love jones: Showcasing Black Love

While the early 1990s offered iconic hood films such as Boyz n the Hood (1991) and Menace II Society (1993), love jones (1997) offered something rarely seen in mainstream film—black love. The film is not a comedy. Not infused with hip hop. Love is examined, revered, and resented—but it is not minimalized. Furthermore, it offers unapologetic black sexuality shown with beauty and whit.

love jones movie poster

Roger Ebert’s opening to his film review highlights the unfortunate rarity of a film showcasing educated, middle class blacks. He explains, the film is “a love story set in the world of Chicago’s middle-class black artists and professionals–which is to say, it shows a world more unfamiliar to moviegoers than the far side of the moon.”[i] Although American television watchers received a glimpse of the black middle class with The Cosby Show (1984-1992), it was a comedy.

Furthermore, Cosby could offer the loving image of the Huxtable marriage, but the limits of the medium of television and family sitcom model prevent it from exploring black sexuality. There are limits to a love story that cannot show sex. Sex is a natural part of love. The film offers tasteful love scenes. It presents images of black sexuality that not only appear normal—but beautiful.

still from love jones

While most hood films centered on stark realism and nihilism, love jones offered symbolism and romance. Writer and director Theodore Witcher did this purposefully. He wanted to give the feel of “a modern Chicago version of the Harlem Renaissance.”[ii] He even distributed books about Renaissance artists such as Romare Bearden to the cast and crew.[iii]

It’s not difficult to see the influence of romanticized visions of 1920s salons with writers and artists debating esoteric topics. But how else do you create a platform to simply discuss love? Throughout the film, characters talk about the meaning of love. It is how we are introduced to Tate’s character Darius as he sits around with his friends in the Sanctuary (a spoken word venue) debating the meaning of love; Darius paints a metaphor of hope and possibility. Soon after he offers a sensual version of love in the spoken word piece “A Blues for Nina.” We also watch Darius and his only married friend Savon discuss the struggle to stay in love.

Ironically both Nia Long and Larenz Tate had major roles in the two iconic hood films mentioned earlier. Nia Long played Brandi, the love interest of the main character in Boyz n the Hood. Moreover, Tate played the infamous killer O-Dog in Menace II Society. Tate’s performance was so convincing that Witcher had to meet Tate in person to see the difference between the gangsta character and the actor.

And love jones continues to have an impact. Tate explains, “‘I get stopped at the airport by young folks telling me how much they love the movie and the actors and the music…It’s a one-of-a-kind film. And it’s still relevant. It’s about falling in love, and we’ve all done that…It’s not about people getting killed, just about people. Love is a universal story, Black or White.”[iv]  Ebony Gibson

[i] Ebert, Roger. “Love Jones.” March 14 1997.

[ii] Ebert

[iii] Poulson-Bryant, Scott. “Jonesing for Love Jones.” Ebony (October 2010): 100.

[iv] Poulson-Bryant, page 99.

BBD: Reinvention Showcases New Jack Swing and Brings Unexpected Success

Bell Biv Devoe (BBD) wasn’t expected to be successful. As members of New Edition, Ricky Bell, Michael Bivens, and Ronnie Devoe were there to round out a quartet. In 1990, they released the album Poison.  However, the trio was able to tap into the New Edition following that was largely around the age of 19 at that time. BBD’s success was largely due to capitalizing on this loyal following that enjoyed and embraced the raunchy sexuality that was a part of the audience’s lives—or at least their desires. BBD created hits such as “Poison” and “Do Me Baby” whose lyrics and videos are a part of the hip hop lexicon.

Poison album cover (1990)

New Edition is an ingrained part of black culture. They were the biggest boy band of the early 1980s. However, BBD became cultural icons in the 1990s. Some critics argue they even eclipsed New Edition’s success. The trio was no longer tied down to the suits and precision of the boy band quartet. They wore graffiti painted overalls, different color shoes, and tried new things just because they could. They had nothing to lose. They challenged the establishment. One example of this can be seen in the choice to defy the cultural standard of suits at 1991 American Music Awards. Nominated for four awards, BBD showed up in t-shirts and wore their jeans inside out. They walked away with two awards for Favorite Soul/R&B New Artists and Favorite Dance New Artist

BBD in painted coveralls

They were musically adventurous. Using Public Enemy producers Hank Shocklee, Keith Shocklee, and Eric “Vietnam” Sadler to produce much of their album created an edge to their sound. Spyda Man and Dr. Freeze were also instrumental (and their names are heard in the opening lyrics of “Poison.”) As the phrase goes, “Our music is hip hop smoothed out on an R&B tip with a Pop feel appeal to it.” While Teddy Riley had already coined the term “New Jack Swing” by 1987 in a Village Voice profile, it reached new levels of attention with Poison. Even 25 years after its release, the song (and album) are recognized for its impact. Music blogger Bandini pays homage in a February 2015 article: “…New Jack Swing’s wrecking ball made one of its biggest smashes with the release of Bell Biv DeVoe’s ‘Poison.’”[1]

In 1990, the Poison album was an unexpected success that eventually sold over 4 million copies. In 2012 radio interview, Michael Bivens explains that he is still able “to eat of that [album].” In other words, after more than 20 years, the album and its hits are still profitable in sells and the material is still popular enough for them to make a living touring.

The legacy of New Edition continues. BET is scheduled to release a biopic on the group in 2016. The three-part miniseries will be BET’s first scripted music-focused TV movie. TV producer Jesse Collins explains that “New Edition’s ‘music is woven into the fabric of our culture. When I brought the idea to BET years ago, I wanted to create a film that would tell the story of how New Edition emerged into one of the most important groups of its generation.’”[2]  —Ebony Gibson

[1] Bandini. “25 Years Ago Today, Bell Biv DeVoe Made A Poisonous, Everlasting Hit (Video).” Ambrosia for Heads. Feb. 24 2015

[2] Khatchatourian, Maane. “New Edition Biopic in Works as BET Miniseries.” Variety. Aug. 10 2015.