Waxing Lyrical with Reginald Hudlin’s ‘Daisy Age’ Classic
The late 80s/early 90s saw an explosion of films that, at the time, were loosely referred to as urban or ‘Hood’ movies’. It was a crude term used to describe films that featured prominently black characters, usually set within a specific, limited geographical area or social setting that serves to define the significance of what is happening around them. Whether this be drug trafficking in New Jack City, gang or turf warfare in Menace II Society, the simmering racial tension surrounding Do the Right Thing or everyday life in the ghetto, portrayed so honestly, brutally and tragically in Boyz ‘N the Hood. Fuelled by the rising popularity of hip-hop and featuring some of the more prominent and streetwise stars of the genre (Ice T, Ice Cube and Tupac Shakur all landing starring roles), those films drew inspiration from real life issues that affected contemporary ‘black’ America. To white audiences they offered a tantalising glimpse into what must have looked like a different world, where priority was given to simply getting by and surviving the day.
Many of these films were undeniably powerful and effective, throwing a torch on everyday problems that were a world away from middle class white America. What they rarely showed ‒ other than to allow us to connect and sympathise with certain characters ‒ was the simple act of having fun, something we can all relate to. Sure, there are moments in Do the Right Thing, such as the scene where some of the characters try to cool down by letting off the fire hydrant, but this is quickly followed by a white cop threatening to bust some heads. Early in Boyz ‘N the Hood we’re introduced to the characters letting their hair down at a barbecue where they play cards, crack jokes, but as soon as Tre leaves the party he’s confronted by some hoods in a car. Such moments of levity lend further significance to the tragic, beginning a downward spiral that builds you up to knock you down. The message seems to be that yes, you can have fun, but it won’t end well for you, and the best you can hope for is surviving the end credits.
Writer/Director Reginald Hudlin was born in 1961 and wasn’t from ‘The Hood’. He grew up in East St. Louis, a predominantly black town that had suffered from the effects of deindustrialisation, with a relatively high rate of violent crime. However, his family life appeared to be a happy one. His mother was a teacher and his father an educator and insurance executive, and they were comparatively well off with a stable home and strong family. Reginald clearly had aspirations, and by the time he went to Harvard University his older brother had already co-founded the Black Filmmaker Foundation. It was at Harvard, and drawing on his own experiences as a kid growing up, that he developed and directed a short film by the name of House Party. It received high acclaim, winning awards outside of college that afforded him the opportunity to pitch a full-length feature adaptation of his successful short at a time when rap music was lighting up the mainstream.
Following the success of Spike Lee’s debut feature She’s Gotta Have It in 1986, the door was open, and New Line Cinema jumped at the chance to expand on Hudlin’s idea. They were willing to finance the feature but were keen to cast DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince (yes…Will Smith and his friend ‘Jazz’ from ‘The Fresh Prince of Bel Air’) as the leads. It was more than just a pipe dream as well. New Line Cinema had successfully sued the duo over their third single A Nightmare on My Street for copyright infringement. Settling out of court, the condition was that they appeared in a New Line production and House Party was pencilled in as that film. As it transpired, they turned the film down, wanting to do something bigger, albeit on the small screen. The irony of the whole situation was that New Line liked the single and very nearly included it on the soundtrack for Renny Harlin‘s A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master released that year. Still, it meant that Hudlin was still on the lookout for a couple of stars.
He would turn to up and coming rap duo Kid ‘n’ Play, who had already scored success with debut album 2 Hype and, just like Jazz and Will Smith, had ready-made chemistry having been friends since high school. Casting rappers in the comedic roles proved to be a stroke of genius and played right into Hudlin’s intention to tap into the growing popularity of hip-hop as a fun and dynamic musical form. As a fan of the genre, he was keen to portray it in a more positive way than other contemporaries, who had used it as a serious and powerful backdrop to starker and more political movies – just think of Spike Lee’s use of Fight the Power in Do the Right Thing. Hudlin’s experience and take on music was that it should be something to enjoy and dance to, and incorporated this attitude into the very fabric of his film, pretty much making it a musical.
I have the house keys, as well as the car keys, my parents down south, waaaay down south. Yeah I did it, cry two tears in a bucket, fuck it, let’s take it to the stage.
Kid ‘n’ Play’s (real names Chris Reid and Chris Martin) casting gives the film a rhythm that allows the script and verbal delivery to flow effortlessly. It’s a joy to listen to as well as watch, with dialogue delivered like a rhyme to a beat. If you can find a copy of the script, just see how it flows with characters given two short sentences of between four and eight words before another responds in a similar, rhythmically brief fashion. The rest of the cast fits in with this notion of performance, with R’n’B duo Full Force playing the villains and comedians Robin Harris and Martin Lawrence playing ‘Pops’ and DJ Bilal. The same goes for the soundtrack, which regularly synchronises the beat with the action, most notably during the initial fight scene between the ‘hoods’ and Play, each punch kept off screen but accompanied by a hip-hop sample, and when Play checks the post box for his disciplinary letter in time to a short guitar riff. Indeed, the opening skit shows the roof being blown off a house by the music at a party, only for that moment of music-induced unreality to invade the reality of the film, the same roof landing on the movie’s racist cops at the very end.
This brings us to the question of genre. Is House Party a musical? I would define a musical as a film where the plot stands still for a song and dance routine that takes place outside of the ‘reality’ of a film. There is certainly plenty of music within the film, so let’s look at the main musical ‘numbers’. First there’s the dance-off, as Kid ‘n’ Play show us their trademark kickstep dance; secondly, there is the rap battle between our two stars, and finally we have Kid rhyming his way out of a tough spot in jail. For me, only the third instance qualifies as something you might see in a musical, the other two scenes taking place within what you might call ‘reality’, a performance for the characters within the film to observe and enjoy rather than join in with. The beat, bassline and rhymed interjection of some of Kid’s inmates take that jail scene out of what you might call ‘real life’ and into a performance in a similar fashion to Aretha Franklin’s rendition of Think in The Blues Brothers. The other two scenes, if we’re going to stick with Blues Brothers comparisons, are more comparable with the band performing in the redneck club or James Brown singing gospel. Yes, they’re musical numbers, but they each take place within the context of the film’s reality, observed and enjoyed by others within the film.
Yet House Party shares a common theme with many modern musicals and ‘urban’ movies: teenage rebellion—or, more specifically, generational tensions. The film plays out some wonderful comic moments by showing an older generation who simply do not understand the youngsters they’ve created. From the opening scene where ‘Pop’ is unable to put his hand reassuringly on Kid’s ‘mop head’, thinking that an evening watching Dolemite with his Dad can compete with a party with his friends. The DJ scene (“Here’s another dusty one for you dusties!”) where the ol’ folks regard Kid’s attempts to pump up the party as if he’s speaking in a foreign language whilst Kid looks on in complete despair at their incomprehension. And of course there’s the lovely cameo from John Witherspoon as angry neighbour Mr Strickland. They try to get along but the lack of understanding between generations is too big a gap to bridge.
All of this is a reflection of middle class America at a time when the anxiety of a misunderstood generation and the fear that they could go off the rails is shown from both sides: an older generation that doesn’t understand their kids and feels the need to protect through control, and a younger generation who regard their elders as boring, simply enjoying their youth. This is perfectly summed up by a single exchange where Pop retorts to Kid’s “You’re trying to make me a social misfit” by saying “I’m trying to make you responsible…I don’t want you to end up making the same mistake I did”. Live for the day and seize the moment.
Mr Strickland: Shut up all that damn noise, this ain’t soul train!
It’s also telling that, other than throwing the first punch in the fight that proves to be the catalyst for the film’s subsequent events, Kid really doesn’t do much wrong, and all of his troubles are caused by people trying to stop him having fun: Pop trying to keep him under house arrest; ‘Hoods’ frequently gatecrashing the fun; racist cops harassing him; cellmates trying to intimidate, all of this getting in the way of him having what would otherwise have been a fun-filled, innocent, trouble-free night. At the end of the day, it’s his friends who get him out of trouble, the ones who understand him and who he feels he can turn to when he’s in a jam.
For me, there is only one aspect that’s never sat well, and that’s the way Kid treats the two female characters, Sharene and Sid. He clearly prefers Sharene and hits on her first, moving onto Sid when he realises he has little-to-no chance with her. Before you know it he’s in bed with Sid, asking if she’d consider having sex without protection and complaining when she stops him. Perhaps I’m showing my age, maybe it’s a sign of the times and it may well be an accurate portrayal of teenagers (I was one once!) but it seems at odds with a film that takes a moral stance on drinking (Groove’s implied alcoholism), respecting your parents’ belongings (Play replacing the family crystal with plastic cups whilst hoovering), racism, class (albeit in a clumsy conversation about the cons of dating a girl from the Projects) and education. Thankfully, Hudlin refuses to let the film get bogged down in all of these things, instead focusing on what anyone who has ever been to a house party expects from proceedings…a good time.
Ultimately, what Hudlin created was an alternative to the social realities of the time, showing that young, black Americans were really no different from young, white Americans when it came to having fun. It’s a likeable, uplifting film that treats its young cast with complete respect. Like all the best teen comedies it’s about strong bonds and firm friendships that overcome all obstacles. Except, of course, from angry, defied Dads!