This is another one of those movies where I'm going to stretch the definition of "growing up." After all, I was a few months shy of my nineteenth birthday when it hit theaters and already a soldier in the U.S. Army. Since I count that as part of my youth, I say it qualifies. So there.
I was home on leave, had a few dollars in my pocket and wanted to take my girl out on a date. Like most dates in my life, I found myself in a movie theater. We had to. A movie starring a fairly popular, fun-loving rap duo was opening. That duo was Christopher Reid and Christopher Martin, better known as Kid 'n Play. They weren't my favorites, but I liked them and loved the energy in their music videos. My girlfriend liked them more than I did, so it was a no-brainer. We were going to see House Party.
Once in the theater, there was a palpable energy in the room. This was a time when movies starring rappers were still a new and infrequent event. They brought out hip hop fans in droves by simply existing. A few years earlier, I waited in an extremely long line during a New York winter night to see Krush Groove, a fictionalized account of the early days of Def Jam Records. It starred Run-DMC, Kurtis Blow, and much of the labels real life roster. Between that movie and this one, I watched Disorderlies in a packed house. That one starred comedic hip hop group The Fat Boys. Now, I was doing the same for House Party. My girl and I were excited and so was everyone else.
Apparently, the place was worked up for other reasons, as well. Before the lights went down, and only about two rows in front of us, a brawl broke out involving a handful of people. As luck and/or racism would have it, a huge sixteen theater multiplex, a healthy chunk of the security staff was right outside this particular theater. They came rushing in, broke up the melee, removed the offenders, and the show went on without further incident. I never did find out what that was all about.
The movie itself is just like its stars. It's fun, energetic in a mostly non-threatening manner, includes some rapping, and a lot of dancing. More than any hip hop movie before or since, with the possible exception of Kid 'n Play's follow-up Class Act, House Party comes from a middle-class viewpoint. Its values, hopes, and fears are much more in line with Superbad than Boyz N the Hood. That said, it does recognize that there is a racial divide in this country and a disproportionate way in which African-American males are dealt with by law enforcement. However, this is not a movie given to much in the way of social commentary. It just presents this as fact and moves on. They are small asides in a movie that is really about having a good time.
Without question, House Party coasts on the energy and likability of its young cast. Each seems perfectly suited for their particular roles and u\pull them off flawlessly. Kid (Reid) gets to be the protagonist. He's not one of those relegated to the lower rungs of high school society, but he's not quite a social butterfly, either. Like most of us did at that age, he finds himself making awkward conversation with members of the opposite sex because he forces things. When the discussion is natural and genuine, flirting becomes an organic occurrence rather than the lame efforts of an efforting teenager. His bestest buddy Play (Martin) is a natural charmer, both with us and the ladies on the screen. Sure, he's already a womanizer, and is unreliable, but we love him. Our duo becomes a trio with the inclusion of friend and party DJ Bilal, played by Martin Lawrence in one of his earliest film roles. Of course, he would go on to a long, successful acting career.
To that group of guys we add smaller parts for a pair of older guys who hadn't quite hit their stride, yet. One is John Witherspoon as the Play's next door neighbor. The character is essentially the same as the one he plays in all of his roles, but he's managed to parlay that into a nice career. He's best known for playing Pops in the Friday movies. The other is stand-up comedian Robin Harris as Kid's dad. He tragically died of a heart attack at age 36, a mere nine days after House Party opened. Harris had a few small roles leading up to this. Most notable was his work as Sweet Dick Willie in Do the Right Thing. The biggest chunk of his legacy is something that happened after his passing. The 1992 animated film Bébé's Kids was crafted based on his stand-up routine.
Old school hip hop and R&B fans will also recognize singing group Full Force as our muscle-bound bullies. They had a short stint as a top flight act. Their music was decent, when they sang it, better when they produced it for others, like Lisa Lisa and the Cult Jam. In any event, they were an odd act, to me at least. With their ripped up attire, greasy hair and physiques their performances were like concerts that just happened to break out during a bodybuilding competition. Some girls went for that sort of thing. This includes Mrs. Dell, not who I went on that original date with, by the way. To this day, she is the proud owner of an autographed Full Force photo she received as response to a fan letter she wrote them. Also in the cast is a rap duo known as Groove B. Chill. Their music career didn't amount to much. The same goes for Gene Allen, known as Groove. He played the guy who gets way too drunk at the party. He would appear in House Party 2 and get a couple other bit parts, but nothing more. On the other hand, his partner in rhyme, Daryl "Chill" Mitchell has managed to have a rather lengthy acting career, working steadily in the industry ever since. Kudos to him for keeping it going after a 2001 motorcycle accident left him paralyzed from the waist down. Most recently, he could be seen as Computer Specialist Patton Plame on NCIS: New Orleans.
One of our ladies, Tisha Campbell who plays Sydney, also enjoyed a fruitful career after House Party. She's appeared in a number of movies over the years, but her biggest splashes have come in the TV sitcom arena. She had a major role in two long-running shows: Martin, in which she co-starred with Martin Lawrence, and My Wife and Kids opposite Damon Wayans. Here, she exudes a perfect amount of innocence, even if she's not completely so. A.J. Johnson, who plays Sharane, hasn't been quite as fortunate. She has had a number of roles on both the big and small screen over the years, but almost all of them were minor. The shame of it is that she's pretty good, here. Unfortunately, just as the film makes observations about the relationship between African-American males and the authorities, it is with these two young ladies where House Party finds itself guilty of promoting stereotypes. It seems to go out of its way to make the darker-skinned Johnson a less desirable option with whom to build a relationship. Not only is she the lone character represented as being from a downtrodden neighborhood, she appears to be going nowhere and is clearly more sexually promiscuous than her pal Sydney. One gets the sense that this moment will be the highlight of her existence while Sydney is clearly on the rise. Whether this was done intentionally or not, it plays into the intra-racial divide Spike Lee explored a couple years earlier with School Daze. Coincidentally, Johnson had a role in that film, as well. Watching it with my kids, especially my girls, I wonder if this is affecting them, clouding their perception of themselves, or am I being paranoid. I mean, isn't it just like me to inject a bit of doom and gloom into a sunny situation?
That it is a bundle of joy is what led me to share House Party with my family in the first place. We were trying to find something lighthearted we could all enjoy. None of the newer movies I had on hand excited them. Two of my nieces were spending the weekend with us. They are both older than my kids and were scouring my DVD racks. They spotted House Party and asked "How 'bout this?" Though it's a bit raunchier than I would've liked for a family movie night at the time, I remembered how much of a blast it was, that there was no nudity or graphic violence, and agreed. They laughed in all the right spots and found some unintentional humor elsewhere. Mostly, they picked on the late 80s/early 90s fashion on display. There were lots of other instances where something happened on the screen and I had to answer "Did you used to..." questions. They connected with the plot, the humor, the romance angle, and loved all the dancing. Occasionally, they made fun of that, too. They had a ball and have often returned to it on their own.
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