HOUSE PARTY (1990)

  • Director: Reginald Hudlin
  • Writer: Reginald Hudlin
  • Starring: Christopher “Kid” Reid, Christopher “Play” Martin, Robin Harris, Martin Lawrence, Tisha Campbell, A.J. Johnson, Paul Anthony George, Lucien George, Jr., Brian George, Gene “Groove” Allen, Daryl “Chill” Mitchell, John Witherspoon, Bebe Drake, George Clinton, Barry Diamond, and Michael Pniewski
  • Accolades: 2019 Slate.com Black Film Canon, 7 Independent Spirit Award nominations (Best Director – Reginald Hudlin, Best Male Lead – Christopher Reid, Best Supporting Male – Robin Harris, Best Supporting Female – Tisha Campbell, Best Supporting Female – A.J. Johnson, Best First Feature, Best Cinematography)
  • Where to Watch: Free streaming (with ads) on Tubi App, Stream with subscription on HBO Max, buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

House Party was meant as a foray into movies by several music acts that were current at the time, but has weirdly outlasted all of them as a general cultural thing. Despite being the first feature film for most of the people involved, it received fairly universal acclaim, made a bunch of money on a very limited budget, and launched four sequels to date. Despite taking its world and its characters seriously, and hardly sugar-coating their lives, it is, on a basic level, a joyous movie. Even if the very specific brand of early 90s rap music that makes up much of the soundtrack isn’t your thing, the characters do a great job of translating their emotions into something you as an audience member can feel. As movies go, that’s usually pretty much what it takes to impress me.

Reginald Hudlin based the screenplay on a student film he had made at Harvard. He grew up in St. Louis watching John Hughes movies about teenagers dealing with teenager stuff in Middle America, and wondered why all the characters in them had to be white. So when he did finally get the chance to direct a feature film, he basically made the hip-hop version of a John Hughes movie. Even before I heard Hudlin say so in an interview, I found myself watching this moving and going, “This is pretty much a take off on Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” Don’t get me wrong, it’s a really interesting spin on the material, but its influences are extremely clear. Except that Matthew Broderick didn’t get hassled by the cops nearly this much.

House Party stars Christopher “Kid” Reid and Christopher “Play” Martin, aka the hip hop duo “Kid ‘n Play.” Kid gets in trouble with his widower father (Robin Harris) for getting into a fight with some bullies (played by another hip hop group, “Full Force”), but decides to sneak out anyway to go to a party at his friend Play’s house. Play, meanwhile, forces a third friend, Bilal (an early-career Martin Lawrence) to DJ at his party for free, messing up his equipment in the process. At the party, there is a bunch of dancing and Kid and Play have one of the more fun rap battles I’ve seen in a movie. A couple guys get drunk and annoy everyone, while somebody else breaks the toilet, much to Play’s dismay. Meanwhile, two female friends (Tisha Campbell and A.J. Johnson) feel out which of them is going to go for which guy.

Play goes eventually goes home with Campbell’s character, Sydney, and the two of them are going to have sex until he realizes that the condom is his wallet is so old that is no longer useful, and she isn’t “wearing a diagram or anything like that.” Then her parents come home and he has to sneak out the window. Eventually, he runs back into the school bullies, but everyone gets arrested by two overzealous white cops (Barry Diamond and Michael Pniewski) who have been harassing everyone else in the movie. He raps to everyone in prison until Play, Bilal, and the girls come to bail him out, and heads home to where his dad is waiting for him with a belt.

That’s a lot of what happens in this movie, which is just a night in all of these people’s lives. Nothing earth-shattering happens, and no big decisions are made. It’s one of those movies that takes place entirely over the course of a day or night, but unlike some similar movies it resists the urge to make this particular day feel of particular importance to its characters. But it does feel “true,” while at the same time actually being, you know, funny, which is a needle that is hard for a lot of movies to thread. I laughed a lot during this movie, way more than I honestly was expecting.

That the movie connects so well on an emotional level feels like a major achievement, given that many of its main characters are played by non-actors. Also, this is a movie about high school kids where most of the case looks about 30. The main Full Force bully guy straight up looks like an NFL linebacker. Kid and Play were 26 and 28, respectively, but they probably do the best job of anyone in the movie at pretending to be teenagers. You still see this weird decision to cast full-blown adults as high school kids today, though it seems to me to have been much more common back in the 90s.

I don’t think I’ve ever knowingly listened to a Kid ‘n Play song, but they both do a great job here. Each has a lot of charisma, and Kid especially makes an impression as basically the main character in the movie. In 1990, “hip-hop culture” was still very much in its infancy in terms of seeping into the mainstream. House Party was a major hit centering around hip-hop music, and as such represented a big cultural step. This was a movie whose time had come in a way that those involved likely did not anticipate.

It is a very good version of a teen movie, but is perhaps most notable for the ways it’s different from many other teen movies. At one point, Kid and Play discuss whether Kid should get together with a girl, but Play discourages him because she’s “a project girl.” Meaning that her large family will be around all the time and they’ll never have a moment to get hot and heavy. The same pair of cops spends the whole movie harassing all of the characters, heroes and villains alike. At one point, while Kid’s father walks down the street looking for him, they stop and frisk him too, sternly and condescendingly telling him to “go home.” At one point, Kid and his bullies unwittingly stumble into a fancy backyard benefit full of better-off Black people (DJed, very randomly, by George Clinton in a cameo) and have a big fight, much to the consternation of the actual partygoers. But when the cops show up, the adults and the kids immediately close ranks against a common “enemy.” Asked if they plan to press charges, an older lady sternly tells the police, “They need discipline, not solitary confinement.”

The comedian Robin Harris puts in one of the more memorable performances in the movie, as Kid’s father. He harumphs around the house in a wifebeater, but clearly actually, deeply cares about his son. He works nights, we’re told, and in one scene waits by the phone because of the possibility of a call about “an extra shift.” He also has a wisecrack about everything (when Kid mentions his friend Bilal at one point, he grouses, “Don’t know why they gave that boy that African name, knowing he’s from Cleveland!” Though much admired by his fellow comedians at the time, you don’t hear much about Harris today. Unfortunately, he died of a heart attack only nine days after this movie came out. After the success of House Party, director Hudlin gained enough clout to make an animated movie, Bebe’s Kids, based on Harris’ sketches. Since then, Hudlin’s star has remained on the rise, including a stint running the BET network. His more recent directing work has included Marshall (starring Chadwick Boseman as future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall) and Safety, which debuted on Disney Plus during the pandemic, about a football player for the University of Clemson who has to take care of his little brother in his dorm.

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