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love jones: Sweet Home Chicago

<i>love jones: </i>Sweet Home Chicago

About half an hour into love jones, Theodore Witcher’s romance from 1997 starring Larenz Tate and Nia Long, the two main characters amble along a Chicago block as raindrops fall, soft but insistent. The colors are warm, naturalistic—browns, mauves, and grays of the city, greens of trees and dewy grass, the dark night’s shadows set off by streetlamps and the moon. An interstitial moment during the first date between Darius Lovehall (Tate) and Nina Mosley (Long), it is rich with life, gesture, and fizzy notes of expectation. As they walk, Nina recites “Poem #3” by Sonia Sanchez, about breathing in her lover’s sounds. A feverish red light bathes the next shot, and there is a crowd, thick with bodies keeping time with the pulse and melody of a seven-piece band. The couple have gone to the Wild Hare, a real-life reggae club just south of Chicago’s Wrigley Field, where Charles “Organaire” Cameron and Sunshine Festival sing “I Will Never Stop Loving You,” and Darius and Nina find something like solace in the beautiful rhythms of each other’s bodies. There is clearly a vibe, not only between the two of them but also throughout the room. The crowd—brown, ebullient, swaying, singing—produces heat and communion, in wild contrast to what it must feel like outside. Here, strangers meet and move toward the same kind of togetherness.

Witcher’s film is named for the urban colloquialism jones, which means “addiction” and dates at least as far back as the seventies. The term love jones has appeared as the title and in the lyrics of many songs, including a much-sampled 1972 R&B hit by the Chicago vocal quartet Brighter Side of Darkness; Mary J. Blige and Method Man’s hip-hop ballad from 1995, “I’ll Be There for You/You’re All I Need to Get By”; and a cut on the postincarceration comeback album of Chico DeBarge, the youngest member of a family of sibling performers whose moody, romantic records from the eighties helped define the quiet-storm subgenre. To name a film love jones is to load it with signifiers, connect its sights and sounds to a tradition of singing about love. To a time when new Al Green songs were always in the ether.

There’s something about the way my father’s aviators sit on top of his nose in photos of him as a young man, in the years after he left the service and his hometown in the Arkansas Delta to make his way in Los Angeles. The words love jones conjure the cool self-assurance I associate with the seductive possibilities that back then beckoned youth toward urban life. And the film, shot on location in Chicago by a director raised in its suburbs, engages with the city both as itself and as a metaphor, as Black desire for a homeland made manifest. Recall the way, in “Sweet Home Chicago,” a blues standard from 1936, Robert Johnson speaks to his lover. Baby, don’t you want to go? he asks, laying the vision of a new beginning in life beside the dream for a new start in love, collapsing the two. Isabel Wilkerson has called Chicago “ground zero” of the Great Migration, because an estimated half million migrants settled there during the six-decade-long exodus of African Americans from the rural South to the urban North—nearly 10 percent of all the people who fled.

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