Where would I be if these films had not come along from the time I was 20 until I was 25…?
Love Jones (1997)
When I was about 20, Love Jones took America by storm. Nia Long and Larenz Tate were the unofficial, classy Negro Princess and Prince many of us had grown up watching. However, their collaboration on this film was something else. She is an old-school 30mm camera photographer and he is a writer: of journalism, spoken word poetry and the novel he just can not seem to get right. The story was not about being Black, being a man, or being a woman, or even being in love.
Love Jones is a movie about being an artist, about being a natural creative organism who is compelled to deliver fantasy and altered perspectives to a frustrated world, and how the disappointments and shocks and lifelong insecurity of that choice seeps out into every area of your life until you surrender to that choice. Next, as far as modern romances go, Love Jones is in a class all by itself. By its finale, with two beautiful stars kissing in the rain, any jaded filmgoer can fall in love with Hollywood all over again.
Much of the film was shot in the Hyde Park neighborhood where I went to school at University of Chicago; buying a record at Dr. Wax on 53rd Street was never the same after I saw Darius Lovehall chase Nina Mosley through it. Real-life poets Reginald Gibson and Sonia Sanchez wrote the poetry its stars performed in Love Jones, shot in real spoken word poetry venue and Black bohemian spots throughout Chicago–adding to the near-haunting authenticity which keeps this film a constant favorite today.
Starring real-life poets Sonja Sohn and Saul Williams, Slam! is the story of a Black female activist and her brief but passionate love affair with her former imprisoned student who has a gift for poetry. Considered a grittier, if not “hood,” version of Love Jones, it is possible the film never took off as popularly because the two leads really are writers most known for helming the spoken word/performance poetry revivals. They actually perform in the film, as their characters meet in prison but bond most strongly on the D.C. poetry scene.
Playing Ray Joshua and Lauren Bell, Williams and Sohn display fiery chemistry onscreen as Lauren plays the Black Everywoman role: she is a teacher in the detention center where Ray goes after a drug deal gone bad, and she is not about to let him dismiss his linguistic talents even as he faces several years in prison. When he is released on bail, he really should be working on his case and defense…but hey, there is always time to pull out the notebook in order to write a poem. The film’s most touching moments occur outside of the prison where they meet, and on the streets of D.C. where their first date is a street festival. Later they share the stage with other well-known poets in real-life at a coffee house event truly authentic to the craft of spoken word. These are grown and sexy people, flawed but optimistic and hopeful. Slam! is a perfect display of Black writers who do not wish to write or want to write, but absolutely need to write.
The Best Man shows the background and behind-the-scenes genesis of all those wildly popular Black romance novels and movies sprung forth from Waiting to Exhale’s mid-1990’s success. In them, dramatic Black folks are educated and rocking-and-rolling and fancy and bling-bling and all-that-and-a-bag-of chips and falling all over themselves in love or war. Basically, the same melodrama Alice Walker and Toni Morrison write about- only now it gets its hair done every week, makes six figures, belongs to a fraternity or sorority and drives a Benz. In this one, Harper Stewart (Taye Diggs) is a writer living in Chicago. He is celebrating his book’s selection for Oprah’s Book Club. But first things first: he and his beautiful girlfriend (Sanaa Lathan) have to travel to D.C. for his best friend’s wedding. He is the best man. And his best friend just happens to be the pro-football player Lance Sullivan (Morris Chestnut), whose fiancé Stewart once slept with. Oh! The best-selling book is pretty much all about this secret.
The hijinks go on from there. Beyond the utterly beautiful fantasy wedding filmmaker Malcolm D. Lee creates and the genius comedic timing of all the players, the all-Black cast is a who’s who of Hollywood: Taye Diggs, Sanaa Lathan, Nia Long, Morris Chestnut, Terrance Howard, Monica Calhoun and more. Of course, the movie confronts that question any writer must face from all he or she knows: “Is the book about me?” And, it tackles the mental breakdowns, broken relationships and flared tempers which can come when and if the answer to that question is “Yes.” Most writers will say the premier of any book, based on fact or fiction, is a stressful event where words on a page become real life in the world now–and you can not turn back.
Even if the story is wholly made up its details will bear some resemblance to places and moments and experiences the writer knows in life as well as situations anyone who knows the writer may have experienced, hence that “the persons, situations, blah blah blah in this book are fictional and any resemblance is coincidental” disclaimer. This movie was so brilliant at capturing what that means for not only the writer, but the people who love him or her, that its 2013 sequel was even more commercially successful than its original.
Finding Forrester (2000)
If you can look past the obvious “privileged White soul saved by humble and Christ-figured Black Negro” thematic, Finding Forrester is actually a brilliant movie about the non-glamorous craft of writing. Despite having a mostly-white cast, a friend pointed out to me that not even this film was included on Flavorwire’s recent list of the 50 Best Films About Writers. And that is a shame, because the movie features a balanced and even portrait of a young writer emerging in youth and an elderly writer honing the craft unto death. And, any movie about a black boy named Jamal is one I want to see.
Sean Connery plays a reclusive misanthrope struggling to write his final great novel from his Bronx apartment. The author, William Forrester, randomly meets Jamal Wallace, who is gifted in basketball but involved with the wrong crowd. Under peer pressure to taunt Forrester, Jamal sneaks into his home and is snatched into a bond with the older man. Forrester’s own frustration with writing and regrets from his life force him to push Jamal into not only writing but emotionally affirming him. From private school acceptance to a writing contest to a heart-wrenching ending, Finding Forrester always makes me want to go give some kids a notebook and a pencil. And, like Forrester did to start the bond with Jamal, that is exactly what I do when I am teaching and they act up. That simple.
Here, Taye Diggs and Sanaa Lathan reunite as lovers the way everyone wishes Nia Long and Larenze Tate would break down to do. This time, she is the one in the couple who is the writer–and he is the one who must cope with the chronic neurosis and overwhelmed work life and constant deadline and “I’m crazy!” of that. Sidney is the new editor-in-chief of hip-hop magazine XXL, and Dre is her best friend…supposedly. But then Dre is about to marry a tough-as-nails entertainment lawyer, and Sidney can marry her longtime boyfriend who wants to take their relationship to the next step. Real-life married couple Nicole Ari Parker and Boris Kodjoe play these two foils who force Sidney and Dre to re-examine intentions to each other.
We see Sidney at work where, as any journalist will tell you, the words on the page seem to be the last things she has to worry about. She is chasing freelance writers for story revisions, dealing with cantankerous and fussy celebrities, and trying to sell her chosen content to not only her bosses but the public. And, she is also trying to have a real life. Any writer can tell you the role is not a 9 to 5, or even an 8 to 6, or even a Monday through Friday, or even a work-from-home, or even an every other weekend off. It is all day, every day, on your mind even when you are not paying it any mind. And for this reason, Sidney operates as the Black woman’s Carrie Bradshaw: trying to meet that deadline, but get it out of her mind just long enough to fall in love and maybe even enjoy some lovemaking, with her boyfriend or her best friend or anybody. If only she can close the laptop.