Out of the Black Box

The brains behind the articulate vibe of Love Jones

By Patrick Z. McGavin

Theodore Witcher’s Love Jones isn’t the kind of film that’s typically made for black audiences. At its center is the complicated emotional relationship between Darius, a poet and writer, and Nina, a photographer, but Witcher wants it to be much more than a look at contemporary relations between the sexes. He’s intent on showing a segment of society that’s all but invisible in movies: a hyperarticulate, intellectually curious group of African-American men and women who are in love with words and linguistics and composition and form and who argue about concepts such as truth and beauty.

“In any other [black] film, if there was a person like Darius he’d be comic relief, he would be ridiculed for his intellectual ambitions,” Witcher says. “I believe anything you put in a movie is cool by virtue of the fact it’s in a movie and you’re watching it in the dark. From the beginning filmmakers have used movies to put forth their particular agenda. I thought, fuck it. Let me push my agenda. Let me put in a movie what I think is cool and not have the movie make fun of it. You can’t walk away from the film thinking I’ve ridiculed reading or set up the character who expresses himself through words.”

Witcher, who’s 27, knows that black filmmakers are under intense pressure to keep their work within a recognized black idiom–or what a white Hollywood executive thinks ought to be the idiom for young blacks. But he believes blacks need to break out of this limited sphere, with its endless references to crime and drugs and violence–though he’s careful how he says that. “I don’t down the blaxploitation period, for instance. Just like I don’t down what Hattie McDaniel had to do to make a living in Hollywood. I’ve been successful because of the groundwork that others before me have laid. But it’s time to bring some new slogans to the table.

“For eight dollars you can pretend that you’re an indestructible superhero killing all of these bad guys and getting the girl. Black films of the early 70s were political in that way. You can be Shaft, you can get the black chicks, you can get the white chicks, you can show up the white man, steal money from the Harlem numbers runner. But at the end of it, when the lights come back up, you’re no more empowered than you were when you put down your eight dollars. It’s a fantasy. I never wanted to make that kind of picture. I wanted to make a film that truly empowered its audience. What I’ve tried to do is provide less a fantasy than some basic information about how you can manifest this yourself. I’ve attempted to pose to the audience how to gain insight into their own relationships so they can make them better.”

Witcher, who grew up in the western suburbs, wrote poetry when he was a student at Columbia College and often read his work at clubs, one of which became the model for the place in Love Jones where the characters gather to talk, read poetry, and play jazz. “The Sanctuary was based on this club called Spices at Chicago and Franklin. [Before] it closed down we used to go there every Monday night and read. Occasionally we’d go to the Green Mill, but the vibe up there wasn’t as inclusive–so we stayed where we were comfortable. That whole slam thing never interested me. I didn’t think the competition aspect of it was relevant. That wasn’t why I started writing poetry.”

Following his graduation from Columbia in 1991, Witcher quit writing poetry to write screenplays, working a series of odd jobs that gave him time to write. He completed five screenplays but couldn’t sell them (one of them, about a group of thieves who steal a painting from the Art Institute, is now in production). Then in 1992 he took a job as a production assistant on Jerry Springer. “I wanted to get the fuck out of there so bad I would work all day. I’d sleep in the green room, and I’d write the whole day. I stayed there as long as I could, until I couldn’t stand it anymore.” After one year, in the fall of 1993, he quit. Two days later his agent called and said the Hughes brothers wanted to commission him to write a script.

“The script was called Public Enemies,” says Witcher. “I turned in my draft, and I was immediately fired and out of work. The film never got made. I wasn’t working, and I was borrowing money to stay afloat. I got another job working for Disney. Then I wrote Love Jones and sold that. I got this directing job, and I’ve been working ever since.”

Love Jones, made on a $5 million budget, is set in Chicago, and Witcher says the city is central to the film. “This is the area I grew up in and am most comfortable with. You couldn’t shoot this movie in Los Angeles. Nobody would believe that this kind of world exists.”

He hopes his portrait of that world changes assumptions about what black film in America can be. “My primary concern is with an African-American audience. There’s a whole audience that doesn’t even know people like Darius or Nina exist. Filmmaking is all about widening people’s perceptions of who they are.” o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Ted Witcher photo by Randy Tunnel.