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.