On Love Jones and Searching for Black Desire Onscreen
"Most of the images of teen romance I saw were of white kids"
The following essay appears in Issue 07 of Apogee Journal.
It starts with black bodies in a state of pulchritude. Still and moving black-and-white images cut by the blues of Dion Farris’s soulful and cathartic voice.
A close-up of an older black man that shows handsome perseverance in wrinkles and tightly sealed lips. Cut to his hands. Smiles, kisses, warm embraces—black affection. The film’s opening is lush and aesthetic. This is already a film about pleasure.
Several weeks after Jerome and I watched Love Jones for the first time, on Valentine’s Day, I went to the movie theater with a friend to see 50 Shades of Grey. I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. I wanted to see if there would be any black- or brown-people sex on the big screen. I wanted to witness what The Atlantic has called “American culture’s sexual fantasy of the moment.”
At ten in the morning, the movie theater was packed. As my friend and I watched the film, we held no reserve, our laughter was loud and, quite frankly, warranted. There are two very short and easily forgettable scenes with a Latino man who gets rejected by Anastasia Steele, the female star of the film. Each time I heard Beyoncé’s voice on the soundtrack, I burned with awareness of the fact that the film allowed blackness only to be heard, but not seen. I flashed back to an experience at The Museum of Sex just a few months prior. There I was, standing next to face masks and lube, flipping through a 220-page book entitled The Big Butts Book in search of a black woman in the midst of all this sexual expression. I found only three photos of black women. I continued to search in all of the sexy books on display and came up short. On its brochure, The Museum of Sex claims to “preserve and present the history, evolution, and cultural significance of human sexuality.”
FREEZE FRAME: REGULAR FOLKS
“You haven’t seen Love Jones?” This is the question I asked my fiancé with wide, gaping eyes and a slightly elevated voice. I have seen the film so many times I can’t keep track. “Like, what’s your filmic reference for black sex?” I asked him. Love Jones has some of the best cinematic black sex scenes I have ever seen. When you love a film so much it becomes your mission to make everyone else love it too, and this is the type of relationship I have with Love Jones. I was both concerned and confused by his lack of recognition. “Jerome, you can’t be married to me and not have seen Love Jones. You have to see it,” I declared. He responded with a distracted, “Want to watch an episode of Sanford and Son?”
Loves Jones was released in 1997, and stars Nia Long as Nina and Larenz Tate as Darius. The plot is simple, no different from many other mainstream romantic dramas—boy wants girl, girl resists, boy gets girl. There’s sexual tension, they fight, and find their way back to each other in the end. Love Jones has an all-black cast and a killin’ soundtrack that features artists like the inimitable jazz singer, Cassandra Wilson, and the neo-soul virtuoso, Meshell Ndegeocello. The film is unabashedly black from start to finish. It was written and directed by a black man, Theodore Witcher. In an interview with The Root, Witcher explained the inspiration behind the film: “I wanted to do something that was closer to my dating experience.” This “something” that Witcher mentions manifests in a film that animates some of the most quotidian aspects of how black people love and live.
REWIND: NINA AND DARIUS’S FIRST DATE
Jerome and I were both teenagers in the 1990s. We came of age in different states—he in Ohio, I in New York—and we met by way of Brooklyn. The story of our early relationship isn’t incredibly unique. We participated in the mundane activities that most couples do: We ate together, watched TV, and met each other’s friends. We don’t have a lot in common in terms of our television-watching practices. He loves comedy, I’m more of a heart-tugging drama, indie rom-com kind of girl. We compromised; cuddled up on the couch of his oddly arranged bachelor pad living room and watched Martin. It became a ritual, two mini folding tables topped with his hodgepodge dinners, an episode or two of the show followed by a make-out session. During the show he would laugh and laugh. On Martin, all of the tender moments are blanketed with a comedy so slapstick it resembles caricature. I have issues with the show but I couldn’t help but grin at Martin’s mellifluous sounding “Gina, I loooooovee you!” Snuggled together on his couch, I smiled in sweet awe of this evidence of our couple-tude.
It took several months to get Jerome to succumb to my request to watch Love Jones. He didn’t seem to be moved by my enthusiasm when I declared that the film captured the “Best. Black people. Sex. Ever.” His apprehension had deep roots. “My idea of romance, from being a kid and listening to hip-hop, is broken,” he said. He explained how growing up, R. Kelly’s music had been one of the closest and most acceptable voices of black romance that reached him. “If you got caught watching a film like Love Jones in the dorms, you got clowned. They’d say, man, you a cake.” The thought of watching Love Jones shored up all of these voices from his youth that we both knew were problematic, but hadn’t been challenged or corrected.
When I finally got him to sit down to watch it with me, I couldn’t help but look at his face during all of the supremely sexy scenes to see if he was noticing that, um… black people were having sex onscreen. He slipped out an “Oooo” when we saw Nina’s erect nipple piercing through her wife beater at the film’s opening. I smacked him gleefully. Finally, he was there with me, in front of the screen watching Nina give sass. This is an incarnation of pleasure that I want to recreate as often as possible so long as we are together. It is the erotic bounced back, turned over.
PAUSE: SLOW JAM
The exchange of tender embraces: Nina and Darius hugged up at a hang with Darius’s friends. Coquettish and vulnerable, she whispers into Darius’s ear. I wonder what she is saying, but I am glad this intimate moment isn’t available to us as viewers. I dig the way in which black intimacy is out of reach in this scene. They go dancing later that night at a reggae club where their erotic dial turns up. Jerome’s eyes are peeled to the screen; I begin to feel my lips cheese into a smile.
Next scene: Darius is on the phone. Nina hangs up the receiver, unzips his pants.
I lean in to see that yes, in fact, they are about to do it. And yes, they are black.
“It’s so good,” I say. “Let’s watch the sex scene again.” Rewind: He drags the little black ball of time backwards.
THE BLACK SEX CANON: 90s EDITION
I first saw Love Jones when I was in high school right around the same time that I saw Kids (1995). Like most of my peers, I was angsty and horny and I wanted to be grown so I could do daring and incredible things with my body. Kids was akin to soft porn for me at the time. It had scenes containing edgy, reckless, teenage sex. Love Jones was romantic, late-90s, mature, artsy-type sex. These two films were my sole reference points for nookie. And since I was an artsy blackgirl geek with little to no romantic experience, it was Love Jones that became my blueprint of black desire. Nina embodied all that I wanted to exude: she was talented, coy, beautiful.
My teen years were fixed on channel “adolescent desire.” I was watching shows like Dawson’s Creek where young white kids had a kind of sexual and material freedom that was entertaining but seemed out of reach for me. Most of the images of teen romance I saw were of white kids, but this fell in line with the white schools I attended and neighborhoods I lived in. I had gotten used to not being the object of desire. I don’t remember being worried about this. I was too busy praying that someone cute would kiss me after the school dance to think deeply about how virtually all of the smooches, sighs, and hitting of the skins on the big screen were between white people. In retrospect, I think Nina came to capture all that I desired to be and have as a black girl and sexual being in this world, because there were so few options. Love Jones left a dramatic impression that has stayed with me. I continue to watch the film and squeal at lines from the brilliantly seductive (albeit corny) poem Darius dedicates to Nina: “I’m the blues in your left thigh / Trying to become the funk in your right.” It’s so 90s.
As you read this, you might be trying to think of all of the instances of black sex you have seen on the big screen. I think of the 90s as one of the golden eras of black sex onscreen mostly because of the sheer number of mainstream films that featured black desire. Just to name a few, there was How Stella Got Her Groove Back, Waiting to Exhale, Soul Food, Mo’ Better Blues, The Inkwell, Jason’s Lyric, Poetic Justice, and of course, my all-time favorite, Love Jones. My mental catalogue of notes from these films is epic. I consider them to be not only an important category of black film but also of my personal history. I have relationships with these films.
I remember watching Waiting to Exhale with my mother when I was 13, just as my parents began the process of divorce. I remember sitting on the couch with my mother and seeing her momentarily transform from a position of shame and isolation to a boss black woman who had reclaimed her power and owned her status as a divorcée. The scene with Angela Bassett walking away from a car that she had set ablaze, symbolized how I would counteract bullshit in my life and in my relationships. I channeled Bassett to strut away from bad romantic partners and bullies at work. I remember watching Mo’ Better Blues at the age of 22; I was young and single and living in France. I watched the film at least 20 times because I so intensely missed the cadence of black American English. This stream of visual feedback was a way for me, and some of those around me, to affirm the broad spectrum of emotional and physical desire that black bodies experience in this world.
FREEZE FRAME: A CASE OF THE JONES
“Do you know of any cultures that don’t have any sort of sexual practice?” I ask Jerome this mildly weird question weeks after we’ve seen Love Jones. “Nah,” he answers, “I ain’t nevah heard a that.” I know that everyone has a different relationship with sex. But I still want to know how we are all linked through the pleasure of touch and sexual desire. I want to know why there is such an acute lack of imagination when it comes to portraying the black erotic body. This is a violence in and of itself that watching Love Jones with Jerome seems to counteract for me. I am convinced that black sex and sexuality has profoundly radical potential; watching Love Jones with Jerome is the kind of erotic joy that I need to move through a world that is hostile to black bodies. It brings me into a visual field where I feel seen, where pleasure becomes visceral. There is a kind of electricity that makes the hairs stand on my arms, the shock of desire. I touch Jerome with the tips of my fingers. This is where our bodies can be at ease, where we can be vulnerable to ourselves and each other.
Halfway through the film Jerome is shouting at my laptop. “Why is she playing games? Nah, if she goes to see her dude again, it’s on her.” I feel compelled to respond, but refrain. (Jerome will talk the entire film if I encourage him with even a few words of conversation.) I squeeze his hand and shush him instead. Jerome is a professional drummer and recognizes one of the musicians in the film as someone he once shared an apartment with in Brooklyn. I love that one of the faces in the film now has some off-screen resonance. Jazz is not only Jerome’s métier, it is his life. It is our life. I was raised by a jazz musician who immersed me in the music to the point that when I was five, the sound of Freddie Hubbard’s trumpet held more appeal for me than Michael Jackson’s sweet pop hooks. We rewind the film and freeze the face of the saxophone player he knows. I lean in yet again, enjoying the breadth of our recognition.
PAUSE: LOVE SCENE IN DARIUS’S APARTMENT
Nina enters Darius’s apartment for the first time. She grabs his camera and tells him to strip. She snaps. He removes garment after garment. Pause: “Now, this wouldn’t happen to wind up in someone’s magazine or book now would it?” She reassures him, “Nah, baby, this is strictly for my private collection.” The camera’s eye is fixed on his body. She’s a photographer, he a writer. Both work through mediums meant to make the fleeting eternal. Nina is sitting on his lap with her legs wrapped around him. Darius unzips her shirt as she gazes toward the sky.
Our shared experience watching Love Jones feels comparable to taking the love of your life to meet your parents or to visit your hometown. It’s like, welcome, meet my history. Witness a version of black pleasure that renders black people as sexual beings but not as sexual objects. I want to watch Love Jones over and over until this spool of black pleasure becomes a cemented frame of reference. “It’s so important that we have sex on TV and in movies,” I tell Jerome. “The world needs more black people sex!” I know it’s so complicated with black folks and sex: there are the traps of both hyper-visibility and the invisibility. Our bodies are both everywhere and nowhere; we are caught within the narrowness of the American imagination. Black people are fixed types in mainstream television and music: the thug, basketball wife, video vixen, token side-kick, the bad bitch. Within this thin set of options we continue to assert our right to freely exist in a complicated and often hostile landscape. We teeter between the promise of full citizenship and the constant threat of bodily violence. These realities of the black experience are important and demand our attention, but they aren’t the only paths that need to be cleared towards liberation. Sex-positive imagery matters too. And so I want to talk about sex and tenderness and touching between two black or brown people in the context of some sort of narrative.
Of course, Love Jones does not represent even a fraction of the possibilities of blackgirl pleasure. The film is also not without flaws. In some ways, it places women within the tired trope of male romantic acrobatics. Nina is the object of unrelenting male pursuit, first by Darius and then by her ex. The film doesn’t push the boundaries of black sexual desire; there isn’t a single queer black character in the narrative. But there’s still an affective power in this film that I manage to embrace openly—the music, the voices, the black bodies, and the quotidian layers of intimate expression. If, as poet Nikki Giovanni once wrote, “Black love is Black wealth,” then I imagine black sex must be too. By watching the film together, Jerome and I have created an archive of black pleasure and sensuality. Six months after watching Love Jones together, Jerome and I married.
Our shelves have grown in fullness with the Love Joneses from every historical period we can find. Jerome invites me to join him in listening to recordings of Moms Mabley performing her stand-up routines, rolling punchy lines of sexual innuendo to a roaring black audience. We listen to the dirty blues during road trips and when he’s away he sends me YouTubes of Teddy Pendergrass dressed in all white, flaunting his chest hair and gyrating his hips. We laugh our heads off at three in the morning. We argue about who’s wearing whose socks. We engage in conversations about the things that pain us about being black in America: colorism, inequality, racial violence. I’m pretty sure we will never stop talking about these things. Still, the thing I am committed to is carving out a space for us to take our pleasure seriously.