By most of Hollywood’s cold calculations, the romance drama "Love Jones" was a failure. Opening up in March of 1997 against the special edition re-release of "Return of the Jedi," the movie stumbled at the box office, scoring just over $3 million in its opening weekend. Its run would end with a small gross of $12 million, while director Theodore Witcher would never be given another chance to direct a feature film.
Anyone who’s actually watched the movie, who’s set aside its box office worth for its artistic worth, knows "Love Jones" is as far from a failure as a film can get, telling a real, bittersweet and proudly black love story like few seen on the big screen before – or since, a compliment to the movie’s quality and authenticity, as well as a sad statement on Hollywood’s aversion to telling black stories without settling on tired clichés and demeaning tropes.
That’s why, two decades later, "Love Jones" still lives on in viewers’ hearts – and on the Milwaukee Film Festival’s biggest screen, where the movie celebrated its 20th anniversary Saturday night at the Oriental – complete with star Larenz Tate ("Crash," "Girls Trip" and TV’s "Power") in attendance. And just before he took the stage and the film took the screen to a filled crowd, we got a chance to chat with the actor about why audiences are still so in love with "Love Jones," creating that spark on screen, his time on "Girls Trip" and the state of diversity in today’s Hollywood.
OnMilwaukee: With Nia Long in "Love Jones" and Regina Hall in "Girls Trip," how do you spark that impressive chemistry in these movies?
Larenz Tate: They’re outstanding actresses. Nia Long is incredible, as well as Regina Hall. When you have talented women, a level of skill, it really makes it easy to work with them and to connect.
I typically like to connect with the actresses either by getting to know them; rehearsals are really important to me. But listen, these are some A-class, A-level artists that I’m able to work with, and I’m hoping that I can continue to do more with them – specifically Nia. We’ve been trying to do stuff for the longest. And the only tricky thing is that because those characters have become so iconic, I don’t know if people can get out of their minds Darius and Nina if she and I were in an all-out rom-com or if we were in a high-brow over-the-top comedy or if we were in an action film. But we definitely want to do something together. We’re just like, "How can we find something that can actually live up to people’s expectations?"
But I feel like we just have to go off and do something and allow the movie and those characters to continue to live on its own, and give people something. Because they’ve been asking for us to be on screen for a long time.
What do you think it is about "Love Jones" that has endured over all of these years? What was that special spark about it?
The special spark really is the fact that we hadn’t seen black love like that. At the time that it had come out, typically it was movies about black folks trying to get out of the hood and coming-of-age stories. But this was about people who just happened to be in love – and they happened to be people of color. They happened to be brown folk, black people, black love in a way that we hadn’t seen in contemporary era.
And it’s sustained the test of time because, for whatever reason, Hollywood stopped making those kinds of movies. And we’re like, "This was great," but at the time that it had come out, it didn’t really perform as well. It didn’t do box office numbers. So Hollywood assumed that – it’s a money-driven industry – it didn’t do well.
But I think they underestimated the audience because, in my opinion, the studio just didn’t market the movie properly. They didn’t know how to market a black movie. That’s just the truth of the matter. I remember very well: There was no black people in the room who were in the marketing department, so you kind of have the understanding of the nuance of how to get our attention with something, right? So I think Hollywood got a little blame for that. A lot of blame for it.
But in retrospect, I’m OK, because, more than the money, it’s what we’re celebrating 20 years later. This is so much more to me than the success at the box office. You couldn’t even quantify it. So in retrospect, I’m happy the way it all worked out. Wouldn’t change it.
Do you see things improving in Hollywood?
They're trying. We’re over there knocking on the door, trying to get Hollywood to wake up. If you were outside of America, and if you left it to Hollywood, you’d think it was just white folk walking around America – and that’s not the truth. There are more and more stories that have to be told.
This is a very diverse country, and you have to embrace the diverse perspectives. That’s what this country was built on: the ideal and the ideas of diversity and people celebrating their culture, their ideologies, and that we can all celebrate that and accept it. But when you’re not in the rooms making those decisions, then it can be skewed one way more than the other.
So with regards to people pointing that out, we have to do more. It’s really good to see people being celebrated in television. There’s more diversity now on television; in fact, TV is just getting a lot better.
Yeah, with the Emmys a few weekends ago.
Yeah, a lot of stuff, and I’m really happy to see that – beyond just the black experience. So it’s really nice to see everybody being included more and more – and it’s that time. I mean, it’s 2017. We gotta open this sh*t up, man.
We’re still working, but I feel like we need to make more quality stuff. And it shouldn’t be one movie at a time. I mean, how many black movies have been out in 2017? I don’t even know – but not that many. But there’s been a lot of movies in the theaters every Friday. Not a lot of them are diverse.
So even though we see black folk being celebrated at awards shows now, but we start looking at the movie theaters and say, "What movies are in the theaters?" There’s movies every weekend, but there’s not a lot. But we got stuff to do, we got work to do, but I’m happy to see where we’ve come and where we’ll potentially be going.
In "Girls Trip," you’ve got that part where you’re playing bass with Ne-Yo on stage. Can you actually play?
So … the answer is no. Here’s the deal: The sort of movie magic is we had a bass player actually play those particular chords, and I had to learn those chords. So I had a bass teacher in Los Angeles but also in New Orleans to help me out. So I had to learn just those specific things, so if you gave me a bass right now, I’m not going to get very far.
I was just talking to some people on set of "Power," and I was saying I pick up the instruments that I learn for that time and then I let it go. And it kind of drives me crazy. When I played Quincy Jones in "Ray," I was able to mess around with the trumpet. You’d think, years later, I’d have a true command of the trumpet – and I don’t. I did a couple of other things where I had to play instruments, and I pick it up for the moment and then I leave it. I actually kind of envy those actors and actresses who can play instruments.
What was it like on the set of "Girls Trip"? There’s parts, like the Diddy concert at Essence Fest, where it seems almost like an improv vibe.
Everything at the Superdome and the convention center, all that was actual Essence Festival. We actually filmed during Essence Fest because there’s tens of thousands of people coming in and out of New Orleans around that time. There’s absolutely no way to recreate Essence Fest; you couldn’t do it, even if you tried. We did our first week and then we took a break, but that first week was around the time of Essence was happening.
So with the Diddy concert, he was the main headliner. Diddy knew he was going to be in the movie – they had negotiated, whatever it was – and we were told at what point that he would come over and include the actors in that moment. But it was all live and in real time, so whatever we got at that time, that’s what it was going to be. Because there was no retake or second take. And fortunately, our director and producers and crew were all prepared, filming throughout the entire time, and when Diddy finally came over to us, we were able to get Tiffany – that was all real; she was scraping her knees. So we had to get that moment.
The audience didn’t know that we were actually filming; they thought it was a random person. And at the time, Tiffany Haddish wasn’t the Tiffany Haddish she is right now – she wasn’t as recognizable – so they just thought it was some crazy fan. And then a year later, they saw themselves in the movie at that part.
What’s next for you? I saw that you were just signed as a regular on "Power" for the next season.
Yeah, I’m doing "Power" right now currently, and also we’re still working on a couple of other projects. My brothers and I, we have our production company, TateMen Entertainment, with my brothers LaRon and Lahmard.
We have an audio series called "Bronzeville," starring myself, Lahmard, Laurence Fishburne – we produced this project with him – about the South Side of Chicago during the 1930s and ’40s, at a time out of Jim Crow where black folks wouldn’t assume that they could have the American dream, but they actually had that self-sufficient communities like everybody else.
And we did an audio series about that, and it really did well – 15 million downloads – so now we’re looking to possibly do a season two. It was a 10-episode scripted show, and now we’re trying to figure out when we’re going to get back to doing a season two, because everybody who’s listening to "Bronzeville" is like, "Hey!"
Also we produced a movie called "Business Ethics" which is in the money management space. I play this money managing greedy financial guy who’s dealing with some moral issues. That movie will be out sometime next year. So we’re producing different things, different content. In the meantime, I’m doing "Power," Lahmard is doing a show, "Unsolved," about the Tupac and Biggie murders on USA (Network), and while we’ve got our day jobs going on, LaRon is running the company.
As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.
When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.