Theodore Witcher’s love jones,
released on March 14, 1997, was based on his own dating experiences living in Chicago. The film only grossed a little over $12 million at the box office but is on many top film lists (check here
, and here
). Many consider it a classic with no small thanks to its soundtrack, which included tracks by Maxwell
and Lauryn Hill
We emailed Theodore some questions and he graciously answered.
Larenz Tate as Darius Lovehall and Nia Long as Nina Mosley in “love jones”
I’ve done a lot of work. There’s ‘Dead Presidents,’ ‘Menace,’ ‘Crash,’ ‘Why Do Fools Fall In Love?’ No, hands down, ‘Love Jones’ is the one that gets a mention every day. Hands down, there’s no comparison. The audiences love that movie.
How does it make you feel to have your movie make such an impact?
A: Gratified, of course.
Roger Ebert and his wife Chaz Hammelsmith Ebert
“Love Jones” 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. It is also frankly romantic and erotic and smart. This is the first movie in a while where the guy quotes Mozart, and the girl tells him he’s really thinking of Shaw.
What is your take on the question that Ebert later asked in that review, “Why do the movies give us so many homeboys and gangstas and druggies and so few photographers, poets and teachers?”
A: The answer is likely that homeboys and gangstas and druggies generally make for potentially more dramatic storytelling. But that quote was from 1997; you see much more “normalized” presentations of black people in media now. There are TV shows like Blackish and a whole run of movies from the last several years that are essentially romantic comedies… as well as ratchet stuff, too. It’s still not nearly as diverse a range of offerings as I would like — there are whole categories of movies that are missing — but it’s better than it was.
I should add that Roger said some very nice things about love jones in public as well as in private; I was indebted to him to some degree for his part in legitimizing what was a first film, with all its attendant shortcomings and errors of execution. I was saddened by his passing.
‘love jones’ 15 years later: Writer/Director Theodore Witcher and Co-Star Lisa Nicole Carson, with Warrington Hudlin at New Voices in Black Cinema Festival screening
I intended to have a long list of credits, but I couldn’t get another movie. There has to be something that you want to do that a studio wants to pay for. I was never able to sync that up. I wanted to do ambitious films with more black people. You don’t get to do that.
With the recent success of directors like Ava DuVernay and Steve McQueen, do you think much has changed in Hollywood since the release of love jones?
A: Some things change, some things remain the same. I’m happy for Ava’s success as well as the improbably-named Steve McQueen. Yet I feel it is worth noting they are not both “black directors” in the way that I think your question implies. Mr. McQueen is a British art-film director whose first two movies starred the gifted though very not-black Michael Fassbender, and before that had a notable career as an actual artist; a guy like that comes with a completely different imprimatur than a black American filmmaker. I’m not saying this to be dismissive of his abilities or achievements or struggle. But the perception in Hollywood is different; here folks are enthralled by Brits as a rule of thumb. (Imagine, say, Spike Lee going around trying to get a movie about slavery made — I think you get my point.) I think her success could portend good things for female directors in general, and female directors of color specifically, but I don’t think his success will have any bearing on black American directors at all. He’s a bit of an outlier, I’m afraid.
The underlying systemic challenges still persist: 1) the international market, because most non-studio films are financed by foreign presales, which is connected to 2) the appalling lack of stars. And by “star” I mean an actor whose participation alone achieves or greatly assists in getting the movie financed, either at a studio or independently. The pool is still very small, embarrassingly small. At the elite level of global distribution, there remain the same two gentlemen — Will Smith and Denzel Washington — that we’ve had for twenty years. And no women. At the more modest level of domestic distribution, to where most “black” films are restricted, there are more names, but not a list you would call extensive by any stretch. This has become a negative feedback loop where 1. is because of 2. and 2. is because of 1., and it stubbornly resists being destroyed. We have all been trying, believe me. And 3) a barren black investment landscape. Far be it for me to tell rich people what to do with their money, and financing films is certainly risky. You have to have a gambler’s testicular fortitude. Or have a love for movies. Or want to see your name on the big screen. But in my experience, high net-worth individuals who want into the movie business are none of the above; in fact, there’s very little daylight between them and the traditional studio system in terms of taste or temperament. The secret to the movies, and this has held true for a hundred years, is this: despite all efforts, success resists quantification. If you make it all about P&Ls and ROI and spreadsheets and fucking widgets, you will lose. Ryan Kavanaugh thought he had a magical algorithm for hits, if you can believe that, and he’s now out of business. So it’d be nice to see some company or individual player appear with both business savvy and the tiniest sense of artistic adventure. Ultimately it’s about a gut feeling: I like this, maybe other people will, too. And then, of course, it’s to the filmmakers to step up with daring individual visions unshackled from the conventional wisdoms. That’s all I know.
Is Steve Stoute celebrating the fact that Black culture is great except for the Black people?
From Jazz to Rock & Roll to Hip-Hop, American popular culture has for a long time been derivative of African-American creative efforts. Do you think there is a connection between Ebert’s question about “so few photographers, poets and teachers” and why African-Americans haven’t benefited more from their creative efforts?
A: I haven’t seen The Tanning of America, so I can’t speak to that. But to your question, which African-Americans are we talking about? In the popular space, I think artists have figured out the “how do I get paid?” part pretty good. Willie Dixon would’ve traded bank accounts with Rihanna seven days a week and twice on Sunday. But the question shouldn’t be have African-American (artists) benefited, it should be, how good is the art? Where are we on the long trajectory of cultural expression? Doing better, doing okay, doing worse? Are we upholding the best traditions of the past (regardless of form)? Is a Beyoncé record really as good as a 60s Aretha record? Is an Usher record really as good as a Michael Jackson record? Does Kanye West stand next to Prince or Smokey Robinson or Jimi Hendrix or Muddy Waters or Nat ‘King’ Cole or… hey, anybody made something recently that can stand next to Songs in the Key of Life? Somebody written a play at the level of Raisin in the Sun? Fences? Is Ta-Nehisi Coates really the new James Baldwin? Perhaps he is, I don’t know. Forget intra-group: have we coughed up a Miles Davis or Ellington, whose work can stand next to anybody’s, anywhere, from any era or period of human artistic endeavor? I leave you to answer these questions for yourself.
Q: What you are working on now?
A: My tan.
Q: And I have to ask, what is the word on a love jones sequel?
A: Not happening, I’m afraid. We tried mightily for several years. It took quite a bit out of me, truth be told. Perhaps it’s for the best — leave people to their own impressions of the movie without them being sullied by a sequel. That way if you imagine what happened to the characters for yourself, then you’re never proven wrong.
BEYOND THE LIGHTS – 2014 FILM STILL – Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Nate Parker – Photo Credit: Suzanne Tenner Copyright © 2013 Blackbird Productions, LLC
Q: Theodore, thank you for your time is anything else that you would like people to know?
A: Gina Prince-Bythewood was on Twitter recently beefing about the algorithms Netflix uses to recommend movies to customers; this was in connection with results for her film Beyond the Lights. I think she has touched on something very important and very elemental, and it has to do with how other people see us and how we see ourselves, which is connected to how these cultural products are made and sold in the first place. Even what constitutes a black movie. Or a “black” movie. Our society is in a transitional period right now, not unlike the 1960s, and I’m certain all of these old, traditional assumptions about race, gender, ethnicity, identity will be upended before we’re through. And, for me, not a moment too soon: I was getting bored.
On the film’s 20th anniversary, love jones was honored at the American Black Film Festival Awards
Theodore Witcher, Nia Long, Larenz Tate, Bernadette Speakes, Lisa Nicole Carson, Leonard Roberts and Isaiah Washington at the American Black Film Festival Honors. (Earl Gibson III / Getty Images for BET)
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