Theodore Witcher’s hip, smooth, and probing meditation of American Black life in the arts began as an underground drama before gaining traction as a dynamic artefact of the intersection between ‘90s hip-hop culture and poetic literature. At the time, you could call 1997’s Love Jones the little-film-that-could; a small, curious drama that won many critics over with its subtle charms and understated performances. Today, it stands as a cornerstone of Black narrative in cinema, an effort that helped to transition its lead, Larenz Tate, an actor who gained prominence in 1994’s grisly violent Menace II Society, into a leading man of romantic dramas.
Imbued with a sense of detached cool, but also a warm atmosphere of starry-eyed wonder, Love Jones reads like a spiritual cousin of another Criterion title, ‘Round Midnight (1986). Like that film, which was French filmmaker Bernard Tavernier’s love letter to jazz, Love Jones is Witcher’s poetic and moody paean to hip-hop. Saturated in the thick and smoky airs of blues and jazz, Love Jones tells the story of slam poet and would-be novelist Darius (Tate), who takes the stage at night at the local poetry haunt to flaunt his talents while laboriously working on his novel by day.
One night at the poetry café, he meets a young woman named Nina (Nia Long), with whom he is immediately smitten. Wasting no time, Darius works to impress her; first with his poetry, and then with his amorous advances. Nina, a career-minded photographer who is making serious strides in the industry, is reluctant to move her relationship with Darius beyond the boundaries of friendship. But the persistent Darius is certain of a future with Nina. Through a series of blunders, misunderstandings, and sincere interactions of love, their friendship transcends to a level beyond what either could have hoped for.
Witcher has stated that his intention with Love Jones was to create a Black narrative that did not involve drugs or violence; tropes he felt had become reductive, futile, and harmful in Black cinema throughout the ‘80s and the ‘90s. Love Jones succeeds in his attempts to redefine those stereotypes by first bringing focus to the positive developments of the culture – namely hip-hop and its responding literature.
Secondly, he looks to influences outside of the American perspective to draw from in order to make, rather ironically and poignantly, a very American film. In many ways, Witcher’s film owes much to the French new wave dramas of Claude Sautet; Love Jones’ gentle observations on romance, and the way they unfold precariously under life’s daily pressures, fall more in line with Sautet’s provincial dramas than they do with anything from 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 one sequence to the next. Tate’s genial charms are handsomely offset by the deeper, sometimes darker, passions that roil beneath his character’s calm demeanor; his hang-ups intrigue Long’s Nina, but they disturb her as well. Through the many stretches of dialogue, delivered at turns affably and turbulently, we learn that Nina is well-meaning but mistrustful of the men in her life. Devotion and desire brew into a storm when Nina’s long-time, on-and-off-again boyfriend Marvin (Khalil Kain) comes back into the picture, setting everyone’s insecurities ablaze.
Much of Love Jones centers on the ideas we have about human emotions and the types of languages we use to communicate those emotions. The film seeks to outline the alliance between the written word and speech and their respective consequences. Particularly satisfying are the poetry sequences in which verses (some of which were written by poet Sonia Sanchez) are delivered in passionate and moody slips; erotically-tipped and charged with humor and compassion, the poems supply a sort of commentary that bridges many of the scenes together in ways that are intuitive of how the narrative will eventually unfold.
Being a drama that depends mainly on dialogue, Love Jones runs the risk of its pace dragging. Overwriting dialogue and then saturating a story with it is often a mistake many screenwriters and filmmakers make when trying to create meaningful characters. The heavy dialogue might not have worked here if it revealed nothing of the story’s characters. But much of the film’s plot is accelerated by the exchanges between the members of the cast, whether it’s between Darius and Nina or their respective group of friends. Motivations, desires, anxieties and hopes are uncovered by the admissions of truths, by the very things these characters try to hide in their attempts to persuade one another and eventually gain the other’s love. It certainly doesn’t hurt that Witcher has assembled a cast that is easy on the viewers’ eyes; a handsome lot of players who speak as hip as they dress, and strut, sulk, and flirt around the scenery with elegance.
Criterion’s release of Love Jones restores the film to a lustrous sheen. Not that there was much needed in the way of restoration, given that this is a more recent title compared to the many other titles in their selection. Criterion’s remaster renders Love Jones with a clean and clear color scheme that at times glows wondrously with midnight blues and misty burgundies in the nightclub scenes. Scenes during the day present Chicago (the city where the movie was filmed and takes place) in bright, open light, revealing a bustling environment of workers and dreamers rushing in and out of the peripheries of these characters’ lives.
Sound, though minimal, is important for a film like this. Indeed, it is a talky film, but there are moments that are accented with the sounds of hip-hop, jazz and R&B; apropos for a cast of characters in which such music is the soundtrack of their working and personal lives. The audio is crisp and clear.
There are a host of supplements, including an audio commentary by director Witcher, as well as a few interview features with the director and cast and music scholars 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 wasn’t a box office hit when it was released back in 1997. Its rather intimate and quiet story of 20-somethings living and working in the big city was lost among the glut of action-thrillers and the dismal revival of the teen slasher. But its dramatic narrative, simple and refined, has endured as one of the most dependable and esteemed love stories entrenched in the hip-hop culture of the past 25 years. To date, it remains Witcher’s lone directorial effort.