Director Reginald Hudlin Looks Back At ‘House Party,’ 30 Years After Its Original Release
While he was a student at Harvard in 1986, Reginald Hudlin won first place and $1,500 in an esteemed Black independent filmmaker contest for a film that took “a stylish and witty look at teen-age behavior.” House Party, as it was called, became far more than a student project as the same script would be expanded for his first major feature film just four years later, with the added benefit of having his older brother Warrington on as a producer.
Among the many pop culture retrospectives engulfed by the news of the coronavirus pandemic was the 30th anniversary of House Party’s wide theatrical release back on March 9th. The film starred New York City rap duo Kid ‘n Play, the late comedian Robin Harris, and featured Martin Lawrence and Tisha Campbell just two years before they would star in the hit sitcom Martin.
House Party was one of the most successful Black comedies of that era; it eventually evolved into a franchise that spawned three films, though only the first carried the Hudlin imprint. That particular genre seemed to have exploded in the ’90s, but finds itself not nearly as prominent heading into 2021. “I just think there’s a shift in the culture right now, in terms of what people consider is funny,” replied Hudlin when asked about the changes in Black comedy over the last three decades. “And also, certainly in terms of Black filmmakers, at the time, comedy’s one of the few categories we could even make movies in! At the time, we were like, ‘Yeah, these are great, but we want to tell our story. We want to tell our history.’ And we couldn’t get those movies made. Now we can. Comedy will always be there, and it will come back.”
While the original film had an ensemble cast of comedians and musicians – any film with George Clinton being George Clinton just works – it was Hudlin’s call to cast Kid (Christopher Reid) and Play (Christopher Martin) that gave the comedy its connection to the teen through early twenties audience that still resonates today.
What attracted Hudlin to the New York rappers was their presentation. “I saw Kid n’ Play’s videos on Video Music Box, I was like, “Oh, this is great.” They were very visual, in terms of their look,” he reflected. “At the same time, their dance moves were incredible, and I knew that dance was really important. Because it’s one thing to rhyme, but it’s another thing to have a signature dance move.”
There was another duo that the studio, New Line Cinema, initially had in mind to star in the film. While this combo rode a mostly similar musical lane with Kid ‘n Play, its involvement would have been rather awkward.
“I turned in the script, the studio liked the movie, they greenlit the project — great!” quipped Hudlin. “They said, ‘Look, we sued DJ Jazzy Jeff and Fresh Prince because they sampled Nightmare on Elm Street, which is a New Line movie. So as part of the settlement, they have to do a movie for us.”
They may not have known that the roles were available, but could House Party have been a completely different film with Jeff and Fresh… err, Will Smith? Their videos were relative staples on MTV at the time – rare for Black artists not named Michael Jackson – and they would become Grammy award winners. Hudlin didn’t wait to find out, telling the studio “well, I love Jazzy Jeff and Fresh Prince — but I don’t want someone to make my movie because they lost a lawsuit.” [Laughs]
The movie that went on to inspire kids to try the famed Kid-‘n-Play dance has been a staple of Black pop culture for generations for its remix of sorts to the classic teen romper genre made famous by Ferris Buehler’s Day Off, Sixteen Candles and many more. Where raging hormones collided with teen angst and clueless parenting in those flicks, those same joneses crossed paths with more serious concerns of the Black community, notably the AIDS crisis and police harassment. Yet some of the crude humor that couched the serious topics may not be written the same way today. One glaring example is a scene where Kid shares a jail cell with the film’s bullies, played by Paul Anthony, Bowlegged Lou and B-Fine from the famed hip-hop producing crew Full Force.
It’s fair to assume that the Generation Z and younger crowd may see the film from a completely different lens than those who grew up with it. For Hudlin, that’s not an issue at all. “Well, I mean, now people say, “Man, I showed my favorite movie to my son and my daughter and they loved it.” And I’m like, hey, if they loved it? I just declare victory. I walk away. [Laughs] The fact that it works for multiple generations is wonderful. And I’m grateful.”
Its relevance is rooted in a simple truth that Hudlin can easily call out in the 30+ years since he won that filmmaking award in college: teenagers are teenagers. “There’s a girl you like, you don’t know how to talk to her,” he explains. “There’s some bullies that are picking on you. I don’t care, 1950s, 1960s, 70s, 80s to now — those are eternal realities. Those dynamics don’t change. Those are as real as physics, that’s like gravity. That is like the sun rising and falling. They are what they are.”
Though the franchise continued with the commercially-successful House Party 2, the remaining films might as well not exist to the fans of the original movie. So could Reginald Hudlin, who would go on to helm Boomerang, The Great White Hype, Marshall, countless TV episodes and award shows —not to mention Safety, now streaming on Disney Plus— ever revisit his former student film project in these times? In short, no.
“If you make it in the modern day, you have to reflect where the culture is now. The issues are the same, but you would tell it differently. So yeah, I wouldn’t do it, just because I’ve already done it. I don’t have an interest in revisiting it. But yeah, it can be done.”
Yet a barbershop conversation provided a more personal reason why a modern House Party might not work. “This dude came up to me and said, ‘Man, your movie ruined my life! I spent my whole youth looking for that party. And we don’t throw parties like that anymore. We don’t have slow jams; we don’t have the spirit of the party that you saw in that movie.’ I’m like, well, if you don’t have that party, you can’t make that movie.”