Theodore Witcher’s hip, sweet, and deep meditation on black American life in the arts began as an underground drama before gaining traction as a dynamic artifact of the intersection between 90s hip-hop culture and poetic literature. Back then you could call it 1997 love jones the little-movie-that-could; a curious little drama that won over many critics with its subtle charms and understated performances. Today, it stands as a cornerstone of black storytelling in cinema, an effort that helped transition its lead role, Larenz Tate, an actor who rose to prominence in the macabre violence of 1994. Society Threat IIinto a leader in romantic dramas.
Imbued with a sense of detached freshness, but also a warm atmosphere of starry-eyed wonder, love jones reads like a spiritual cousin of another Criterion title, ‘Around midnight (1986). Like this film, which was French filmmaker Bernard Tavernier’s love letter to jazz, love jones is The Witcher’s moody, poetic anthem to hip-hop. Saturated in the thick and smoky tunes of blues and jazz, love jones tells the story of slam poet and future novelist Darius (Tate), who takes to the stage at night in the local poetry haunt to flaunt his talents while laboriously working on his novel by day.
One evening, at the poetry cafe, he meets a young woman named Nina (Nia Long), with whom he is immediately in love. Wasting no time, Darius strives to impress her. first with his poetry, then with his amorous advances. Nina, a career-minded photographer making serious strides in the industry, is reluctant to move her relationship with Darius beyond the bounds of friendship. But the persistent Darius is certain of a future with Nina. Through a series of blunders, misunderstandings, and heartfelt loving interactions, their friendship transcends to a level beyond what either could have hoped for.
Witcher has stated that its intention with love jones was to create a noir narrative that did not involve drugs or violence; the tropes he felt had become reductive, futile and harmful in black cinema of the 80s and 90s. love jones succeeds in its attempts to redefine these stereotypes by first emphasizing positive developments in culture – namely hip-hop and its corresponding literature.
Second, it seeks to tap into influences outside of the American perspective to make, rather ironically and poignantly, a very American film. In many ways, the Witcher film owes much to the French new wave dramas of Claude Sautet; love jonesThe gentle observations of romance and how it unfolds precariously under the daily pressures of life are more akin to Sautet’s provincial dramas than anything about Witcher’s American contemporaries.
As actors, Tate and Long precipitate a natural harmony of friendship, building their characters with nuanced movements and suggestive inflections that steadily propel the narrative from sequence to sequence. Tate’s genial charms are generously offset by the deeper, sometimes darker passions that stir beneath her character’s calm demeanor; his complexes intrigue Nina de Long, but they also disturb her. Through the many dialogues, delivered by turns affable and rambunctious, we learn that Nina is well-meaning but suspicious of the men in her life. Devotion and desire turn into a storm when Nina’s longtime boyfriend Marvin (Khalil Kain) returns to the forefront, setting everyone’s insecurities on fire.
A lot of love jones focuses on the ideas we have about human emotions and the kinds of languages we use to communicate those emotions. The film seeks to outline the alliance between writing and speech and their respective consequences. Particularly satisfying are the poetic sequences in which the verses (some of which were penned by the poetess Sonia Sanchez) are delivered in passionate, moody slips; Erotically edgy and loaded with humor and compassion, the poems provide a kind of commentary that ties many scenes together in an intuitive way about how the narrative will eventually unfold.
Being a drama that relies primarily on dialogue, love jones runs the risk of slowing down. Crushing out dialogue and then saturating a story with it is a common mistake many screenwriters and filmmakers make when trying to create meaningful characters. The heavy dialogue might not have worked here if it didn’t reveal anything about the characters in the story. But much of the film’s plot is accelerated by the exchanges between the cast members, whether it’s between Darius and Nina or their respective band of friends. Motivations, desires, anxieties and hopes are uncovered by confessing truths, by the very things these characters try to hide in their attempts to persuade each other and ultimately win each other’s love. . It certainly doesn’t hurt that Witcher has assembled an enjoyable cast for viewers; a handsome group of players who talk as hip as they dress, and strut, sulk and flirt elegantly across the landscape.
Criterion’s release of love jones gives the film a brilliant shine. Not that there was much need for restoration, given that it is a newer title compared to the many other titles in their selection. Criterion Remastered Renders love jones with a clean, crisp color palette that sometimes shines beautifully with midnight blues and hazy burgundy in nightclub scenes. Daytime scenes present Chicago (the city where the film was filmed and set) in bright, open light, revealing a bustling environment of workers and dreamers rushing in and out of the outskirts of these characters’ lives.
Sound, while minimal, is important for a film like this. Indeed, it is a talkative film, but there are moments that are accentuated by the sounds of hip-hop, jazz and R&B; about a cast of characters in whom this music is the soundtrack to their professional and personal lives. The sound is crisp and clear.
There are a host of extras, including an audio commentary from the Witcher director, as well as a few interviews with the director and actors and music specialists Mark Anthony Neal and Shana L. Redmond. Rounding out the package is an essay booklet written by Danielle Amir Jackson. Optional English subtitles are also available.
love jones was not a box office success when it was released in 1997. Its rather intimate and quiet story of 20 years living and working in the big city was lost among the glut of action thrillers and the dismal revival of slasher for teenagers. But its simple, polished, dramatic narrative has remained one of the most trusted and esteemed love stories embedded in hip-hop culture for the past 25 years. To date, it remains the Witcher’s only directorial effort.