On this day 20 years ago, Love Jones was released in theaters. And while it didn’t necessarily make a big splash at the box office (it pulled in just over $12 million worldwide), it has since become a cult film of sorts, a classic Black love story that people still watch religiously (I check it out both on BET anytime it comes on and via the DVD copy I own). We shared some of the behind-the-scenes secrets a few years ago, and the film was just celebrated at the American Black Film Festival Honors.
In honor of the 20th anniversary, Los Angeles Times writer Trevell Anderson talked to the cast and those behind the film, including writer/director Theodore Witcher and producers, for a piece called “With ‘Love Jones,’ black love took center stage: An oral history.” They talked about what it took to get the film made and what it means to the culture two decades later. Here are some very interesting things you probably didn’t know that they shared about Love Jones.
It All Started With a Popular Poetry Club
According to Witcher, a popular poetry club many burgeoning artists used to visit in Chicago in the early ’90s inspired him to develop Darius and Nina’s love story.
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.”
Jada Pinkett Smith Was the Original Pick for Nina
As Witcher put it, he was impressed by Jada Pinkett for the lead female role.
“Believe it or not, I had Jada Pinkett [Smith] in mind,” he told the Times. “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.”
Nia Long and Larenz Tate’s Chemistry Was Immediate
When the two were brought in to test, it was agreed by all that Long and Tate had a connection.
“Sometimes when you meet people there’s no connection, but she and I connected immediately,” Tate stated. “She was just willing to do what it takes for us to find that gem, those dynamics.”
Long agreed that they had a pretty electric energy. “I honestly felt like our chemistry was the best,” she said. “It felt amazing and it felt right, and we looked good together and it looked believable.”
Isaiah Washington Was Asked to Cut His Locs
Per the usual, a non-Black producer tried to come in and throw his weight around. One issue for the person was Isaiah Washington’s locs at the time, which he was asked to cut his very first day on the film’s set. Washington played Savon Garrison in the film:
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.
Nia Long Wore Garbage Bags for That Rain Scene
In the final scene, after delivering her poem for Darius, who she didn’t believe was in the poetry club at the time, Nina leaves, only to encounter him outside. They have a very romantic, albeit wet, moment in the rain, ending the film. Of course, that shot, with the increase in water used, was a bit much for 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,” she said. “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 Is Still Bothered by Women Who Said Nina Getting Her Hair Wet for Darius Was Unrealistic
“I was really upset at that,” he told The Times. “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.'”
Larenz Tate Felt the Film Wasn’t Marketed Well
At the time, it was considered a “flop,” but most of the people involved with the movie managed to look at the bright side when it came to the financial ups and downs of the film. However, Tate said that he felt that if the studio had marketed it better, Love Jones would have definitely brought in more money.
“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,” he said. “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.”
Lauryn Hill Was Almost in the Movie
According to Witcher, when the singer, who was still in The Fugees at the time, couldn’t get out of her set schedule to have a role in the film, she was more than down to provide a song. The end result? “The Sweetest Thing,” which was just the beginning of the star-studded Love Jones soundtrack.
“I almost had Lauryn [Hill] in the movie,” Witcher said. “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.”
The Soundtrack Brought the Film Back to Theaters
It sold so well (that it has its own Wikipedia page) it eventually peaked at 16 on the Billboard 200 and No. 3 on the Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop albums chart. It also did good enough to warrant the studio to give the film another shot.
“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,” Isaiah Washington said.
They Didn’t Anticipate the Impact, But Knew It Would Shift the Culture
Producer Helena Echegoyen put it best. At the time Love Jones came out, a few other films that told deeper, more complex stories about Black culture and love were also coming out or preparing to be released. The film, along with those others, had an impact on the type of images we would get to see of Black folks.
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.
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