Fifteen years years ago, first time director Theodore Witcher changed the look and sound of black love with the classic romantic drama Love Jones. Starring Nia Long and Larenz Tate, Love Jones was a delicious slice of modern African-American life with smart, hip and self-aware characters trying to find happiness in both their personal and professional lives.
Even though Love Jones is now considered a cult classic, Witcher says “when Love Jones opened in theaters, the numbers were ok. Then over the summer the soundtrack became a hit, and Love Jones had a second release over the summer. The total domestic gross was only $12 million.”
The Urban Daily caught up with Witcher at the 15th anniversary screening of Love Jones at the New Voices in Black Cinema Film Festival, to reflect on the impact of Love Jones, his future projects, and what defines a “black film.”
How did it feel watching Love Jones again on the big screen?
Actually, I didn’t. I stayed for the first few minutes, and came back towards the end. It’s been so long, and the audience has seen it before, so it’s not like I’m getting the original reactions from people. Now it’s really about the pleasure of the familiarity. Your favorite scene’s coming up, your favorite line’s coming up. Over the years, your relationship with a movie changes tremendously.
There were complaints that Love Jones signaled the end of the spoken word movement, because everyone jumped on the bandwagon.
It’s the same thing as digging a rock band that no one else knows about other than you. Then when they became a hit, people say they’re a sellout because they’re a success. It’s the same phenomenon. People find a corner of a universe and once it expands, they don’t like it. My concern was more for the actual spoken word poets who wouldn’t think the poetry featured in the movie wasn’t good. If you lived in Brooklyn and going to Brooklyn Moon, that was the authentic ground zero shit. The spoken word in Love Jones would seem like a Hollywood version. I knew that, but I had to make it more accessible to a mass audience.
Last month, Larenz Tate and Nia Long tweeted a question to their followers “How would you feel about a Love Jones 2?” and the reaction was overwhelmingly positive. Would you consider directing a sequel?
Yes, we’ve discussed it. We’re working on it.
How do you define “black film”?
I guess it’s colloquial. Does it have the authorial view from someone who is Black? That would be the qualifier for me. I designed Love Jones to have a universal appeal. Yes, it is culturally specific but I wanted anyone to be able to watch it and see themselves in it. The same way I can watch movies by Wong Kar Wai or Woody Allen. Allen’s films are usually very specifically about New Yorkers, a particular type of Jewish humor. Yet the themes are universal. He was actually a big inspiration for me to make Love Jones. We screened it all over Europe and in Japan, they were even reading the subtitles! They loved the movie and enjoyed the soundtrack as well.
With The Help we had two black actresses (Viola Davis, Octavia) that were put front and center for award nominations. Would you consider The Help a black film?
Well, what qualifies a black film? Does it have to have a Black director? Norman Jewison who is White, directed A Soldier’s Story which has a predominantly black cast. The Help which is a mixed cast, is a story about the plight of black people. White novelist, White screenwriter, White director—is that a Black film? Probably not in the way most people mean it. If you mean like Do The Right Thing, then it’s not a Black film.
News dropped last year that you’re working on a film adaptation of E. Lynn Harris’ “Invisible Life.”
I’ve been working on that for the past year with Tracey Edmonds and some other folks. That’s still ongoing, there’s a script. It’s still a work in progress.
We had Pariah that dealt with lesbian themes, how receptive do you think the black viewing audience will be to Invisible Life?
We actually talked about that. I’m hoping they’ll be receptive. In my adaptation I took the fundamentals of the story and tried to make it as universal as possible. The main character is trying to be true to himself in an environment that won’t allow him to be. The setting takes place in the 90’s, almost 20 years ago and it was worse back then. It’s no secret that in segments of the black community there’s a certain amount of homophobia. I’m hoping we will join the 21st century and be on the right side of history and just look at the story from a human point of view.