Some people may find this incredibly hard to believe, but … Black people like to have fun and enjoy themselves and have a good time in each other’s company, despite what we’re regularly shown in the news and in movies and television shows that are largely focused on Black people suffering from all kinds of trauma. And when it comes to Black people having a good time with one another onscreen, particularly young teenage Black people, we don’t get to see that very often either, as most of the teenagers that we see having fun in movies like Porky’s, Animal House, Grease, Say Anything…, and the films of John Hughes are mostly white, with barely any diversity to be found.
House Party, which was written and directed by Reginald Hudlin, and was originally intended to star DJ Jazzy Jeff and Will Smith, opened in theaters on March 9, 1990, and though it wasn’t the first film to ever show Black teenagers living their lives, doing their thing, and getting into a little bit of trouble while doing so, but it’s certainly one of the best and most memorable.
Chris, a.k.a. “Kid” (Christopher “Kid” Reid), lives with his stern and overprotective father, Pop (Robin Harris), and would love nothing more than to attend a party being thrown later that evening by his best friend, Peter, a.k.a. “Play” (Christopher “Play” Martin), a party that Play himself describes the “super-def, throw-down, jizzam of the year” that everyone else will be going to, including Bilal (Martin Lawrence), who will be acting as DJ for Play’s party, as well as Sidney and Sharane (Tisha Campbell and Adrienne-Joi Johnson), who are best friends and are also considered the two most attractive girls in their school. Unfortunately for Kid, he ends up crossing paths with school bullies Stab, Zilla, and Pee-Wee (Paul Anthony George, Brian “B-Fine” George, and Lucien “Bow-Legged Lou” George Jr. of the R&B group Full Force), and when they make a crude remark about Kid’s recently deceased mother, their encounter ends in a fight that leaves Kid getting his ass whooped for all of his fellow students to see and him getting sent to the principal’s office to be reprimanded. Once Pop receives a letter from Kid’s school and discovers what happened, he forbids Kid from going to Play’s party and tells him that he is staying home. Which only results in Kid sneaking out while Pop is asleep, and going to Play’s party anyway, a party that will lead to all sorts of unforgettable hijinks before the night is over.
And just some of those hijinks that Kid, Play, and their friends find themselves encountering before, during, and after the party? Being on the dance floor with someone who’s just a little too enthusiastic and needs to dial it down a bit (So much so that one of them keeps bumping into Bilal’s turntable and ruining the music that everyone else is dancing to). Making sure that your rap lyrics are just right so you can show your skills on the mic and impress everyone during a (friendly) rap battle with your best friend. Having that one friend who thinks that a party ain’t a party unless you’re drunk or high or just f—ked-up. Running for your life from bullies and having to hop over fences and into other people’s backyards to find a hiding spot, only to realize that your chosen hiding spot is right outside the window of a couple enjoying some very rough and very loud sex and who refuse to let themselves be interrupted, even if it means having to bust a cap in somebody else’s ass. (Followed by those same bullies chasing you yet again and getting you locked in an abandoned refrigerator that will cause many a disturbing flashback for those who grew up watching the Original Flavor version of Punky Brewster) And also finding out that one of the many guests invited to your party decided to make a large offering to the porcelain throne and leaving the whole thing broken as a result.
Then there’s Bilal, a.k.a. “Dragon Breath,” and seeing what he has to go through just to arrive at Play’s party will either remind or educate many viewers of how being a DJ was and still is very hard work. Especially when the equipment to do said work includes a turntable, a microphone, speakers, wires, lots and lots and lots of records, and a vehicle large enough to transport all of the equipment to your destination.
And one of the most memorable scenes in House Party is this dance-off between Kid and Play vs. Sidney and Sharane (both Sidney and Sharane’s dance moves were choreographed by Johnson), as they go from talking smack about each other’s dance moves to actually showing off their dance moves, and getting everyone else at the party to join them on the dance floor.
Much of what happens in House Party has entertained audiences (particularly African-American audiences) and made them laugh since its release, but underneath the surface, there is also a good amount of social commentary on several topics that Hudlin included in the film as well. The public-school system and how it’s often run by people who can barely understand or relate to the students who are under their supervision (“Can you tell me why in God’s name you called Kid’s mother a garden tool?”). Police harassment and brutality, and after years of seeing what police officers have done and continue to do to Black people they cross paths with, it’s difficult to watch the scene in which two white police officers (Barry Diamond, Michael Pniewski) arrest Stab, Zilla, and Pee-Wee and laugh with one another as they decide to physically beat them all down rather than take them into custody and deal with unwanted paperwork. Teenage boys, no matter the time or place or generation or ethnicity, not really knowing sh-t when it comes to dealing with teenage girls. The older generation of Black folk not understanding or relating to younger Black folk all that much, but knowing that discipline and a little tough love is far more necessary and effective than having them thrown in jail by the cops (whose idea of disciplining Black youths when not using their nightsticks is to hold them at gunpoint and have them repeat the phrase, “I AM SOMEBODY!”) and becoming state-raised in gladiator academies like Chino and Tracy* as a result.
But despite there being so many things about House Party to enjoy and laugh about, there is one part of the film that isn’t very enjoyable or funny, nor has it aged well at all since 1990.
And that is the jailhouse scene.
When Kid ends up in jail with Stab, Zilla, Pee-Wee, and a whole bunch of inmates who are very eager to take him out on a date with the Health Inspector by running a train and sexually assaulting him, Kid realizes that the only thing he can do until Play and his friends are able to bail him out is to rap for as long as he can to entertain and distract them. Unfortunately, most of his lyrics are incredibly homophobic, and like much of the material in Eddie Murphy: Delirious, they will quickly have you going from laughing hysterically to going “Oh, what the f-ck, man?” as you realize just what you’re being expected to laugh at.
Yeah. That was rough.
That disappointing misstep isn’t enough to ruin the rest of what House Party brings to the table, and the cast is a large part of what makes the film work so incredibly well, no matter how big or small the role. Kid ‘n Play, Martin Lawrence, Tisha Campbell, Adrienne-Joi Johnson, Full Force, Gene Allen, and Daryl Johnson as Groove and Chill, who have little to no Act-Right when it comes to going to a party and not ruining everyone else’s good time, Shaun Baker as Clinton X, who is willing to promise the world to his date even though he can’t remember her name, Kelly Jo Minter as LaDonna, who quickly loses patience with and interest in Play after having to deal with both him and Bilal in the middle of an argument and legendary singer/songwriter George Clinton as the DJ who is bored out of his mind at a fraternity reunion party until Kid shows up with bullies in tow.
And yet, even though the film is largely focused on teenagers running wild and partying all night long, it’s two of the oldest cast members in the film who got the most laughs and made the biggest impression on viewers. And those two cast members are the late, great John Witherspoon and the late, great Robin Harris.
As Walter Strickland, he spends nearly all of his time complaining and yelling out of his window about the house party happening right next door to his house, wondering if it’s Public Enemy (or as he calls them, “Public Enema”) over there with all of the loud music, and calling the poh-leece to have them come on over and bring the party to an end so he can go back to sleep with his wife, Edna, who seems to have a slight tendency to call her husband by the wrong name when they’re in bed.
And as Pop, when he’s not doing all that he can to make sure that Kid stays focused on going to school and getting good grades, he’s raising hell about being lied to by Kid about his fight with Stab and company, about the fact that Kid has the audacity to sneak out of the house and go to Play’s party even though he was told to stay his ass home, about the fact that he has to deal with being harassed by the cops while looking for Kid, and about having to deal with a bunch of annoying, smart-mouthed teenagers partying in someone else’s house while the adults are away. And the fact that he has to deal with all of this when he could be home watching Dolemite really doesn’t help. But while we see Pop go through all of this, he is dropping one hilarious and profane line after another as he makes it clear that his tolerance for other people’s bullsh-t and disrespect is damn near nonexistent. And at the end of the film, when Kid is foolish enough to sneak back into the house at the end of the night and climb into bed as if he never left…well, Pop and his leather belt are more than happy to remind him. (I’d still take that ass-whooping from Pop over getting screamed on by Clair Huxtable for sneaking off to Baltimore to have BIG FUN!!!! with The Wretched)
When House Party opened in theaters to positive reviews and box-office success, it was soon struck by tragedy about nine days later, as Robin Harris died of a heart attack at the age of thirty-six as he was asleep in his hotel room after performing to a sold-out crowd at the Regal Theater in Chicago. News of Robin’s death hit the stand-up comedy world (particularly for Martin Lawrence, who considered Robin to be his mentor), as he was and still is held in very high regard by his fellow comedians. At the time of Robin’s death, his wife was pregnant with their son, Robin Harris Jr. who would be born six months later and go on to become a rapper and co-founder of The Robin Harris Foundation, whose mission is to elevate youth in athletics and performing arts.
One of Robin’s best-known routines from his stand-up material focused on “Bébé’s Kids,” and how his girlfriend Jamika would regularly babysit the three poorly-behaved children of her friend Bébé, and even insist on bringing them along on their date, which of course wouldn’t turn out well. Reginald Hudlin and his brother, producer Warrington Hudlin, had originally planned to make a live-action film based on this routine but after Robin’s death, the project went from live-action to animated, with Bruce W. Smith in the director’s chair and comedian Faizon Love as the voice of Robin Harris in Bébé’s Kids.
After the success of House Party, it didn’t take long for sequels of varying quality to follow. There was House Party 2, starring Kid ‘n Play, Tisha Campbell, Martin Lawrence, Full Force, Queen Latifah, Iman, Helen Martin, Georg Stanford Brown, and Kamron of the rap group Young Black Teenagers (which actually had no Black members)
Then there was House Party 3, which once again starred Kid ‘n Play, Tisha Campbell in a brief cameo appearance, Chris Tucker, Khandi Alexander, Michael Colyar, TLC, Immature, Anthony Johnson, Freez-Luv, Simply Marvalous, Reynaldo Rey, and the late, great Bernie Mac.
House Party 4: Down To The Last Minute starred Immature (now known as IMX), Meagan Good, and Kym Whitley. Kid ‘n Play, along with many other actors who appeared in the original House Party trilogy, chose not to appear in this sequel.
The next direct-to-DVD House Party sequel was House Party: Tonight’s The Night, which starred Tequan Richmond, Tristin Mays, Gary Anthony Williams, Rolonda Watts, and Kid ‘n Play in a brief cameo appearance.
And as a bonus, Kid ‘n Play both got their own Saturday-morning cartoon on NBC months after the release of House Party, though it only aired for one season.
In February of 2018, it was announced by LeBron James that he was planning to produce a reboot of House Party.
The megastar and his SpringHill Entertainment partner, Maverick Carter, are producing a new House Party, which will revive the Kid ‘n Play-fronted New Line comedy franchise that started in 1990 and was followed by sequels in 1991 and 1994. Atlanta’s Stephen Glover and Jamal Olori will pen the screenplay.
“This is definitely not a reboot. It’s an entirely new look for a classic movie,” James tells The Hollywood Reporter. “Everyone I grew up with loved House Party. To partner with this creative team to bring a new House Party to a new generation is unbelievable.”
As for Reginald Hudlin, he stayed booked and busy, and went on to direct such films as Boomerang, The Great White Hype, The Ladies Man, Marshall, The Black Godfather, and Safety. He was one of the producers for Django Unchained, an executive producer on the Adult Swim series The Boondocks before creative differences between him and creator Aaron McGruder resulted in Hudlin’s exit (though he was contractually obligated to be credited as executive producer in every episode), wrote several issues of Black Panther, including the storyline in which Black Panther and Storm become husband and wife. (Whether that storyline was your preferred brand of whiskey is entirely up to you, but it definitely inspired a lot of conversation), and was the President of Entertainment for BET from 2005 to 2008.
Fun fact: in the early 2010s, Hudlin’s attorney was a man named Doug Emhoff, who would later be set up by Hudlin’s wife on a blind date with the Attorney General of California. That Attorney General’s name? Kamala Harris.
For many Black people, House Party is still looked upon with fondness, not just because it showed the world their teenage experiences untouched by constant death and suffering, not just because it showed more people how to do the “Kid ‘n Play Kickstep” when out partying, but also because it was released in a decade when Afrocentrism and Black pride was reflected nearly everywhere they looked, in movies and music and television and literature and fashion. (And two years after House Party opened in theaters, there was Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, which largely contributed to this as well as to the popularity of the Malcolm X baseball cap). There is still a lot of work that needs to be done in reminding all of these industries of how much representation truly matters, and it can be easy and cynical to look back at the Nineties and say that much of the representation that companies made possible was simply to get Black dollars spent on their products, but giving more opportunities to writers and directors to tell more coming-of-age stories like House Party that show young Black people simply living their lives is a small but very important step.
This look back at House Party was brought to you by the classic commercial for the compilation R&B album Hey Love, a commercial that was created by Reginald and Warrington Hudlin, and is instantly familiar to anyone who grew up watching television in the Eighties. Which includes writer-director Cameron Crowe, who included a reference to the commercial in Say Anything…, though he changed the name of the album from Hey Love to Hey Soul.
(As one YouTube commenter so memorably put it: “White people have ‘I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.’ Black people have ‘No, my brother. You’ve got to buy your own.’)