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HOUSE PARTY AND THE ART OF THE DANCE-OFF

Upon its 30th anniversary, the dance-off in Reginald and Warrington Hudlin’s teen comedy offers a rosetta stone for the rest of the film’s enduring charms.

Arriving at the end of the decade in which teen movie conventions were minted, House Party made a handful of notable – even essential – changes to genre conventions. Written, directed by and starring black performers, it lent an overdue authenticity to the notion than teenage experiences on screen were universal – the idea that black kids wanted the same things and struggled with the same problems as their white counterparts. It also added a lot of little details that of course distinguished the trouble (or even appearance of trouble) that black high schoolers got into as well, and added a sharper cultural context that, quite frankly, virtually none of its predecessors touched upon, including the likes of The Breakfast Club or Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

But Reginald Hudlin’s debut feature earned its place among top-tier teen comedies by using all of those specificities as a foundation while being just as irreverent, raucous and fun as the ones it followed. That’s exactly why 30 years later, House Party remains as vibrant and thrilling today, encapsulated in a centerpiece dance scene that (1) holds up as a benchmark even among classic musicals and (2) elevates Hudlin’s vision to something truly enduring and essentially cinematic.

The basic details are sort of delightfully unremarkable: after getting into a fight with a high school bully Stab (“Paul Anthony” George), the eraser-headed Kid (Christopher Reid) sneaks out against his father Pop’s (Robin Harris) wishes to attend the party of his best friend and sometime competitor Play (Christopher Martin). Trouble ensues when Stab and his pals decide to exact revenge, even as Kid awkwardly attempts to navigate flirtations with both Sharane (A.J. Johnson) and Sydney (Tisha Campbell), classmates who aren’t entirely sure if they like him or Play better. Their evenings converge at Play’s party, where the four of them finally begin to start pairing off after a dance-off clears the floor.

Rewatching this scene recently left me in tears: it’s such a wonderfully joyful moment that highlights the skill of all four performers, while injecting some playful, unique energy into their courtship that, again, few other teen comedies accomplished with such brio. It begins when social rival Groove (Gene Allen) enlists Kid to teach him a dance move, exposing him to embarrassment by Sharane and Sydney. But Kid fearlessly challenges both to a dance-off, and when Groove can’t keep up, Play steps in. What happens from there is pure, exhilarating movement:

The showdown is truly a stand-off in the end, as Hudlin and his choreographer give the actresses moves that equal and sometimes even surpass their male counterparts. The fact that they’re all good is what distinguishes the scene from so many others: in a scene that’s supposed to not just be energetic but funny, what they’re doing only amplifies the humor, and the sexual tension. And at the same time, none of the choreography is explicit or raunchy. Given Kid and Play’s off screen relationship as halves of a hip-hop duo, it’s clear they have a comfortable and well-established rapport, boiled down to a move that rightfully has earned the name “the kid ‘n play.” But Sharene and Sydney know themselves and each other just as well, and it makes them ideal partners for these slick but goofy teenagers trying to impress their classmates with cool they can’t fully wear confidently.

But what the movie does so well from there is explore the dynamics between these two sets of friends in a socioeconomic context – Kid, baby-faced, light-skinned and lower-income opposite Play, darker-skinned, more affluent and suave, while Sharane is the “hood chick” to Sydney’s wholesome suburbanite. Both of the girls initially think Kid is cute, but their approaches to flirtation are markedly different; conversely, Play leans into the pretense of being a lothario, while Kid charms them less convincingly. These are all elements that Hudlin doesn’t foreground, but he’s clearly tapping into some of the same ideas that Spike Lee broached two years prior in School Daze, not just utilizing a few of the same actors but in juxtaposing black characters with different shades of skin coming from different economic classes against each other. The kids here are meant to be just a little bit younger – maybe not quite aware of those differences on a conscious level – but Hudlin establishes how they play out even in communities where they’re not focused upon.

Kid and Play – or more accurately, Kid and Pops – additionally reckon with another intrusive and inescapable force in their community, the police, after two cops corner them one at a time while walking at night on the sidewalk. Harris’ Pop is suitably disrespectful in return for their profiling, but their repeated appearance even in a community that within the film is primarily black offers a reminder that getting in trouble or just doing some of the really ordinary things that white teenagers might in a comedy must be treated differently to be authentic. What’s really terrific is how even different social strata in this black community react to disruptive black kids versus police, even when those police are to whatever extent responding as their job demands.

During a detour from the party to escape Stab and his buddies, Kid escapes another beatdown when cops show up and try to arrest all four of them at a reunion party attended by wealthy black alumni. Even irritated by the kids, they immediately stick up for all four of them when the cops announce plans to run them off to jail. There’s an understated solidarity that points out how the individuals in their community stick together against the presumably (and as the movie shows, demonstrably) more oppressive forces that patrol and monitor it from the outside.

But for a black teen comedy where among other misadventures, one of the main characters ends up in jail, House Party remains a delightfully wholesome, well-intentioned slice of fun. These teenagers are horny, clever (but not always smart), awkward, and misguided in consistently charming ways. Kid’s plea to win Sydney’s affection doesn’t sound like a ploy, it feels sincere. Play’s skill preparing his house for the party – removing fine glassware and furniture to prevent damage – and then his anxiety after someone breaks the toilet all feels real and believable, and probably a bit smarter than, say, Wyatt and Gary as they mount their shindig in Weird Science(even with Lisa’s magic to fix all the damage afterward).

Robin Harris, so fantastically filthy in both this and Mo’ Better Blues in the same year, unfortunately passed away far too soon, but for a comedian seldom known on screen for sentimentality, he delivers a performance that conveys both authority and sincere love for his son. Martin Lawrence shines as Bilal, their long-suffering friend and DJ, testing that boundary he explored often later in his career as both annoying and appealing.  Meanwhile, Kid and Play – evidently chosen after the original plan to cast Will Smith and Jeff Townes, a/k/a Jazzy Jeff, fell through, exude charm and charisma, definitely more than enough to sustain this franchise through two more installments (and two more without them).

After a decade of teen movies about white kids navigating high school, love, sex, bullies and both good and bad social choices, Hudlin’s film felt like a breath of fresh air because its focus was on all of the same challenges, just with kids who looked a little different than the genre’s fans may have expected. The longevity that House Partypossesses today comes precisely from that combination of archetypes universal and narrowly specific, enabling more viewers than ever to see something unique and transcendent in that familiar story that they never had before – namely, themselves. And then and now, it’s a welcome a reminder that dancing is a really fun way to meet and connect with other people (much less potential romantic partners), especially if you’re good at it.

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‘HOUSE PARTY’ IS A CLASSIC COMEDY THAT SHOWED BLACK KIDS BEING THEMSELVES

Reggie Hudlin’s classic comedy’s enduring appeal lies in its specific cultural voice.

It’s been 30 years since the release of House Party, the enduring Reginald Hudlin-directed teen rap comedy starring Kid ‘N Play. In those three decades, the popular movie has spawned an entire franchise (with an expected reboot on the way), turned Kid ‘N Play into pop culture superstars (remember the cartoon?), led to some cast reunions and retrospectives, and made it a fixture on most lists celebrating classic Black movies. It’s uniquely timeless: a movie draped in Black culture, an ode to Black teendom and a film that celebrates the universal, youthful release that hip-hop has always been able to provide.

The film was born of a 1983 short that was shot and produced by Hudlin while he was still a student at Harvard. In 1987, brothers Reggie and Warrington Hudlin turned the short into a full feature script, presenting it to New Line Cinema, the movie studio then predominantly known for the Nightmare On Elm Street horror series. Looking to hop on the post-Spike Lee Black film wave, the studio greenlit the movie. Initially written for Grammy-winning pop-rap duo DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, the starring roles instead went to their contemporaries Kid ‘N Play, a pair of fleet-footed rhymers from Queens who’d enjoyed a string of rap hits helmed by superproducer Hurby “Luv Bug” Azor. A virtually unknown Martin Lawrence soon joined the cast as Kid ‘N Play’s hapless buddy, Bilal—fresh off his first big screen appearance in Lee’s 1989 classic Do The Right Thing.

As the film’s two female leads, Sidney (Tisha Campbell) and Sharane (A.J. Johnson) are at the center of both the film’s romantic conflicts and their own semi-rivalry. The two actresses already knew each other when House Party began casting.

“I was just coming out of In Living Color,” Johnson recalls to VIBE. “[My attorney] was also the attorney for Reggie and Warrington Hudlin. He told me there was a film he was representing that I was perfect for. They were looking for a brown-skinned dancer, high energy, attitude, fun loving–and that’s kind of where it began. By the time he set up my audition, it was actually a pairing for the Sidney and Sharane roles. At the time, Tisha was my friend but more my mentor. Because at that time, I was a dancer. I’d done little bits of acting, but more so dancing. She said ‘I’ve got an audition for a movie called House Party!’ I said ‘Me too!,’ and she was like ‘omigod! Let’s go at the same time!”

On-set, Johnson admits that she didn’t get the movie initially. But she focused on the bond between she and Campbell’s characters.

“Not at all!” she says with a laugh when asked if she knew at the time that this project was special. “I didn’t get the humor. I didn’t live in the projects, so I [didn’t] understand half these lines and jokes. [But] Tisha and I were creating this friendship. So because Tisha was the thespian between the two of us, she was very strong in saying ‘Let’s create a friendship that other sisters will want to emulate.’”

The soul of House Party was the late comedy legend Robin Harris. As “Pop,” Harris was the grumpy-but-hilarious dad–attempting to catch his wayward son, Kid, after the teenager sneaks out to attend the shindig at Play’s house. It would be Harris’ biggest role, and sadly, his last. He died of a massive heart attack just days after the film hit theaters. But the movie became a major part of a legacy that has continued in the decades since his death. The late John Witherspoon also makes a memorable appearance as an angry neighbor—one of many scene-stealing appearances he would have in classic Black comedies throughout the 1990s.

A box office hit in the spring of 1990, House Party was a trailblazer. After a decade of classic 80s teen movies like Weird Science and Pretty In Pink, films that mined the angst of coming of age but from a decidedly white perspective, here was a film telling a story of Black teenage culture at the dawn of the 1990s. Critics raved, and took note of House Party’s uniquely African-American lens.

In 1990, the Los Angeles Times wrote:

“Shot for $2.5 million with a nearly all-black cast and a crew the Hudlins tabulate as 65% African-American, the film is loaded to the max with specific references–jokes, fashion, dance, music, language, products, politics–to the black teen-age hip-hop subculture. Combined with the film’s ethnic wit and edge, and its raucous energy, it adds up to a cultural richness rarely found in standard teen comedies.”

The then-28-year-old Reggie Hudlin believed that authenticity is what resonates universally. “The theory we’ve always believed…is that if you can make a film that is culturally uncompromised, it will still have broad appeal. And, in fact, by diluting the (ethnic content of) the film, it becomes less interesting for all audiences.”

In making the film, both Hudlin and the cast tapped into a wealth of experiences. The movie’s iconic dance scene was the brainchild of Johnson, who’d attended Spelman College in Atlanta and felt no party could be a party without a dance battle. “I was coming from a dance battle environment,” she explains. “I was at an HBCU. I pledged Delta Sigma Theta Incorporated. So between stepping in a sorority and being at Spelman, all I knew at parties were dance battles. When I got to the script and there was no dance battle, I said to Reggie ‘I don’t know how to party without a dance battle!’ And he said ‘Well–let’s see what that looks like.’”

Part of why House Party resonated then and continues to now is that kind of warm authenticity. Sure, its R-rating is earned—there is no shortage of raunchy jokes—but it feels true to Black teenage experience in a way that audiences hadn’t seen in a major film since Cooley High. These were young Black people who aren’t sanitized—they face issues like cop harassment, after all—but who also aren’t “at-risk” necessarily, and whose lives aren’t neatly divided into stereotypical boxes. The movie shows you Black kids from the projects and from middle-class suburbia—and they don’t seem all that far away from each other, geographically or culturally. It was shot in L.A. but never looks or feels like the same backdrop as Boyz N the Hood or Colors; it feels like this story could be anywhere in Black America.

“For that to be my first true starring theatrical role, it spoiled me,” says Johnson. “It was hard to do anything less than the collaborative energy that Reggie gave. It was very respectful and he honored each of our talents: he honored the comedy in Martin; the comedic timing in [co-star] Daryl ‘Chill’ Mitchell; he honored the camaraderie and teenage female energy between Tisha and I; he honored what Kid N Play had already established as Kid N Play even offscreen, and then he honored what he was watching as we moved through the film. He’d witnessed all of it. He was just basically there to nurture more chemistry and more good times. After that, it was hard for me to work with other directors who are not as collaborative.

“It’s almost like Reggie gave me the permission to be the true artist I was. A lot of directors, they tell you your mark, they tell you how to say a line—and that’s ok, that’s the director’s style. But because my first experience as a lead in a film was Reggie Hudlin, it was hard for me to work with another director that was more constricting.”

In 2016, Lawrence told Collider: “Well I was just young and I was new to the game and I was so excited to be part of all that. I was just very happy and eager to get my career going and people to know who I was. You know, just deliver. Become somebody to be reckoned with and that’s why I was so excited about that time.”

It’s not hard to understand why House Party still resonates. Everything from the clothes to the music speaks to its era in a way that honors that moment in time; and with its honest depictions of youthful Black exuberance, every generation of teenagers finds themselves relating to the antics onscreen. Beyond just teens, it feels like a love letter to Black pop culture; it references everything from Dolemite routines to the Hey Love R&B compilation commercials (“No, my brother—you got ta buy ya own”) to P-Funk chants, with a kinetic soundtrack that features R&B and hip-hop from the likes of Full Force (who also famously appear as high school bullies in the film) and Public Enemy. This was a movie unafraid to be as Black as it could possibly be, and it helped to announce the wave of Black cinema that would define the early 1990s.

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51ST NAACP IMAGE AWARDS RECEIVES SURGE IN VIEWERSHIP ON BET AND VIACOMCBS SIMULCAST

Rihanna receives the President’s Award at the NAACP Image Awards
Chris Pizzello/Shutterstock

The 51st NAACP Image Awards made the move from TV One to BET — and the move worked in its favor. The awards ceremony recognizing the achievements of people of color in television, music, literature, film and social justice netted a staggering 1.8 million total viewers across BET and 10 ViacomCBS sibling networks when it aired on February 22.

In addition to BET, the ceremony hosted by black-ish actor and Image Award winner Anthony Anderson aired on MTV, MTV2, VH1, Comedy Central, CMT, BET Her, Logo, TV Land, Pop and Smithsonian. The telecast saw a +448% increase in viewership versus a year ago.  In addition to the simulcast receiving 1.8 million Total Viewers P2+ with BET accounting for 850K total viewers P2+.

The awards telecast was also the top social TV program on Saturday with the tweet volume for the show reaching its apex when Rihanna accepting the President’s Award. As of now, there have been over 14 million total social streams for show.

Big winners of the night included musician Lizzo who received the award for Entertainer of the Year as well as Just Mercy actors Jamie Foxx and Michael B. Jordan. Anderson’s black-ish co-stars Tracee Ellis Ross, Marsai Martin and Deon Cole took home trophies while Angela Basset won Outstanding Actress for her role in 9-1-1. U.S. Congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis was also honored with the NAACP Chairman’s Award.

The 51st NAACP Image Awards is produced by Hudlin Entertainment and The Gurin Company. The special was executive produced by Reggie Hudlin and Phil Gurin, co-executive produced by Byron Phillips and Producer Robin Reinhardt. Connie Orlando served as Executive Producer for BET Networks.

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