop culture that is similarly encumbered.)
In this formulation, the value of a piece of pop culture is good mainly if it is “positive,” which makes essays and arguments like Ali’s feel less like endorsements of enjoyable films and more like an exhortation to recycle your plastic bottles.
There’s an arrogance to this position, of course, and more than a little naivete. Where is all this evidence of pop culture’s salvific powers, that if people like a book or movie or album enough that they will reconsider their iniquity, or at least their worldviews? I was finna murk them niggas, but then I watched A Different World and decided against it. Does real life ever really work that way?
*This trip will take 19 hours via train. A plane ticket probably would have been of comparable price. Damn those romantic, impractical artists.
**I’m making this distinction because Tyler Perry’s films often feature middle class black characters, his audience is perceived not to be. Hence all the lazy cooning charges that get hurled his way.