Everyone's here, let 'em all in.
The chandelier downstairs has fallen.
I know it's hard to resist.
This is the party no one wanted to miss.
-Luther Vandross, Bad Boy/Having a Party
I've told this story before, but it bears repeating. When I was about 15 years old, I wanted to go to a house party being thrown by one of my classmates. My mother said yes at first, but when she learned that it was an unsupervised party, she killed the idea of me going. Or so she thought. I had never snuck out of the house before, but it was an easy task because my bedroom window opened out onto the roof of the first floor addition that had been put on the house before we moved in. I climbed stealthily over that and down the side of the house, shushed our Doberman Pinscher, climbed my neighbor's fence, went around the side of his house and hit the street. My heart was racing with excitement. I was the "good one" of my Mom's children, and I was finally tasting the sweet fruit of rebellion. It ran down my chin and stuck to my neck like honey.
I had a great time at the party. And when I got home, my mother beat my ass until it sang Marvin Gaye's version of the Star Spangled Banner.
A similar story is told in House Party, Reginald Hudlin's 1990 vehicle. An extension of his school film project, Hudlin and his brother Warrington fleshed out the idea and created a cross between a Beach Party Movie and Scorsese's After Hours. As the leads, the Hudlin brother cast rap duo Kid 'n Play, two guys named Chris who were popular until another rap duo with two guys named Chris showed up wearing backwards clothes and jumping around
Kid 'n Play had complementary personalities, a striking look, and even their own dance. Play (Christopher Martin) is the smooth, brown-skinned bruva with the fade and the killer smile. He fancies himself a ladies' man and always runs the player's game. His partner Kid (Christopher Reid) is a natural comedian who sports the highest high top fade in existence. He wears it well despite it making him look like a high yallow number 2 pencil. Their look set them apart, and as I recall—and the film serves as a good reminder—they weren't bad rappers. Like Mr. T and Muhammed Ali before them, they even had their own cartoon series. Also like the aforementioned T and Ali, their series lasted about 30 seconds before being canned.
In House Party, the duo play Chris and Peter, two high school kids who enjoy ogling the girlies, rocking the mike, and going to the titular events. Chris (Kid) lives with his hard-working widower father, Pop (Robin Harris) while Peter (Play) lives in a nice big house with his parents. Said parents are on vacation, and Peter decides to host the House Party to end all house parties. Chris can't wait to go to Peter's jam and prove to everyone he's the dopest rap writer since Young M.C., but an altercation at school between him and the class bullies (played by the group Full Force) causes Pop to ban him from attending. Pop even paraphrases the King of R&B himself, Mr. Bobby Brown: "Every little step you take will be around this bedroom!"
Chris is dejected, and rightfully so: the two hottest girls in school are going to be at Peter's party. There's Sidney (Tisha Campbell), a somewhat bougie redbone sista, and her cocoa colored best friend from the projects, Sharane (A. J. Johnson). Hudlin establishes their friendship in a wonderful early scene at Sharane's house. The two teens sit on the stoop and discuss how cute Chris and Peter are, and who likes whom. The witty and real dialogue hints at the underlying rivalry between the two teens, and this rivalry is mirrored in the friendship of the male protagonists. It's refreshing that Hudlin gives them time to relate not only to their potential romantic interests, but to themselves as well.
Meanwhile, Peter swings by to pick up his DJ, Bilal (Martin Lawrence). Bilal is a good DJ but a rather annoying friend whose breath is in dire need of Listerine. Women keep telling him this—Sharane calls him "dragon breath"—but he never seems to catch on. Peter infuriates him with the shoddy treatment of Bilal's DJ equipment, which he shoves violently into his undersized car. This causes Bilal to have a Martin Lawrence style freak-out before Peter leaves him behind because there's no room for him in the car. When Peter finally shows back up, an hour later, to pick up a still-pissed-off Bilal, he has to sweet-talk him into going to the party.
Back at Chris' place, Pop falls asleep watching Rudy Ray Moore's classic piece of shit, Dolemite. Chris sneaks out of the house and makes his way toward Peter's party, but it won't be easy. En route he will have to deal with some bumbling yet dangerous White cops who call him "Eraserhead," after stopping him for fitting the description. (What Black person fits the description of Lynch's Eraserhead?) Chris will also have to deal with Full Force, who are riding around the neighborhood looking to continue the ass-kicking they started during the lunch break altercation that got Chris banished to his room. Chris will also have to deal with an upper class party where his raps falls flat despite having George Clinton as his DJ, and the ultimate horror of witnessing two exhibitionists in a sex scene I wish the Hudlins had left out of the picture.
Eventually, Chris does make it to the party, and what a party it is. Wall to wall bodies dancing to the music and having a good time. The costume design and cinematography shine. The partygoers clothing seem perfectly complementary, and the entire screen is filled with bodies grooving, moving and even grinding to slow jams. It felt like you could just step into the screen to dance the Running Man.
As the party unfolds, little mini-dramas take place. One guy tries to get his fellow partygoers to partake of the OE, but like the passengers on that boat to Heaven in Guys and Dolls, everyone resists. He winds up so inebriated that he makes a fool of himself and has to be dragged home by Peter. Sharane and Sidney have a dance-off competition with Chris and Peter, and Chris and Peter have a battle rap that's pure old school, that is, nobody gets shot. Something bad happens to Peter's toilet, and a surprise visitor to the party scares the shit out of everyone before Sidney's quick thinking gets him to leave without seeing Chris. Sharane and Sidney have it out over the boys, and Chris winds up in jail momentarily.
It's an eventful night that ends with Chris getting home in one piece despite numerous misadventures, and you know what's waiting for him. The same thing that was waiting for me.
"I wouldn't do that just yet," says Pop.
House Party is one of the many movies I'll discuss here that rings true with the familiarity of Black life. So many scenes, even quiet ones, have little nuances that seem calibrated just for our wavelengths. The scene with Sharane and Sidney on the stoop is a prime example. Several things occur that had me shaking my head in acknowledgment. First, Sharane steals the prime spot on the stoop from her housemate. "I'm coming back," the housemate protests. "You snooze, you lose," says Sharane. I've had plenty of fights over seating arrangements, both on the stoop and in the house.
Then, Sharane asks her little brother to bring her some red Kool-Aid. "Ain't no more," he says, and she advises him to make some. I remember the packet of Kool-Aid instructed me to add one cup of sugar, but this kid makes Kool-Aid the way it's supposed to be made: without a measuring cup.
Right before she leaves, Sharane goes back into the house to get her purse and say goodbye to the family. The placement of the secondary actors and their actions is on point. They're lounging around the house, on the phone or watching TV. The grandmother is conked out on what's probably her favorite couch. On the TV is a commercial for the ghetto-fabulous album K-Tel only wishes it put out, Hey Love. (It's an in-joke; this commercial was the first thing Hudlin directed.)
The art direction is also amusingly ghetto fabulous. Check out some of the items in Chris' house, at the House Party and even at the school. The juxtaposition of Peter's yellow car with Bilal's house is hilarious and reminded me of the garishly colored cars and houses in my old neighborhood.
Peter Deming's cin-tog is fabulous, both in interior and exterior shots, but it's the way he lights the faces of the actors that elevates his handiwork. House Party treats the faces of its actors with movie star glamour. This is what that around-the-way girl you had a crush on looked like to your heart. He plays with shadow on faces, especially the females; at other times it seems like they're glowing from within. Deming would later go on to work with David Lynch (nice tie-back to Kid's Eraserhead 'do), most notably on Mulholland Dr. and Lost Highway. He also shot Joe's Apartment, but nothing he could do with light could make those gospel-singing roaches watchable.
The actors are all first rate. Play is suave, Kid is comical and likable. Tisha Campbell, fresh off School Daze, and A.J. Johnson, make Sidney and Sharane a lot more than potential booty calls for the leads. John Witherspoon shows up back when his shtick was fresh and funny (he calls Public Enemy "public enema"), and Martin Lawrence manages to be fun despite his character's occasional grating nature. The late Robin Harris walks off with the picture, though. As Pop (and it's refreshing to see a father-son relationship in a movie like this), Harris incorporates his stand up act into his character, spouting off the funniest lines in the picture. He also has a quiet moment or two with Kid that shows off as sweet a side as Harris could offer. With his wide eyed delivery and mumbling patois, he's hilarious. As he's whipping his son's ass at the end of the movie, he says "I'm gonna beat you until I get tired. And I just woke up!" I asked myself "did my mother write some of this movie?"
Knowing its audience would be Black teenagers, House Party also tries to impart some messages with which to leave the theater. One of them is important, the other misguided. Chris is about to get bizzy (I'll not say with whom) and he realizes that the condom in his wallet has practically melted; it's older than Miss Jane Pitman. When he tries to push the issue, the girl in question shuts him down. No glove, no love. Later, Peter tries to chew him out about his actions, but Chris sticks to his guns.
The other message is rather troubling. While Chris is in jail, he sings what could have been a comedic anti-gang rape rap but quickly turns into an ugly gay-bashing song, with swipes at Rock Hudson, Liberace and AIDS. It stops the movie in its tracks. The setup was interesting: a fellow prisoner tells Chris that Richard Pryor told jokes to "keep the other prisoners from his booty." Chris doesn't know any jokes, but he does know how to rap. Unfortunately, this rap highlights one of the reasons why there are so many bruvas on the down-low. It's such a negative stigma that guys would rather lie than be out, leading to things like How Stella's Gaydar was Busted.
Brief misstep notwithstanding, House Party satisfies one of the reasons why we love the movies we do: a sense of the familiar that evokes a nostalgic feeling.
Your Homework Assignment
Make some red Kool-Aid, and find out if they still sell Dick Gregory's Diet product. Also: avoid the other House Party movies. They are horrible. If you want another fix of Kid 'n Play, rent Class Act.