When a student throws Jell-O at the school bullies in the cafeteria, he not only gets manhandled like a Frisbee but winds up grounded on the night his best friend is having a party. Naturally, the all-American teen ignores the punishment, sneaks out, and all hell breaks loose.
Sounds like a typical, Hollywood coming-of-age story line, right? Well, it is. Except that the student — Kid, of rap duo Kid N’ Play — sports a high flattop fade hairdo, the school bullies are the funk band Full Force, and the coming of age occurs entirely in a black middle-class neighborhood.
Put that spin on a film like Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Risky Business, or The Breakfast Club, jump-start it with a pumped-up soundtrack, and you have House Party, a stylish debut from writer-director Reginald Hudlin and producer Warrington Hudlin. These young filmmakers have taken a modest $2.5 million budget to a familiar genre and come up with a surprisingly fresh comedy that’s as kinetic and exuberant as the hip-hop subculture it explores.
Traveling the trail blazed by Spike Lee (She’s Gotta Have It, Do the Right Thing), Keenen Ivory Wayans (I’m Gonna Get You Sucka), Robert Townsend (Hollywood Shuffle) and Charles Lane (Sidewalk Stories), House Party is the latest in the growing wave of black independent films to enter the commercial marketplace.
Not surprisingly, the Hudlin brothers’ struggle to make their picture echoes the experiences of all those filmmakers: They had a burning passion to tell a very personal story — Reggie originally wrote and directed House Party in 1983 as a 20-minute short for his senior thesis at Harvard. The brothers took on other jobs while trying to put together financing for a feature version of their film, all the time insisting on complete creative control even though they were virtually industry novices. They eventually got financing from New Line Cinema, partly by convincing actors and production people to work for less, and finally shot their picture. But here’s where the story changes.
At once celebrating and transcending its ”blackness,” House Party has the potential to become a true crossover success when it opens in 600 theaters this week — pulling in black teenagers and white suburban kids as well as the usual suspects from the liberal art-house crowd.
And if that happens, perhaps it will signal another long-overdue breakthrough. For the past few years, it has become much too easy to measure every new black filmmaker against Spike Lee — a disservice to all. With House Party, the Hudlins may provide a new grammar for audiences, one that allows us to look at a black filmmaker’s work on its own terms — as entertainment, art, whatever, but to look at it for what it’s worth, outside a racial categorization. That would be just fine with Warrington Hudlin.
”I’m surprised the immediate comparison is with Spike Lee and not John Hughes,” he says of House Party. And he’s right. While the bright-tight clothes, rap-inspired patois, and frenetic music all supply a special texture to the film, the fact that the characters are black is almost incidental; the story, about the teenage conflict between responsibility and the desire to have fun, couldn’t be more color-blind.
”Wanting to go to a party that your father doesn’t want you to is an American experience — it crosses generations and races,” Reggie says. ”Once you touch upon the human condition, people can get into it. If the themes you are dealing with are human themes, then there is no need to compromise the cultural authenticity of the film.”
No worry there. Reggie draws on his East St. Louis upbringing to present his comic tour through a black suburban community whose inhabitants range from obese television-addicted project-dwellers to hardworking nuclear families to upper-middle-class Huxtable types. ”I was pulling from real people instead of something two or three times removed from real life,” he explains. ”I used the slang and the dress and whatever else I did to make it as culturally real as possible. It’s that freshness that makes it interesting to the culture that is reflected, but also to people outside that culture.”
It all seems to have worked. And that’s why the Hudlins find themselves on the threshold right now. Anxious, confident, and a little nervous, they know that if House Party is a hit, the Hollywood candy store will probably open its doors wide for them. But that’s not necessarily the goal they have in mind. They may love comedy, but they’re a couple of fairly serious guys.
And that means taking on projects that allow them to have creative autonomy, as well as a say in how their films get made. On House Party the production crew was 65 percent nonwhite. ”We told New Line up front we had a very strong commitment to affirmative action,” Warrington says. ”We knew there were a lot of talented people who had the skills, but didn’t have the opportunity.”
That’s a policy they plan to follow in the future, too, no matter what direction their films take. As Reggie says, ”I plan to make more comedies, maybe even comedy-horror or comedy-sci-fi. Even when I write drama, it comes out comedy.”
For Reggie, though, comedy also should deliver a small dose of reality. ”Considering the amount of money it takes to make a film and the millions of people whose attention I’ll have for an hour and a half, I’ll always feel I have a responsibility to say something, a social message. In House Party I dealt with teenage responsibility, but there are a lot of things I feel strongly about, and we’ll see what comes out next….
”But no matter what kind of comedy I do, it will be general entertainment for everybody. I would never narrow down the audience.”