With ‘Love Jones,’ black love took center stage: An oral history


Before “Love Jones,” black romance on the big screen was hard to come by. Sure, “Mahogany,” starring Diana Ross and Billy Dee Williams, had paved the way, but that was in 1975. Since then, most of the movies featuring black people were about ‘hood life: poverty, gangs, drugs and guns. Someone was always dying by the time the credits rolled.

Then, in 1997, came a simple movie about the love lives of black artists in Chicago. Starring Larenz Tate and Nia Long, writer-director Ted Witcher’s debut film followed the rise and fall, and rise again, of a relationship between a young poet named Darius Lovehall and Nina Mosley, a photographer. Set in the city’s spoken-word scene, “Love Jones” showcased a different aspect of black life, one where struggle and strife did not dictate one’s circumstances, where one’s group of friends, played by Isaiah Washington, Lisa Nicole Carson, Bill Bellamy and Leonard Roberts, were more like family.

It was the kind of film that white communities had known well.

In the 20 years since “Love Jones” was released on March 14, 1997, black love has found its way into films and television shows. Think “The Best Man” franchise, “Queen Sugar,” “Southside With You” and “Insecure,” to name a few. But where “Love Jones” should have been a catalyst, a more robust canon of romantic films featuring black couples hasn’t fully materialized.

On the film’s 20th anniversary, which saw the film honored at last month’s American Black Film Festival Awards, The Times shaped this oral history from conversations with the “Love Jones” cast and crew about how the film came to be, the impact of black love on screen in the 1990s and why the film is considered a classic.

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)

“Love Jones,” at its core, is about possibilities, those opportunities people of color know exist for them — in love, life and career. But it was difficult for Witcher as a first-time director to show those possibilities, especially when most black films on theater marquees at the time were more like “Menace II Society” and “Boyz N the Hood.” Hollywood wanted to make money, and it wasn’t clear that a black romantic drama could do that.

Witcher, writer-director: There was this one [poetry] club in Chicago that we all used to go to, called Spices. I thought that was an interesting backdrop onto which I could layer this story of a twentysomething’s relationship. It had never occurred to me that the movie would get made, quite frankly, because it just seemed so small and niche, even for black people. It just seemed so outside of what Hollywood was making at the time.

It was just this idea I had until I came upon an executive who was at New Line, Helena Echegoyen. With her encouragement, I sat down in my little apartment in Koreatown, with no lights and no windows that pointed outside, for about nine months and wrote this script. When I gave it to her, she saw the potential of it and was, like, "We're getting this made.”

Helena Echegoyen, executive producer: He wanted to make a romantic comedy, and I had been looking for a filmmaker to work with who could make a movie that was more about my experience. Because at the time we had a lot of movies about West Coast gangs and violence. That wasn't my experience. I was more like the Winona Ryder character in "Reality Bites" than like the Regina King character in "Boyz N the Hood."

Nick Wechsler, producer: I’m not an aficionado on black cinema. I’m just a gut player with anything that comes to me, but it just felt like I hadn’t seen these characters in this kind of a love story. [Witcher’s] approach for black characters and a black audience … it just felt real, like its own thing.

Julia Chasman, executive producer: It was the first script that I had seen that was attempting to show the lifestyles of a whole sector of young African American artists — the sort of striving artist that we were so used to seeing in white movies.

Larenz Tate (Darius Lovehall): Their mentality, and their thought process … they were intellectuals. They were not afraid to be vulnerable, and to be in love, and to face their feelings in a way that we probably hadn't seen people of color do in a long time. That was really nice.

Witcher: I thought, not really knowing much about Hollywood, that the secret was you write something that is typical of what usually gets made, and that's your way in. It turns out that if you can do — because so much of everything is the same [stuff] around Hollywood — anything with an inkling of individuality, it tends to get people's attention.

Echegoyen: The thing that I liked the most about reading the script was that I really felt that it captured a classy, urban experience that wasn't gang-related. That it was very middle-class, it was very aspirational, and it was very much the way me and my friends were.

Lisa Nicole Carson (Josie Nichols): It seemed like a young “Mahogany” that he was capturing. It was very adult, but still capturing the experiences of black young people at the time.

Leonard Roberts (Eddie Coles): If you are 22 and you’re black and it’s 1996, you’ve never seen a movie with more than four people of color where somebody doesn’t die in the end or somebody isn’t in prison or somebody isn’t struggling. I told [my agent] that that alone was getting me through the door. I still have the script. It sits on my bookshelf. It’s that special to me.

The original "Love Jones" trailer.

Making this film a success meant the cast had to be perfect. Moreover, the leading man and woman needed the right look: Women needed to fawn over the guy and the men needed to be willing to risk everything for the girl. Though most would say that “Love Jones” would not be “Love Jones” without Long and Tate, neither actor was Witcher’s first choice.

Witcher: Believe it or not, I had Jada Pinkett [Smith] in mind. I had seen her on “A Different World” and thought she had a very different sensibility from other black actresses of her generation. I tried to get her and she passed.

Then the studio came in — and this is how Hollywood works — and had had a lot of success with Larenz [Tate]. They had made “Menace II Society” and, from a marketing [and] numbers standpoint, said, "Look, if you can get Larenz, we'll make the movie." His participation became integral to getting a green light at New Line.

He was obviously quite dynamic in “Menace II Society,” but I thought [his character O-Dog] was him [in real life] — that's how compelling he was. I was a little bit wary going in to meet him, even though I knew that I had to have him because I wanted to get the movie made.

Tate: We had our meeting of the minds and there were some things that I saw differently than he, as far as the character. But ultimately what I gathered from him was that we would have a work relationship that was open and that we would be able to do it in a collective way. It wasn't my way or the highway, and neither was that for him.

Witcher: My recollection of it is he was a little bit standoffish. What I learned later was he liked the script but was not interested in working with a first-time director. We circled each other in the meeting, but I remember having a good meeting and thinking to myself, "Well, OK, maybe let's keep talking about it."

Helena introduced me to Nia because Nia had done “Friday,” which Helena was the executive on. We had dinner, the three of us, and I remember it being very ebullient. I just thought she had a really great energy that might be right for this part.

Echegoyen: Having grown up here in L.A., she was very much a professional, trained actress who could work both sides of the equation. She could be hip-hop, classy, middle-class, street.

Witcher: We [film tested] Nia with a couple of guys and then we had Larenz come in. They sat down and did a scene or two from the script. ... She was what I expected her to be. He, that was the first time I had seen him act the part, taking the first early steps of being Darius as opposed to what I had seen him be in “Menace II Society.”

Tate: Sometimes when you meet people there's no connection, but she and I connected immediately. She was just willing to do what it takes for us to find that gem, those dynamics.

Witcher: I took the tape of these three or four screen tests and went around to all of my female friends. All of them unanimously were, like, “Larenz and Nia. That's a couple that I believe in.”

Nia Long (Nina Mosley): I honestly felt like our chemistry was the best. It felt amazing and it felt right, and we looked good together and it looked believable. Ted just really wanted two black people that were identified as being black and beautiful in this movie. It wasn't meant to be any more than a story about two black people falling in love.

Isaiah Washington (Savon Garrison): We just felt, like, “Wow, Larenz Tate and Nia Long are going to be the next Denzel, the next biggest stars in the history of filmmaking.”

Chasman: They were really special. They were essentially character actors in the film. But I feel like what made the film special was this ensemble that surrounded them. They killed me with their performances and were all new faces.

Bill Bellamy (Hollywood): I was the rookie actor compared to everyone else. I had just been doing comedy and being funny all the time, but I wanted to get my weight up and show people that I could act in a different way. I thought the movie would be my chance to show that I could get down with the big dogs.

Carson: I’ve always been sort of an oddball, but I felt like I had been let into the place with the cool kids on campus. They were all so cool, hot young actors. It felt like a black “90210.”

From the Archives: 'Love Jones' director Theodore Witcher hopes his departure film of the black experience opens Hollywood's eyes »

Washington: Helena doesn't get the credit enough, but she pretty much is solely responsible for talking that talk to get us the $7 million [budget]. Just like the Bayard Rustins of the world who people don't know are behind the scenes, she's one of those.

Echegoyen: [The budget] was [major] relative to other African American films that New Line had made. When I worked on "House Party" it was well under a million dollars. Then when I worked on "Friday" it was just over a million dollars … but relative to other films that were made in the studio system at that time, it wasn't really that big a number.

Bellamy: If there was a “Rat Pack” or “Breakfast Club” for us, this was it.

Washington: I remember one of the producers walked into my trailer with clippers in his hand demanding that I shave my head because he wasn't aware of any teacher that would look like me, with a goatee and locs and wearing a field jacket. This was my first day on set. My reason for doing this character looking this way is because we had a huge problem with African American hair in the workplace and, unfortunately, 20 years later we still have people losing their jobs because of locs.

Now, I don't think the producer was being racist or biased. I think he was trying to protect the money that was given to us by a system that didn't care what we thought or how we felt about empowering ourselves. I don't hold a grudge to that producer, but I do recall saying, “I'm not making that change, so you can send me back to L.A. if you want to, but right now I need to be on the set to shoot this scene in five minutes.”

There was really no debate or battle because money was being lost and a decision had to be made on his part and obviously it was the right one to be made.

Witcher: I didn't know anything about that. That is completely news to me. And, by the way, if that conversation had been held with me — I thought his look was perfect for the movie. I wouldn't have bought the argument and I wouldn't have cared anyway.

Apparently, for black women, the rain was a bridge too far ... and the studio's like, "Well, I guess we're reshooting the ending."

— Ted Witcher

While in Chicago, the cast and crew battled the elements of intense cold temperatures and unrelenting rain. It rained so much that rain had to be written into the script — that’s why the entire movie has a “somber” feel, Witcher said. Nonetheless, what persisted was the love story between Nina and Darius. As Cheo Hodari Coker wrote for The Times in 1997, it “feature[d] romance instead of bump-and-grind sex, sensitivity instead of hardness, hope instead of nihilism.”

Carson: Seeing black love on film was not that common. We’d seen all kinds of black relationships, but it wasn’t common seeing black people in love, especially young people. That’s what made it exciting to be a part of because when you think about it, they’re still few and far in between.

Roberts: This film showed that we can be multilayered in our interactions. It’s not always about the life and death of “You’ve got to do this or we’re not going to make it.” It’s a lot more nuanced than that. Our interactions are as deep and flowing and complex as anybody else's.

Washington: Ted was very strong, very clear on each and every one of those characters. He really felt like this was going to be the essential film that was going to be the standard for where we need to go and where we need to be. He was right.

Wechsler: I think he was a man of mystery. [Witcher] made it seem like he had directed stuff before. It’s really important for first-time filmmakers to hold on to their vision because it’s the thing that’s going to mark you more than anything else. He was strong, had some real fortitude.

Roberts: I used the word “conversate” as a joke. Ted is spinning all these plates and making things run, but he came over, took off his headphones and said, “Bruh, I don’t even care if it’s funny, ‘conversate’ is not going to be in this movie.” I just fell out because it reminded me of what a task this brother was undertaking, but he still had the full awareness of everything. If you had told me he had been doing movies for, like, five, 10 years, I would’ve believed you.

Witcher: The ending of the movie takes place in the rain, across the street from the poetry club. She leaves the club after doing her poem and just kind of washes her hands of the relationship and of Chicago. She's fixin’ to take a job. Unbeknownst to her, [Darius is] in the audience. He comes after her outside and then they play out the last scene in the downpour. I don't know why I wrote it this way, but I wrote it this way.

Long: Do you know what I had underneath my wardrobe? It was cold, but then it started to rain so they added more rain for the scene, and I wrapped my body in garbage bags to stay dry. We knew that it was going to be a quick scene and we didn't want to have to go back and change clothes or be sopping, soaking wet, so that's what we did.

Witcher: My idea was that he was so committed to trying to convince her to be with him that the fact that they were standing in a downpour didn't matter to him. So focused was he on her that he was completely oblivious to the rain. But perhaps I strained credibility a little too far, because we tested the movie and all of the test cards from black women in the audience made note of the fact that they didn't buy that a black woman, with her hair, would stand in the rain for anybody or anything.

On the one hand, I thought that was [messed] up and on the other hand I was mad at myself because I thought it was a failure that if I haven't locked you into this movie by this point such that some minor plot inconsistency is taking you out of the movie, then I have failed as a filmmaker. Apparently, for black women, the rain was a bridge too far ... and the studio's like, "Well, I guess we're reshooting the ending. That's for sure."

I was really upset at that. Really upset. Really. Just thinking about it, I remember getting those cards back and reading comment after comment after comment about the hair and I was, like, "The ... hair? Are you kidding me? Really? Her hair?" Apparently, “Yes. Really, ...yes, her hair. Get it right. Yes.”

Long: I do remember those conversations, but honestly, regardless of what anyone thought, I was still soaking wet. 'Cause we were in the rain! So there goes that idea.

Nia Long and Larenz Tate in “Love Jones.” PHOTO GALLERY >> (Michael P. Weinstein / New Line Cinema)

“Love Jones” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 17, 1997, and tied with Morgan J. Freeman’s “Hurricane Streets” for the audience award. But when it opened in theaters almost two months later, the box office numbers weren’t stellar. By most standards, the film was a flop, having pulled in just $12.8 million worldwide.

Washington: There's no lewd sex, there’re no people drinking 40s, there's no drive-bys. But we were all dismayed trying to sell the film at that time because our own people were so used to the diet of "Menace II Society" and "Boyz N the Hood." [Those] made so much money for the system at the time that we didn't open well.

Witcher: Maybe the movie is pretentious. That's for somebody else to decide. But it's about a bunch of young, artistically minded black people, what we would now call a “creative class,” and there was spoken word poetry in the movie. This is not a completely mainstream concept.

It's just up to the individual viewer, but I accept any and all criticisms of failure to make something that was completely accessible, or perhaps the movie is too pretentious or too intellectually whatever. In fact, if anything, I find the movie slightly intellectually deficient.

Echegoyen: Mathematically, if it costs $7 million and it makes $13 million [over its theatrical run], and you're still talking about it 20 years later, then I would say that it, by now, has certainly recouped its expense. I mean that's just plain math.

Washington: The movie was considered a flop. … It was considered a negative, and the town said we're not going to make any more movies like this ever again. And they didn't.

Tate: We were at a time with movies like “Boyz N the Hood,” “Menace II Society,” ”Set It Off,” right? They know how to market those movies. What about a movie in which no one gets hurt? The only thing that gets hurt is someone's heart. I'm going to keep it real — I felt like the studio did not know how to market the movie.

Chasman: If “Love Jones” was more like a Woody Allen film than it was like “Menace II Society,” then let's look at the marketing for Woody Allen or any warm, romantic, intelligent film of the time [and emulate that].

I think New Line was more focused on the idea that Larenz Tate, in particular, was a big name already in black films. I think they thought they would just put it out with his name and open wide and that would be the trick. In retrospect, that was a mistake.

Echegoyen: The reasons why films are successful or not successful is so much more complicated than any blanket statement about marketing. It's a number of things. ... A lot of people went to see that movie. I think that the expectation of the studio was that it would expand beyond people of color, and perhaps that expectation didn't match what happened. That doesn't mean that it's not successful.

Witcher: I always felt that my first and major responsibility was to make a movie that people liked. It was not my job to get them to come. It was my job to get them to like it once they came. People today are actually quite surprised when I tell them that the movie was not a commercial success on its initial release. Maybe the movie was a little ahead of its time. Certainly my career was changed by its lack of commercial success just as much as it would have been changed by commercial success.

Long: I think “Love Jones” was before its time. If we were to release now, with our following, I think the box office would be larger for sure.

Washington: We just wanted to represent a dynamic and a group of people that were underserved at the time. ... The media and Hollywood thought the only black people that were worthy of films had to [be] beautiful, but in sagging jeans and killing each other. That's what it was because it made so much money. … We were this wonderful little film that tried to be a breath of fresh air in all the maelstrom of darkness.

Roberts: I think the love people have for it to this day outweighs the bank it could’ve made.

Washington: Twenty years ago, I wish it had really gotten as lucky as "Waiting to Exhale." But it just goes to show you that even with "Waiting to Exhale," which was a fantastic film which I find to be a classic, made $67 million and there still was no "Waiting to Exhale 2" or three or four or five.

Tate: In retrospect, I'm not mad, because over a period of time it became a bigger success, maybe not on the books, but just in the lives and the minds and the hearts of people. And that you couldn't put a price tag on. We may not have been a box office splash, but we go down in history as one of the top romantic movies in cinema.

Long: You just gotta trust that successes can be defined many different ways, and in my opinion it's a huge success because we're still talking about it.

It tapped into the mood and the vibe of the piece and the time and that subculture that we were introducing a whole new audience to."

— Leonard Roberts

One of the most memorable aspects of “Love Jones” is the film’s soundtrack, featuring an eclectic yet somehow cohesive collection of songs from the likes of Lauryn Hill, Xscape, Me'shell Ndegeocello, Duke Ellington and John Coltrane. Curated by Witcher, “Love Jones: The Music” is arguably one of the best soundtracks in film history. The record’s success prompted the studio to re-release the movie five months after its debut.

Witcher: Black movies must have a soundtrack, right? That's just the way [stuff] goes. Why can't my movie just have a score like white movies?

Bellamy: The soundtrack is bonkers. You put the soundtrack on right now and you can go through every song and it’s banging. We don't even have soundtracks like that anymore.

Witcher: I almost had Lauryn [Hill] in the movie. The Fugees were on tour and I went to go meet her, but their touring schedule prevented her from being in Chicago to shoot. Obviously, I liked her and I kept her in mind. Then, I said, "I want a Lauryn Hill solo track." We sent her the movie and they watched it on the bus. She sent back “The Sweetest Thing.” One by one, the tracks started coming in.

Roberts: When I look back at that soundtrack and the moods it laid out, it felt like a mixtape or playlist. It was so personal. It was shortly after that that we heard about the neo-soul movement — I think the ‘Love Jones’ soundtrack bridged that gap.

Witcher: I have a regret about it that I could not get this Prince song that I wanted. He had written this song that I had cut a scene in the movie to. We tried to get the clearance and we couldn't. We wound up having to put another major artist’s song in its place.

Roberts: It tapped into the mood and the vibe of the piece and the time and that subculture that we were introducing a whole new audience to. It was a perfect storm.

Witcher: It doesn't sound like it was A&R'd by the marketing team. It sounds like a singular vision, even though I didn't write any of the material or produce any of the songs. You've got all the artists making their own creative contributions, but somehow we hit the right group of people and they had the right sensibility and it all sounds cohesive. That is the hardest thing to do when you're dealing in the big-money world of show business.

Washington: The movie was taken out of the theaters, and because the soundtrack was received so well, they reopened the film because the people were demanding to see this movie.

Chasman: They figured maybe they got it wrong and tried putting the film out again. I think they realized that maybe they had missed the boat.

Bellamy: The hit singles that came off the soundtrack kept people finding the movie. That was the thing that gave us our legs.

Witcher: Years later, I ran into Prince and he was a fan of the movie. He said he watched it a million times and he had written a song for his record called “On the Couch,” which was inspired by a scene in “Love Jones.” As a Prince fan, that just blew me away. It was incredibly gratifying.

The ending of the movie is structured somewhat similar to the ending of “Purple Rain” and there's a lot of Prince undercover references in the movie, and so for him to have liked it and for me to have had a chance to have him express that to me personally before he died was really gratifying. It's one of my favorite aspects of the whole thing.

An archived portrait of Theodore Witcher, writer-director of “Love Jones,” which tied for the audience award at the 1997 Sundance Film Festival. (Patrick Downs / Los Angeles Times)

“Love Jones” was Witcher’s first movie and still is his only feature film. Though many projected a promising future for the writer-director — Spike Lee even publicly lauded him and Wechsler put him in a league with Stephen Soderbergh and Gus Van Sant — he hasn’t made a movie since. (He is credited with writing 1998’s “Body Count” starring Forest Whitaker, David Caruso and Ving Rhames.) The reason?

Echegoyen: I think that he had a very strong vision for the kind of career that he wanted to have and the kind of films that he wanted to make. But the tide was such that he was not really able to hold that vision for himself to literally manifest it past all of the haters and the stuff that you have to go through.

Witcher: Show business is funny. It’s really not that complicated. I had some opportunities in the initial years after the movie because people liked it and I think they generally liked me. The trick is trying to sync up what you want to do with what the studio wants to pay for. Trying to sift your way through the system is very tricky, particularly if you have unconventional notions. I had taken “Love Jones” and wanted to go further. I wanted to make [another movie], something better, deeper, richer. I wanted to take where I had started and move the chains down the field even further.

Washington: It's sad that he hasn't made a film in 20 years, but … he said, “'If I can't do it like this, then I'm not going to do it at all.” And he meant that.

Witcher: I'll come back around. Maybe I'll make another film. I'd certainly like to; it's been a long time. It is very difficult to sustain any kind of career in show business and much less a career in which you're trying to make choices based on your own creative impulses and pursue your own individual vision. It is very difficult because it's a highly, highly commercial business. There's a little bit of room for creative expression. They'll let a few of those guys loose, off the reservation, but not many. Then, you add the black thing in ... it's challenging.

If the movie had been a hit, I might have been able to force some hands, but not having the platform of commercial success really limits your ability to throw your weight around. They'll just pull up the numbers and be, like, "Why are you in my office at all with this gross?”

It's not a film anymore, it's a symbol."

— Helena Echegoyen

Along with a sea of other films from the late 1990s and early 2000s (think: “Soul Food,” “The Wood,” “Brown Sugar”), “Love Jones” helped complicate the narrative around what black people could look like and how they could live and love. On the film’s 20th anniversary, and amid a call for greater inclusion in the industry and more diverse, nuanced storytelling, it stands as an example of the types of films audiences love. “Love Jones” is a classic — and not just a black classic — because of what it represents.

Chasman: I felt proud that “Love Jones” gave “urban films” a different meaning, which is to say urban in a good way — city people interested in city things like art, culture, architecture, beauty.

Carson: It delved into a young black man’s heart. When we were only seeing black men in gangs, getting to see into Darius’ heart was nice. It’s still nice to see that black men are capable of being in love and experiencing love in that way. It showed how complicated relationships could get.

Bellamy: I didn’t know it was going to be a cult film. I just knew it was going to be a good film. “Love Jones” is a classic because it encapsulates the culture, love and friendship at the right temperature where it’s just the right vibe. And then you’ve got that sexy poetry thing going on that makes it dope.

Tate: It resonates 20 years later, and it's going to resonate another 20 years, because there was a certain honesty about the movie. We are very multidimensional, we're multifaceted, and you saw people that [were] represented in the truest way.

Long: I definitely didn't anticipate this much time to go by where the film is still regarded as a classic and a film that people can really relate to. I appreciate that so much, because you want your body of work to represent all sorts of stories and characters and to see that black love is powerful and people want to see more of it is a wonderful thing.

Roberts: I loved that it made the depth and the nuance and the complexity of a love story featuring us acceptable. I think that has endured, that's what makes the movie timeless. You take away the music and the jokes and the poetry, it’s at its heart a genuine love story.

Echegoyen: It was a time in black culture where there was a paradigm shift. Hip-hop was growing and becoming more mainstream, and the black middle class was emerging and there were more conversations being had about black culture as art, not just as commerce. All of these things were happening and then this movie kind of comes out. And it wasn't the only one — "Eve's Bayou” and "Waiting to Exhale" and "Soul Food" and "Gridlock’d." There were a lot of films at that time that were shifting the culture. I think that that is what you remember, and when you remember that, it's almost like it takes on a different life. It's not a film anymore, it's a symbol.

Bellamy: Twenty years later, we have grown up and we get to reflect and see what was hidden. Even if you didn’t get it then, you love it now. It’s like putting on “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” right now — you’ll go crazy! I feel like it’s the same with “Love Jones.” It’s speaking to everybody on what they want to see as black love in their regular lives. We need it more than ever and there is a place we can go to see it, and it's real.

Witcher: There's enough authenticity and realness in the picture that people look at it and go, "That feels like something I have lived." That is the key, and that's why I think for many people the movie holds up.

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