While the 1990s stands as the halcyon days of Black romances—“Poetic Justice,” “Love and Basketball,” “Soul Food,” “The Best Man,” and so forth—writer/director Theodore Witcher’s “Love Jones” stands out. It features portions of the city of Chicago, the West and South side, that are rarely shown in movies. Few other films have displayed the vulnerability of Black men with such depth. Few have lit Black skin to such luminescent ends. And even fewer have refused to follow the genre conventions of the romance to such a range, as this film’s rain-soaked ending.
“Many love stories contrive to get their characters together at the end. This one contrives, not to keep them apart, but to bring them to a bittersweet awareness that is above simple love,” said Roger Ebert of the film. Released in 1997, Witcher’s “Love Jones” is a Chicago-set romance, centered in the city’s Black bohemian culture. The movie follows the on-again, off-again relationship between underground poet and author Darius Lovehall (Larenz Tate) and photographer Nina Mosley (Nia Long). It’s an electric romance about the arduous work true love requires. The movie is horny, profound, wistful and funny.
Though “Love Jones” won the audience award at Sundance, it debuted to less-than-favorable box office results. Now, 25 years later, “Love Jones” stands as Witcher’s lone directorial effort. And what a towering one it is. Its inclusion in the Criterion Collection—the package includes a gorgeous 4K retransfer, an interview between Racquel Gates and Witcher, an Academy panel moderated by Barry Jenkins with the cast of “Love Jones,” and so forth—contextualizes the film’s cinematic and cultural impact.
RogerEbert spoke to Witcher by Zoom to discuss his path toward filmmaking, the magic of filming in Chicago, and why this Criterion Collection release is the definitive version of “Love Jones.”
I read that your parents bought you a Super 8 camera from a Sears catalog. What did you film with it?
You know, that’s funny—I was talking to my brother about this. The first thing we did, me and my brother, was a Lego film, actually. I think it was called “Invasion Force USA.” [laughs] And then from there, you start to graduate towards just copying things. I did a little film with another friend of mine—[it was] a little “Miami Vice” rip-off. I even had some stunt work in it and everything. And I played Tubbs, and I had a friend of mine who played Crockett. That’s the kind of thing you do when you’re young, because you’re trying to figure out who you are. What do you have to say?
So the first thing you grab, whether you’re learning to play an instrument or writing or painting or whatever, the first thing you do is you just start copying what’s around you. Out of the copying you start to develop your own approach to things, and then, eventually, you figure out what kind of story is in you to tell.
Why do you think you gravitated toward filmmaking?
If you’re a gadget person, right, or a gear person, and there’s a lot of kids who are gear people—they like toys and mechanical things you can manipulate with your hands, stuff with knobs and buttons on them—then there’s a tactile component to the equipment, which is just very pleasing to a kid. When you make a film, even when you’re 12 and you’re making Super 8 movies, you have cameras, and then you have to edit the film. It’s like the Orson Welles quote, where he says: “A movie set is the greatest train set in the world.” There’s a lot of truth to that even to this day.
As I got older, and got on with it, it remained tremendously exciting. Because the thing that doesn’t leave you as you get older is how film encompasses so many different disciplines, and so many different avenues of creative expression.
There’s the story; there’s writing; there’s acting; there’s the design and there’s the lighting, and the photography and composition. And then there’s music and sound. It’s sort of like the modern version of opera in a way, where over 120 years ago, opera was the thing that brought all of these artistic disciplines under one roof to create a thing. Cinema eventually supplanted that. Right. And so what became exciting about it was the more I got into everything else, the more I saw how it all fed into trying to create a movie. It’s never stale.
Growing up on the West Side of Chicago, there probably weren’t many others making films like you were. Who were the filmmakers you wanted to model yourself after?
Growing up in the ’80s, I was a product of the late-1960s through the mid-1970s American New Wave, primarily. Because those movies were appearing on television when I was a kid: “Apocalypse Now,” “The Godfather,” “The French Connection,” “All the President's Men,” “M*A*S*H,” “Nashville.” All of those pictures started to appear on television. And then there were the popular ’80s movies of the day: “Star Wars,” “Indiana Jones,” all the Spielberg pictures, the James Bond movies. That was the pop stuff I was seeing at the movies coupled with all of the more interesting, darker, grittier, more tragic movies I was seeing from 10 years earlier.
And then when I was in high school, Spike Lee came out. I saw “She’s Gotta Have It” when it came on video, which must have been in 1987. I thought I was just gonna have to be a mainstream director and make mainstream movies with the mainstream stars of the day. But then Spike comes along and it’s like: No, you can actually do some of your thing as well. That was tremendously exciting. As much as anybody else, his existence is historically important.
What were the origins for “Love Jones”?
When I was leaving Columbia College in Chicago, I started working at NBC tower, at WMAQ, which eventually led me onto the staff of “The Jerry Springer Show.” So I was working in television while trying to figure out how I was going to crack getting into the movie business. And simultaneously, since I wasn’t really writing anything, the only sort of avenue of creative expression I had at the time was I fell into this world of underground poetry in Chicago. That world was very inspirational to me. After I left Chicago to work in show business in LA, I thought [the underground poetry] milieu was so vivid that it could be a really exciting backdrop to tell this love story. I cooked it up from there.
Darius and Nina are such an iconic couple. What qualities do you think Larenz Tate and Nina Long bring as actors and people that makes their on screen chemistry click?
It’s a little bit of a mystery. If you could totally quantify it, then you could repeat it ad infinitum. But you can’t. So there was something about the two of them: They both liked each other in real life, which helps. But actually, even that’s not necessary. You can hate each other too. There’ve been plenty of love stories or couples on screen where they actually didn’t like each other at all. And yet, you have to have something going on between the two people. You can either like them, hate them, be sleeping with them or want to destroy them. But something has to happen off screen between people so when you put it in the context of performing the drama, it reads as some kind of electricity that goes back and forth. And I don’t know what it is, but the two of them definitely had it. And the movie wouldn’t really work, I don’t think, if I hadn’t had them.
Part of the magic of “Love Jones” is how it could be set in any city, yet is very specifically set in Chicago. What does Chicago bring as a setting?
Well, that’s interesting. I hadn’t even considered any of that, other than I wanted to excavate as many cultural details of Black Chicago as I could to bring the film to life. It had a vivid three dimensionality to it. I would’ve done that no matter where the movie was set. But I wanted to set it in Chicago only because I knew it, and I wanted to return to make good. But even when we were budgeting the movie, there were other conversations that were being had at the studio about it maybe being cheaper in New York or San Francisco.
I sorta restricted it to a city where there was some kind of Black Bohemia or Black artistic scene that would make sense for the story. Right. So I guess you could do a version of this movie in San Francisco or in New York in Brooklyn. I think Atlanta came up as an option as well. But I held to my guns, even though it was a little bit more expensive than what they wanted. I just felt like Chicago was the right place for it.
But as far as what does the city itself bring? It’s not pretty; it’s beautiful. In the whole range of it, there are parts of it that aren’t very pretty, but there’s a kind of beauty to it because of all the different strata of life that you find in Chicago, particularly on the South Side. You have a mixture of all kinds of different people from all different economic and social strata, all living, basically, in the same area. And Chicago wasn’t overexposed. It wasn’t New York. It wasn’t the obvious thing, you know what I mean? It was fresh to a screen audience. This was before there were a million television shows that were set there and you’d seen a lot of the city. It was sort of a special thing to see Chicago in a movie. I think it worked in my favor as well.
When did Criterion approach you on putting this release together and what was the process like? Because the 4K transfer is gorgeous.
I got an email out of the blue from Lee Kline, the technical director at Criterion, and he just said: Yeah, we’re gonna start on this. We’ve acquired the rights. That was all it was. And I like: What? It wasn’t one of those things where I lobbied for it or made some calls or made some inquiries. They kind of went off and did the deal with Warner Bros. to get the rights to the film, and then they just called me and I was blown away cuz anybody who’s a filmmaker, we’ve been watching Criterion optical media since the 1980s, since we were in film school. So to have a movie in there, I can’t even describe how overwhelming it is to me personally.
But then working with them has been totally great because, you know, with Warner Bros. we did the DVD for the movie in 1997 and I was pretty happy with the transfer. But it was the early days for HD. Warner Bros. went back and re-transferred the movie in 2011. But they did it without calling me. I don’t know why. I’ve lived 10 minutes from Warner Bros for 12 years. I would’ve come by; like I could have walked there.
They redid this transfer in 2011 and that’s the one they played on all of their cable channels and is on iTunes. And then they put it on HBO Max and Netflix, and it looks terrible. It was absolutely done without my input. It just looks horrible. I was really angry and started firing off angry emails. Then Lee Kline came along and said: Look, we’re gonna re-transfer the movie. You’re gonna get everything you want. Now the movie, finally, is in high definition and looks exactly how I wanted it to look. It’s the best version of the movie.
Pulling the supplements together was fun. I have boxes of stuff that I’d kept just for this eventuality. So I had to go through all of my boxes of tapes and things I saved from the production of the movie to see if anything was useful. It turns out almost none of it was. [laughs] I did find one little feature from the era, but everything else is new stuff like the Q&A we did at the Academy with Barry Jenkins and some new interview material, which was a lot of fun to do, with Racquel Gates from Columbia University. Even Melodie McDaniel [still photographer on “Love Jones”] was able to excavate some photographs that she had done that I had never seen and put that in the package. Everything about the whole experience of working with them and putting the whole thing together, completely the way I would like it to go, as opposed to when you’re making the movie at the studio, where they have to sort out marketing considerations that are not related to the artistic considerations of how you wanna present the film, this was more like: This would be the best photograph for the cover. This would be the best typeface. So it was tremendous to put together.
Like many of the Black romances of the ’90s, “Love Jones” has always been described as a “cult” classic. But I’ve always found it a classic. What do you think of the label, “cult classic”?
I’m happy anybody applies any term to it. Cause it means people are still, to some degree, interested. So if it’s a cult classic, I guess it was a cult classic for a long time and then the cult got bigger. I was very disappointed with the commercial response to it at the time of release. It wasn’t a hit, even though people seemed to like it. So I couldn’t figure out why cuz people would go see it and they would like it. But the movie didn’t really perform that well commercially. And yet, over the years, through word of mouth and the social aspect of it, it’s increased over the years to the point where for a good number, it’s probably slightly more than a cult-sized number of people who really like the movie. I’m very gratified. But hey man, call me whatever you want. As long as you call me. That’s my approach to these things.