On ‘love jones’ and Overstating the Case.

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.

Here’s Abdul Ali at The Root.

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.



Gene "G.D." Demby is the founder and editor of PostBourgie. In his day job, he blogs and reports on race and ethnicity for NPR's Code Switch team.
  • slb

    of course i agree with what’s been said here, but i needed to comment to express my deep pride in the fact that our publication spelled Larenz’s name right.

  • I was discussing what I consider the flip side of this the other day. There is good, bad and mediocre. Most television, for instance, tends to be mediocre regardless of the racial makeup of the cast. Many of us sometimes lump shows with predominantly black casts into good and bad, lumping the mediocre in with the bad.

    Not that I want to celebrate mediocre, but I feel black folks sometimes rip things that are mediocre and act as if it will set our people back 200 years. Meanwhile white people let their mediocre be just that, mediocre. I understand the lack of representation on TV. I also get the imbalance, far more negative than positive. I think our perspective could use some balance as well. I’ve often thought things were far greater or worse than they really were.

  • “It’s no secret that black audiences are starved for good art—especially good movies.”

    I might allow that this is true. But a starving man or woman might be inclined to eat anything. Such is the case with “Love Jones.”

    And I’m ashamed to admit it now, but in college, I thought “Hav Plenty” was a good movie. That’s how hungry I was, I guess.

    • slb

      um, i still like Hav Plenty–and i’m 30. *ducks*

      • why? that movie is objectively terrible. poor acting, horrible to look at. i’ve never figured out why people love it so much.

        • slb

          ay. i ain’t say i “loved it so much,” so don’t lump me in. i basically like it for one voiceover–and that would be the “haviland’s hands, i am thinking” one. the rest of it *does* suck. but i dug that Chris Scott Cherot took the lead, like, a day before filming because his previously cast male dropped out and you could tell how meta the experience was for him by his facial expressions and characterizations.

          the acting was uniformly bad, but in his performance, i think there was some self-awareness.

        • Scipio Africanus

          Folks like it because it’s a reflection of a black upper-middle class/striver world alot of folks our age identify with, or want to be able to identify with. Cherot has a sense of humor, but seems to be simultaneously showcasing and mocking that world. That mocking is what sets it apart from standard bourgy films and without that element, I doubt many folks would like it much at all.

          And he cast a rack of fione women, too.

      • I’ll agree: that last voiceover was hella smooth and there was a treasure trove of beautiful ladies in the film.

        But yeah. “Hav Plenty” hasn’t held up well. You could feel like everyone in the movie was trying to let the audience know, “hey, we gotta earn a paycheck, too.”

        • Scipio Africanus

          How ya doin’, Mr. Bugmaster?

  • Val

    Sometimes it’s just nice to see attractive Black people on the screen.

    • this argument.

      does that make it important or justify love jones’s inflated reputation?

      Last week, Shani made me watch an old movie called ‘For the Love of Ivy,’ which starred Sidney Poitier and Abbey Lincoln that meets your criteria: attractive black people on the screen.

      people have been saying this for 40+ years now, and it sets an awfully low bar.

      • Val

        Yeah I know but if things haven’t changed much in forty years then people are going to feel the same. And if it still hasn’t changed forty years from now then many of us are still going to settle for attractive Black faces on screen.

        Btw, you should check out ‘Nothing But a Man’ with Ivan Dixon and Abbey Lincoln. If you are a Abby Lincoln fan.


        I saw bits of Hav Plenty over about a year until I finally liked it. I think it’s one of those films that has to grow on you.

        • the problem is you’re acting like this isn’t the formula for every successful black film: attractive black people on the screen doing stuff.

      • shani-o

        Hey, don’t bring Ivy into it. That movie was NUTS.

    • You know what else has attractive black people on screen doing stuff? Porn. Heather Hunter did it for years. (Not that I know who that is)

  • Mr. Tate rode a very nice Triumph in the dash to train station. I’m a sucker for anything showing Black folks in love, my only beef with the flick was that it inspired more “spoken word” artists.

    • i’m glad we agree on the unfortunate preponderance of soul sista screeds and cheesy, euphemistic poems about sex.

  • Grump

    The Good = “love jones”
    The Bad = “Hav Plenty”
    The Ugly = “Sprung”

  • O

    what a weird argument….I wonder what black film in the last 10-20 years has been considered better written or put together than “Love Jones”? (with the exception of Medicine for Melancholy)
    I think its harsh to come down on a good film just because your personal ideals may have changed..it’s like..if you loved it when you were a teenager..the only thing different in the situation now is you. You say you were making entrees into that world which leads me to believe that you don’t(didn’t) really experience it, but for some, that movie is very true to life.
    I mean…everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion, but for what it was, what it meant, and what it portrayed….I loved it and know about a hundred people who feel the same way for similar reasons. The only reason I would think someone who watched it now for the first time wouldn’t enjoy it is becuase it was written over thirteen years ago. Love Jones is iconic because it served as a catalyst for a cultural movement. It made those things “pop.”

    • Who’s making weird arguments now?

      When I was 9, I thought the Ninja Turtles motion picture was the greatest thing ever filmed. To say that the movie is the same movie goes without saying; I’m obviously much better-screened now which necessarily alters the way I’d view it. It seems like you’re arguing that our opinions and understandings of pop culture artifacts should remain static and enduring.

      (Boyz n the Hood was an important, seminal movie. It has also aged terribly, and seems outright amateurish now. Those things can both be true at the same time.)

      I mean…everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion, but for what it was, what it meant, and what it portrayed….I loved it and know about a hundred people who feel the same way for similar reasons. The only reason I would think someone who watched it now for the first time wouldn’t enjoy it is becuase it was written over thirteen years ago.

      I enumerated my issues with the film, and the main pushback seems to be that it was important and different. Okay, maybe. But what about the film’s relative lack of tension? What about the flatness/perfuntoriness of all the secondary characters? “What it represents” does not alter or ameliorate those shortcomings.

      I think it’s telling that even in your defense you think people who were watching love jones for the first time without any predisposition toward the time and place in which it’s set would probably find it wanting. Now, I don’t think universal appeal is necessary for a piece of pop culture to be great, but that’s fundamentally different than arguing that a film is great solely because it plays to your proclivities and biases.

      (I have a deep, deep affection for ‘Medicine for Melancholy.’ It feels true and plausible to me in a way that few movies have. But I’m not gonna suggest that the movie wasn’t without serious flaws, or that it would hold the same appeal to me if it were not about semi-settled black twentysomethings in a rapidly gentrifying big city.)

  • What is wonderful about this post is also its analytical flaw. That is, G.D.’s argument implicitly recognizes the difference between history and memory, yet explicitly conflates the two. Indeed, the memory of LOVE JONES brings up all kinds of post-modern-yet deeply modern-bourgie ideals of witty, sophisticated, and erudite black life. As a piece of memory, it legitimates a certain construction of life that “middle/creative class” yearn for. On the other hand, as a piece of history (and film), it is precisely what G.D. says it 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.”

    Yet that history need not deflect away from its impact on people at the time of its production (1997) and its place in people’s memories.

    This gets at the ontology of pop culture–namely, it is wholly rooted in its time and its structures, implications, discourse is for its moment. Shakespeare provides a good case: his most popular plays during his lifetime–especially the comedies–do not stand the test of time and often have to be staged in other times and spaces for post-Elizabethan audiences to latch onto it. His more philosophical texts–e.g. HAMLET, OTHELLO, LEAR, WINTER’S TALE–are more lasting. They attempt to offer a reading of something of the human condition, a supra-temporal, universal gesture.

    LOVE JONES is 1997 through and through. We ought to remember that and cherish the memory. Looking back at it years later will almost always make one seem like it was overrated–the world has changed and so, too, has the viewer.

    (With that said, the Ali piece IS all over the place.)

    • I’m with O and Invisiman. I can remember watching Love Jones my freshman year of college with a room full of guys and girls. I own less than 10 DVDs (I don’t really care for them) and one of them is Love Jones. I can say that yes, looking back a lot of it seems corny but that’s because I’m not a college freshman. Back then, I thought the lives lived by the people on screen were cool and sort of what I was aspiring to have. I wanted to kick it with my friends who knew about art and music and occasionally busted out in random drum and African dance numbers (LOL). That’s simplifying it, but I think you know what I mean. Now I sort of am that person I imagined living in that movie world and I know it’s not all it was cracked up to be in my mind. So yeah, it’s hard to look at it the same way. Plus we generally clown the whole neo-negro, boho, spoken-word set anyway and that mess is the lifeblood of Love Jones.

      Frankly, I’ll keep watching it for the good feelings it brings about where I was when I first saw it… and for Khalil to go off about those mothafuckin’ toasted oats.

  • O (continued)

    before Love Jones, things like spoken word weren’t even widely accepted…let alone “pop.”
    It just seems to me that forsakeing something because it’s not your cup of tea is close-minded. In my circles, people enjoy the movie and its dialogue greatly. Its cultural impact and its impact to the beginning of moving black films away gansta flicks is a secondary topic if mentioned at all.

  • Scipio Africanus

    Larenz Tate’s character did not have a shape-up in the film. That’s pretty significant, or something. I think.

    No but seriously. Love Jones could only have been romanticized by late Gen-Xers and the high-school/college age Hip-Hop generation (folks between 28 and maybe 40 or 42 now.) We were hungering for something that had an ethos unlike anything our parents had been involved in. So spoken word exploded from this film (even though that form of spoken word poetry had already been “around” for about 15 years at the time.) Any type of Neo-Soul with some pretty extended chords got much play. Our parents would have had zero interest in anything like that, and it’s old hat now, so the kids today don’t care.

    YEah, we overhyped it, but it was our thing. It was la cosa…nostra? Wait…

  • love jones is just a plain good movie to me. Granted some of the characters were kind of wack (Nina was kind of a flake, Darius was kind of a jerk, Bill Bellamy was…Bill Bellamy), but there was solid acting, gorgeous cinematography, an amazing soundtrack and a decent plot.

    Liking love jones doesn’t necessarily mean one views it as The One Thing That Will Help Us Rise As A People™. I like it because it’s a decent movie. Is it The Godfather or Killer of Sheep or Jules et Jim? No. Most movies aren’t. But that doesn’t take anything away from it either.

    Its one fatal flaw (besides Nina taking a momoflocking train from Chicago to New York, um, what?) was that everyone saw that and thought they could become a spoken word artist too.

    Including yours truly.

    Oh, the shame. The shame. Don’t look at me.

  • Looking at all the comments, I am starting to think that Love Jones is like our Reality Bites. Iconic at the time, but with a short shelf life. I suppose you can’t go back again…

    • that was actually the comparison i was taking pains to avoid making.

  • Seth in LA

    I saw the headline and thought, okay, there’s a movie I haven’t seen in a while that I could add to my NETFLIX cue. But then I read the article and there are just so many movies from this era and earlier that have not aged well for me. A few months ago, I had a conversation with a friend where he revealed that he had never seen GO. I loved that movie when it came out. But I rented it and watched it and was embarrassed that I had made such a big deal about it.

    So, I’ll pass on rushing to see this one again and take your word on it. However, the soundtrack still holds up quite well.

  • temi

    Love Jones was aspiration. It was what we thought we wanted to be when we grew up. It might not work as well standing alone, but it took the pulse of the times perfectly. We spent the next half decade doing spoken word, rediscovering jazz, listening to neo-soul etc.

    btw I see you throwing darts @ The miseducation of lauryn hill. Lets not even go there…lol

  • Although I feel some kind of way about my little brothers criticizing the period art of my own college years, I don’t disagree with anything substantive in the essay. I remember even then the movie not being great, but I remember even more how significant it was for people, especially in the south and less cosmopolitan places, to see this vision of artistic Black life.

    It sure did make getting people to the readings easier.

    But you lost me when you drew the comparison to Lauryn Hill’s Miseducation. I mean, what, it’s hot in the streets now to bash Lauryn? Like Lauryn didn’t single-handedly hold it down against hordes of g-string divas like Foxy and Kim to maintain some semblance of respectable Black womanhood? These were not battles we took lightly back then..

    Anyway, Miseducation is a classic on par with Gaye’s What’s Going On. Everything else, yeah, you right. Love Jones was a fluffy bit of tripe with little resemblance to actual love as practiced by humans of any ethnic group.

    • do y’all not see how problematic these kind of defenses are?

      Like Lauryn didn’t single-handedly hold it down against hordes of g-string divas like Foxy and Kim to maintain some semblance of respectable Black womanhood?

      Or how much they basically reiterate the idea that she’s dope because she’s not _____, and not because she’s dope?

      • blackink

        I get where G.D. and ‘nem are coming from in their critique of “Miseducation.” I don’t agree with it. But I understand where it comes from.

        I felt it was a clasic album in its own right. But trying to bolster the case for the album by comparing it to lesser albums of the time probably doesn’t do it much justice.

        So I’ll say it: “Miseducation” is dope because, well, it was dope.

        But you know who’s gotten a “neo-negro” pass for a decade running now? Tali … nah. I ain’t going there.

      • On aesthetic terms, I understand how problematic the defenses are. But, as a political gesture, perhaps Lauryn Hill WAS dope because she commercially marketed and sold. There can be a “dopeness” in the act, without it being in the art. It’s like what Jill Scott said in “Ya Got Me” (Live in Philadelphia): “Ain’t funny, I got on all my clothes and I can still sing…”

        (I recognize that people are making the “Miseducation” is great music. But its greatness, again, might be more of the socio-political intervention it made.)

        • (I recognize that people are making the “Miseducation” is great music. But its greatness, again, might be more of the socio-political intervention it made.)

          but on the latter point, isn’t the ‘socio-political intervention’ it made pretty debatable?

          • Yes, certainly that is worthy of debate.

    • Scipio Africanus

      I’m something of a Lauryn Stan, but Miseducation was not our What’s Going On. It certainly wanted and tried to be, but it wasn’t. One of the top tier pop-R&B sort of Hip-Hopishly Neo-Soul records of the last 15 years, though.

  • Fiqah’s Mediocre Movie Litmus Test: if the soundtrack for the film is released before the film and/or is hyped in equal measure, it’s probably not that great.

  • G.D.,

    I appreciate you tagging an excerpt of my essay on Love Jones. It’s unfortunate, however, that you summarized my essay with an excerpt. Is that fair? I’m cool if you disagree but let’s have a conversation as I’m very capable of articulating my thoughts. Add to that, I’m no sure what your end is in writing about Love Jones. Was it that you simply thought it was overrated? If it is, then you missed the point of my essay. I was attempting at culture criticism. Perhaps, you should have read that second half of my essay.

    If you’re open to having a real conversation about what I wrote and what my position is on black cinema and why I wrote what I wrote I’m game. We

    abdul ali

    • Would you have rather me excerpted your entire piece? (I’m not sure you get how blogging works.)

      Just because you were attempting cultural criticism doesn’t mean you pulled it off. There are some inexcusable errors (you misspelled the name of the movie’s star throughout the entire essay) , some vague, empty platitudes (“it embraced a notion of black love that was timeless“) and a basic lack of focus. Your argument is that love jones captured the zeitgeist of the late 90’s, that it was an “artsy” black film that aged well. My point is that it hasn’t actually aged all that well and that it’s a fairly conventional movie romance situated in an “artsy” milieu.

      But okay. How did I misrepresent your essay?

  • Anyone who names their pub, Postbourgie, obviously has a chip on their shoulder so this may be a waste as you’ve already made up your mind about me with an undeserved dose of hostility. And for what, a movie? I hope this can be a rare opportunity to have a serious conversation about our culture from dissenting viewpoints.

    Say what you will about Love Jones but—from my view—there hasn’t been a black film to engage a hackneyed subject as love tends to be, in a fresh way bringing in the late 90s. And, I agree with you, there should be a distinction between the period that we so loved and the art itself. But this leads to one of my points. When there hasn’t been enough harvesting or actual productions to capture our cultural moments, it’s easily to get nostalgic about the late 90s when you see Love Jones. And those feelings could become conflated. But, still there was a sharp eye in the cinematography. Look at how those photos did so much without dialogue at the beginning? And not, all of the dialogue was corny.

    I’m curious to know what films you’d point to that engage the subject of love in a black context that you would have written (or criticized)in lieu of Love Jones?

    The opinion marketplace is large enough for us both to disagree on a film and remain civil, no?

    You misrepresented my essay because I never came-off as a critic or an authority. I simply spoke as someone who believed this film appropriately should be in our conversation on Valentine’s Day and beyond, for that matter. This was a rare occasion where I –and so many others–saw myself in this film. And, I know that I’m not alone. I’ve gotten dozens of emails from across the country about this article.

    For a publication that asks for articles under 800 words, my essay actually does has a center and a focus. If you read my essay, it opens with the general impressions I had of the film and moves toward criticism from an actual cultural critic and a poet from Chicago who shared with me how important the film was to them. Then, I frame/contextualize the film, situating the film in a larger context asking why this film stands practically unrivaled (in recent memory) as there is a great line of great black films about complicated portraits of Love (think Claudine, Antwone Fisher, Jason’s Lyric, etc). Why aren’t we supporting indie films better—as that’s where higher caliber films will likely come from—whether you like Love Jones or so-called “artsy” films or not. Hollywood, as you probably already knows just wants to put the most provocative images on the screen to see what out-grosses the other. Most of the black films out of Hollywood are formulaic. We don’t see that happening in Loves Jones.

    Finally, why should I have to apologize for enjoying nuanced film, film that speaks to my experience? I noticed the crack you made about “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!)”

    Actually, I agree with you that a film shouldn’t get a stamp of approval just because it makes all the right noises. But, I like the film because it’s good and speaks to my aesthetic and it relatively makes for a stronger case for what contemporary black cinema ought to look like. I don’t like the film because it promotes black bourgeois images.

    Thanks for reading my essay closely. I’ll admit cranking a piece out in a few hours with a small child and stuff to do is not a good idea. I’ll do better next time. But, you might also take your own advice, “the couple then kisses in the rain”? What is that a lisp in your digits?

    I respect your insight and hope that we can put aside the snarkiness and join forces to do some of the heavy lifting.

    Abdul Ali

    • LOL. You know, I’m actually gonna let this comment stand, and let all the corny little digs and plea-copping speak for themselves.

  • Lunnty

    Yes, “love jones” has its faults and pretentiousness , but all these years later, I still enjoy watching “love jones” every once in a while…it does bring back great memories and there has not been any other film quite like it. The soundtrack, the atmosphere, the cinematography, and the dialogue all give the movie “flava”. I’ve never been a big Nia Long fan, but this film made her look absolutely gorgeous. The only false note to me was the Bill Belamy character…he seemed out of place in the film. As his character’s name implied, he seemed too “Hollywood” as compared to the rest of the cast. But I still really enjoy “love jones”. It was fun to see a film with a strong Black “artsy” aesthetic. The only other African American-themed films I’ve seen that created such a strong atmosphere and sense of place was “Eve’s Bayou” and “Daughters of the Dust” .
    I enjoy watching “Hav Plenty” every once in awhile too. People say the acting is terrible, but for me that’s what makes it unique…no one in the film seems like they’re actually acting. The film comes across as if someone stuck a camera in a Black “bougie” household on New Year’s Eve and let the craziness commence. Its rawness is what appeals to me….no one is overacting or trying to win an Oscar. They stumble over their words and sometimes sound wooden and deadpan just like people actually sound in real life conversations. That probably turned off a lot of folks, but that’s what made it appealing to me. And like one commentator said, the sistas in the film were foinnne!!!
    Believe me, I’m not a film snob….I’ve enjoyed everything from “Booty Call” to some Tyler Perry films. But so much of Black filmmaking recently seems so lazy and slapstick when compared to some of the offerings we had in the past such as “love jones”….