'Love Jones' 15 years later: How it became a black cult classic

OPINION - To watch 'Love Jones' now is to get a heavy dose of the 90s -- poetry slams, mid-drift tops, and a charming time before Facebook drama and text message hook-ups...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

What happens after you fall in love? Is it a guaranteed happy ending? Can love conquer all, despite the personal hang-ups, fears, and dramas that comprise the nature of human relationships? This is the question posed by Love Jones, a film that began as a small indie effort and remains a cult classic 15 years later.

When Love Jones was first released in 1997, writer and director Theodore Witcher sought to portray another side of black culture. The 1990s were weighted down by heavy film story lines of violent gang activity and drug use. Love Jones had none of the above, just a group of intelligent black people trying to understand love and relationships. This resounded with black audiences when, for the first time in a long time, viewers got to see black love onscreen.

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The film tells the story of Darius Lovehall (Larenz Tate) and Nina Mosely (Nia Long), two young twenty-somethings who were going through what we’d now call a quarter-life crisis when they meet at a nightclub, and are instantly attracted to one another. Darius, skillfully portrayed by Larenz Tate, instantly woos Nina with what has now become the film’s most classic line “Say baby, can I be your slave?/I have to admit girl/ you’re the sh*t girl/and I’m digging you like a grave.”

From there, the two characters are magnetically drawn into a physical relationship, however, it’s complicated by their emotional relationship — is this love? Am I ready for a relationship? Audiences are pulled into a very realistic plot of two lovers trying to find common ground, fighting past their own self-interest and fears, societal norms, and really bad advice from friends.

To watch Love Jones now is to get a heavy dose of the 90s — poetry slams, mid-drift tops, and a charming time before Facebook drama and text message hook-ups. The film captures the Black Renaissance revival, exuding a very bohemian, neo-intellectual world where finger snaps and theoretical debates are the norm. The soundtrack featuring the very best of neo-soul and R&B can arguably be classified as one of the best albums of the 90s.

But the themes in Love Jones are universal and timeless. In Darius and Nina, black audiences find something we long for; black love onscreen, explored and explained. The film maintains its cult status because it deals with this eternal issue of the heart, deftly recreating the complexities of love and relationships, the overwhelmingly addictive feeling of falling in love, the responsibilities of being in love, and the heartbreak of feeling like the love was lost.

In Love Jones we see ourselves reflected back, and it’s a comforting notion that the struggles we experience are normal, yet love conquers all. Black people love the film because it is a story everyone has lived, time and again, relationship over relationship, hoping to find ways to get to the ending we imagine Darius and Nina had.

Despite their skilled performances, it is perhaps a testament of white-washed Hollywood that most of those involved with this movie don’t have careers to speak of today. The closest you’ll get is Nia Long, who gave her character Nina depth and dimension to the extent that even when Nina did wrong, you still rooted for the character. Long’s role in the film helped cement her status as a highly sought after beauty icon in the black community.

However, Larenz Tate has largely been under the Hollywood radar, though he did have a role on FX’s Rescue Me for a few years. Co-star Bill Bellamy, who was forever typecast as the bad-advice-giving playboy, had a very promising career in the late 1990s/early 00s, but that’s since tapered out in b-movies. The most successful Love Jones alum may have been Isaiah Washington — until he botched his job on Grey’s Anatomy with a highly publicized homophobic tirade.

Writer-director Theodore Witcher would go on to do one more movie, Body Count. Since then, he’s virtually disappeared from the film world. Certainly an unhappy ending for black audiences — with a movie as well done as Love Jones, who knows how many other stories Witcher had to tell.

Follow Kia Miakka Natisse on Twitter at @miakka_natisse