Celebrating 25 years since the release of “House Party” is enough for me to crank up my Tony Toni Tone CD’s, bust out my dusty but still-got-it “Running Man” moves and watch Kid N’ Play videos on YouTube for an hour. I’m not kidding. I love “House Party.”
Here’s a movie that came out when I was 13 years old and couldn’t have been more impacting on my film and music tastes. I was already into rap music, having closely followed the genre’s evolving trends since becoming obsessed with the Fat Boys, Run DMC and the Beastie Boys in the late 80’s. Rap music was clearly heading in an interesting direction, as it was suddenly drowned in controversy, upon the arrival of Luther Campbell and 2 Live Crew. My parents once fell in love with Rock N’ Roll around the time Elvis and The Beatles were accused of corrupting America’s youth. It seems every new form of music is met with scrutiny, criticism and controversy, before being recognized for its cultural richness, value as social commentary and it’s quality as music. I recognized that Rap Music and Hip Hop even in their growing stages, weren’t going anywhere (the sadly short-lived New Jack Funk was another story). My parents didn’t “get” Rap music and I didn’t care. If anything, their take-it-or-leave-it attitude only confirmed my teenage adoration with it.
At the time “House Party” came out, my awareness of rap was of its “fun” era, when artists like LL Cool J, DJ Jazzy Jeff & Fresh Prince, Kool Moe Dee, Young MC and Tone Loc were rhyming on the benefits of partying, girls and playing it cool. My introduction to political, harsher artists like Ice-T, Public Enemy, Ice Cube and Tupac Shakur came later. While the gradual ascent of rap music’s wide reach, popularity and infusion among the zeitgeist wouldn’t be fully accounted for until later, there was an obvious change going on in the film world that was impossible to ignore. After years of filmmakers like Michael Schultz, Sidney Poitier and Gordon Parks being the only prominent African-American filmmakers who were household names, along came Spike Lee. His debut film, “She’s Gotta Have It,’ was a big deal and so was “School Daze” and the enormously impactful “Do the Right Thing.” Lee wasn’t just creating great movies, he was making personal films specifically for an African-American audience. However, like any great form of art, the appeal of Lee’s movies went far beyond their intended audience. The remarkable thing about Lee’s popularity is that, after making his unique voice heard around the world, others followed.
The rise of new African-American filmmakers came in a big wave, arguably starting with Reginald and Warrington Hudlin’s comedy, “House Party.” Soon thereafter came John Singleton’s “Boyz N The Hood,” Matty Rich’s “Straight Outta Brooklyn,” Mario Van Peebles’ “New Jack City,” Bill Duke’s “A Rage in Harlem,” and James Bond III’s “Def By Temptation.” Those films are great, top-to-bottom, though all are extremely violent depictions of life in “the ‘hood.” What makes “House Party” stand out from the bunch isn’t just that it’s a comedy, but it’s cheerful, occasionally cartoonish, socially conscious and always very funny.
The plot to this Kid N’ Play vehicle couldn’t be more simple or perfectly tailored for a high school farce: when Play’s parents have taken a trip down south (“waaay down south!”), he coaxes his best friend, Kid to join him in staging a large scale, anything-goes, late-into-the-night house party. Along comes DJ Bilal (Martin Lawrence, potently funny in his film debut), and the fetching Sharane (A.J. Johnson) and Sidney (Tisha Campbell), both of whom are single and eying Kid. All bets are off when a quartet of school bullies show up, as well as Kid’s dad, Pop, played by the late, great Robin Harris.
This latter touch is the key to the film’s overall success: Harris is not only sensational as Kid’s hard-working, no-nonsense, single Pop, but he’s playing a rare figure in movies: a genuinely great, caring, responsible father. A lesser, more typical comedy would have pit father against son. Here, the filmmakers know what they have in Harris, who makes Pop endearing and hilarious. Harris, a gifted stand-up comedian and character actor, who passed away not long after the film was finished, owns this movie.
Christopher Reid and Christopher Martin, as the iconic 90’s duo Kid N’ Play, have the comic chops and charm to carry the movie, though Campbell and Martin are also in top form. So is the playfully stylish direction by the Hudlin brothers, who avoid every opportunity at staging a dull scene.
The soundtrack is top notch, as are the energetic, exciting dance sequences, though a movie this old will inevitably be deemed “dated.” Sure, the hair styles and outfits place this in its decade, as do some unfortunate (and sadly typical) homophobic lines. Even though this gets quite raunchy at times, it’s not mean spirited or condescending. There’s a real story here, about how Kid and Sidney connect over their working class upbringing and realize they have more in common than a shared attraction.
I make no apologies for my undying affection and annual viewings of “House Party.” I was too young for most John Hughes movies but this one came at just the right moment. Yet, it doesn’t need nostalgia to succeed. “House Party” is still terrific.