Commentary: You’re Remembering House Party All Wrong
The classic film turns 25 years old today.
“House Party is a film set within the hip-hop culture of today’s Black teenagers. It centers around a particular day and night in the life of Kid and his ‘homeboys,’ who are planning a booming party. Even though it’s a school night, everyone is getting ready for a big evening of wild talk, wild music, wild dancing, and the wild thing… All teenage dilemmas, games and innuendos aside, this film reinforces the values of friendship and taking responsibility, all the while maintaining its humor and giving us a revealing look at a popular subculture.”
– taken from House Party’s plot synopsis in the 1990 Sundance Film Festival’s official guide
Reading the above description of House Party today, on the film’s 25th anniversary, it’s fun to imagine the swarms of film critics who ventured to Park City, Utah, in early 1990 to discover the hottest new self-serious independent films, opened the guidebook, and saw terms like “homeboys” and “the hip hop culture of today’s Black teenagers.” Because, after all, most, if not damn near all, of those critics were white men. Back in 1990, rap music and “the hip hop culture” weren’t the corporatized, omnipresent cash-cows they are today. The notion of skipping the next potential Oscar nominee in order to catch a screening of some new movie starring rappers Christopher “Kid” Reid and Christopher “Play” Martin must have been a dicey proposition for film critics at Sundance that year.
But, nevertheless, House Party had its world premiere at Sundance on Saturday, January 20, subverting everything people knew about the festival. In many ways, House Party was an atypical selection for Sundance founder Robert Redford and his programming team. For one, writer-director Reginald Hudlin’s film was already on the verge of box office gold. When House Party was unveiled at the festival, it was two months away from a theatrical release, guaranteeing a sizable distribution plan that the majority of Sundance movies weren’t ever likely to see, whether distributors bought them in Park City or not.
House Party was backed by New Line Cinema, a once-fledgling studio that turned into a no-joke Hollywood player thanks to A Nightmare on Elm Street earning $25 million on a measly $1.8 million budget in 1985. Post-Freddy Krueger, New Line wasn’t about to dump millions of dollars into a project that didn’t at least have the potential to repeat Elm Street’s stats — and House Party’s cast promised just that. Kid ‘n Play were already hip hop hot boys; their 1988 debut album, 2 Hype, had three singles on Billboard’s Hot Rap Tracks chart, and their follow-up record, Funhouse, was perfectly timed for a March 1990 release alongside House Party’s opening.
Even though Sundance was entering its golden age as the ’90s began, there’d never been much precedent for an inclusion as splashy as a New Line production featuring two of the music industry’s hottest rising stars, nor was Sundance known for hosting flashy premieres and welcoming big-name casts. At the time, highbrow film reporters flocked to Sundance to uncover below-the-radar films like the then-unknown Steven Soderbergh’s provocative, lo-fi character study Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989), or the Coen Brothers’ dark, aggressively un-commercial 1985 debut Blood Simple. It was a festival meant for indie movies made not in the spirit of in-theater enjoyment or front-page headlines but, rather, with the intention of prodding audience’s collective cerebellums, not their funny bones.
Rolling Stone critic Peter Travers admitted as much in one of his Sundance 1990 dispatches. “Like many critics and journalists who made the trek to Utah,” he wrote, “I had come looking for any flicker of independent light under the bushel of mainstream wannabes, and I had no expectations of unearthing creative risk in a teen farce [like House Party].” Especially, one can imagine, a teen-geared romp set within the hip-hop subculture, at the time a foreign lifestyle that’d only been understood by people like Travers on Yo! MTV Raps.
Yet a crazy thing happened that year at Sundance — House Party won two major awards, the hugely prestigious Filmmaking Trophy Dramatic and the similarly esteemed Excellence in Cinematography Award Dramatic. To put the first award into its rightful perspective of significance, Kevin Smith’s Clerks won that same prize four years later, and Clerks is universally appreciated as one of the defining movies of the formative indie film scene of the early ’90s. But Reginald Hudlin’s well-meaning, good-time-oriented teen comedy starring an all-black cast and set in the Midwest, not New York or Los Angeles? It’s relegated to one single mention, in throwaway form, in veteran film reporter Peter Biskind’s seminal book about Sundance impact’s and that majorly crucial indie film scene in the early ’90s, Down and Dirty Pictures, which puts everything into its unfortunate context — House Party’s barely been a footnote when film historians discuss the era that birthed the careers of present-day cinema titans like Steven Soderbergh, Richard Linklater, and Quentin Tarantino.
So why hasn’t House Party received that same kind of retrospective admiration?
The sad reality is, House Party has always been regarded with as much prestige as any other box office hit led by famous rappers and not titled Boyz N Da Hood. Read: not much. For one, it’s a straightforward comedy, albeit a hilarious and likably acted slice-of-life one about a charismatic black teen (Kid) sneaking out of his overbearing dad’s (Robin Harris) house late at night to attend an epic party at his friend’s (Play) crib. Considering that plot summary, it’s not unreasonable to consider House Party as a precursor to Superbad but minus the McLovin and plus the “Kid ‘n Play Dance.” And like Jonah Hill and Michael Cera’s 2007 breakout movie, House Party was a major success when debuted in March 1990; Hudlin’s film cost a reported $2.5 million to make, opened on 800 screens, and raked in an insanely profitable $26 mil domestically. Which, unsurprisingly, prompted New Line Cinema to crank out two theatrical sequels, House Party 2 (1991) and House Party 3 (1994), and, over time, two straight-to-DVD sequels, House Party 4: Down to the Last Minute (2001) and House Party: Tonight’s the Night (2013).
Those increasingly lesser sequels have, sadly, diluted Reginald Hudlin’s original film’s legacy. They’ve hindered the House Party franchise with the same kind of gluttonous reputation as, say, the American Pie brand or horror series like Friday the 13th and Saw also have at this point. Because of that trivialization, House Party has rarely been viewed as the groundbreaking piece of indie filmmaking that is truly is: a smart, no-punches-pulled examination of Black hip-hop kids, race relations, and police injustice that was made easily digestible by Reginald Hudlin. Think about what happens in House Party — Kid and his bullies, the R&B trio Full Force, as well as his father, are repeatedly harassed by a couple of dim-witted white cops, and their anger is palatable, yet the film never gets overtly angry or hammers its messages over moviegoers’ heads. House Party was as thought-provoking as other Sundance films, but its brain food was crushed up and sprinkled over a bubblegum-ish treat — Hudlin duped Sundance’s critics and awards-givers like your mother did to your sick, medicine-loathing self as a kid.
It certainly helped that Hudlin was an Ivy League graduate with a great handle on the material. In 1983, the Illinois native won a student award at Harvard University for the original 20-minute-long House Party short. His older brother, Warrington Hudlin, produced the House Party feature after studying at Yale. They clearly weren’t going to make anything dumbed-down for their mutual feature debut. By the time he’d been given New Line’s funds to make a longer, Kid-‘n-Play-led version, Hudlin wisely kept it light-hearted without sacrificing any of the underlying substance. He slyly made an abnormal cinematic double threat: a film that could play tremendously for mainstream audiences while also impressing the caliber of critics who lived for artsy, borderline uninviting fare like sex, lies and videotape.
In a 1992 interview with the Baltimore Sun, while discussing the steps needed to make their first post-House Party studio movie, Boomerang, Warrington Hudlin explained the siblings’ approach to filmmaking: “We had to convince the studio that we could be true to our black culture and still be commercial. What’s selling out there in white America, what’s hip, is black-designed pop culture. If they could understand that, then our blackness wouldn’t be a problem; it would be an advantage. We’re actually very mainstream.” In that same article, Reginald expanded on that: “As much as I’m interested in being positive, I’m more interested in being authentic — and funny. People don’t go to the movies to be preached at. They go to be entertained. If you’re funny enough and real enough, you can reach out to anybody.”
Before House Party, film festivals, namely any as high-end and trendsetting as Sundance, showed movies directed by black filmmakers that operated on that all-are-welcome wavelength. But subsequent writers and directors have certainly followed Hudlin’s lead. At this year’s Sundance, held per usual in January, one of the most celebrated breakthroughs was Dope, the new film by director Rick Famuyiwa (The Wood, Brown Sugar), executive produced by Diddy and Pharrell Williams. Starring a largely unknown cast, save for bit players like A$AP Rocky and Zoe Kravitz, it’s about a geeky teen named Malcolm (newcomer Shameik Moore) who runs across an assortment of eccentric characters and wild mishaps while en route to an underground party in Inglewood, California. Both a critical and audience smash at Sundance, Dope was quickly scooped up by Open Road Films for a hefty seven million and will open theatrically in June.
A comedy that’s warm and, best of all, crowd-pleasing, Dope is a black cinema success story that, happening 25 years after Hudlin first set his trailblazing example, is undoubtedly a House Party disciple. Like House Party, it even won a major award (US Dramatic Special Jury Award: Excellence in Editing). Unlike House Party, though, it’s indicative of how far popular culture has come in regards to its views of “the hip hop culture of today’s black teenagers.” Just read its official Sundance guide plot synopsis: “Writer/director Rick Famuyiwa delivers an energetic, super-fresh, modern-day coming-of-age story that is a delightful mash-up of DIY punk, Yo! MTV Raps, YouTube, and Neil deGrasse Tyson. Intelligent and full of heart, Dope is an up-to-date inspirational tale of the journey to maintain a grasp on one’s own authentic self amidst surreal circumstances.” Gone is the alien-like view of hip hop expressed in House Party’s “revealing look at a popular subculture” write-up.
Back in January of 1990, that “anybody” Reginald Hudlin referred to in the Baltimore Sun included everyone at the Sundance Film Festival, just as it did two months ago for Rick Famuyiwa and Dope. In both cases, highbrow critics showed up in Park City looking for the next big dramas that would spawn future Academy Award winners, but, instead, they watched a lively and positive comedy about Black teenagers win prizes and change their perceptions of what “the hip hop culture” could represent. Twenty-five years later, House Party deserves to be remembered in that frame of mind.