The young black Chicagoans in Theodore Witcher's love jones are busy finding themselves--in writing or photography, on the winding paths of friendship, in the mysteries of life and career that loom ahead. Most of all, they're trying to figure out the real deal on romantic love, but the ambiguities of adult life keep getting in the way. Sometimes the hip seekers we meet here don't seem to know the difference between playing or posing and saying exactly what they mean. But we come to care as much about their tussle with bewilderment as they do.
In other words, here's a witty, thoughtful black movie that has nothing to do with guns, gangs or bank jobs--one of a handful that may signal a new direction for African-American filmmakers like first-timer Witcher as well as some long-overdue insight in the people who finance their work. Let's hope so. New Jack is old hat, and there are plenty of fresh stories like this one to be told.
Witcher (who happens to be the older brother of Westword staff writer T.R. Witcher) is a native Chicagoan who clearly understands the rhythms and tensions of the big city, and he's the first filmmaker to take a look at black bohemian culture. Inside Witcher's moody, South Side cafe/club, the Sanctuary, intense, well-educated twentysomethings prove just as interested in Gordon Parks's compositional techniques or George Bernard Shaw's aphorisms on Art (with a capital A) as in each other's bodies or in grabbing a beer. They embrace everything that moves them--add in jazz icon John Coltrane and nakedly erotic poetry, just for a start--with the kind of sweet, self-absorbed air that fueled the Beats in the 1950s and that perhaps fuels young hopefuls in any era.
The tyro novelist Darius (Menace II Society's Larenz Tate) and the budding photographer Nina (Friday's Nia Long) at the heart of Witcher's love story may be the rightful descendants of the Harlem Renaissance and the turbulent Chicago of Richard Wright and Native Son. But they've also ingested enough BET and MTV, liberal-arts curriculum and liberation rhetoric--enough middle-class comfort, too--to stand apart from their antecedents.
For one thing, they're more fascinated with sex than politics, and that's entangled with their urge to create art. When Darius finds himself attracted to the lovely Nina, he takes the stage at the Sanctuary and tries to woo her with X-rated verse spiked with images like "metaphoric jism"; when Nina wants to return the favor, she literally undresses Darius with her Nikon. When the romantic plot starts to thicken, though, neither of them will admit to deep, dangerous feeling. They're just kickin' it, they protest; it "ain't no love thing."
Well, guess what. Writer-director Witcher may be steadfastly anti-Hollywood (at least he says he is), but the old-fashioned romantic inside him keeps working to the surface. In this unabashed update on boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl and (you know the rest), Darius and Nina stroll hand in hand in the glow of Chicago's glorious Buckingham Fountain. There's a train-station parting that the makers of Casablanca might envy and a reunion in the rain worthy of George Cukor. In between, the young lovers split up, brood, experiment with others and--here's that struggling-artist thing again--work their way through the pain. By film's end (a year has passed), Darius has the first edition of his novel in hand and Nina's shooting a glamorous photo layout for a slick magazine. Talk about major career moves.
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If the success fantasy of love jones feels a little contrived, vivid characters, rich atmosphere and buoyant wit carry the day. The soundtrack is also a masterpiece of diversity, combining everything from vintage Charlie Parker bebop to Al Green to Cassandra Wilson to the Mackadelics--all in the service of character and narrative advance. The "Sanctuary House Band" is led by jazz saxophone phenom Teodross Avery, and the group's rendition of the sultry "My Generation" serves very nicely as the anthem that links Avery to Witcher and both of them to their fictional peers--Darius, Nina and others.
Happily, the actors get to stretch. The lunatic gunslingers Tate played in his 'hood movies now give way to a character with more depth and shading, and Long, who got her big boost with Boyz 'N the Hood, has a few new hooks to hang on, too. Her Nina's hurting because she's just been jilted by her domineering ex-fiance (Khalil Kain), and when she quits her job as a photo-studio assistant, she's at even looser ends. Nina's wisecracking friend Josie (Lisa Nicole Carson) has problems of her own; so does Darius's surrogate big brother, Savon (Isaiah Washington), whose wife leaves him mid-plot. Savon, in fact, best states the quandary facing them all. "Fallin' in love ain't shit," he laments. "Somebody tell me, please, how to stay there."
That's a problem, of course, that faces every generation and every ethnic group. But until now, young black love (and, for that matter, young black ambition) hasn't often been explored on the screen. That love jones does it with so much intelligence, humor and feeling bodes well for the future of a gifted new filmmaker and for the flowering of black moviemaking in general. It's been trapped on Mean Street too long, and you can feel change in the air.
Written and directed by Theodore Witcher. With Larenz Tate, Nia Long, Isaiah Washington and Lisa Nicole Carson.