Young, unheralded film talents were as plentiful as snow boots in Park City, Utah, during the ten-day Sundance United States Film Festival, which ended on January 28th. Still, the Hudlin brothers, from East St. Louis, Illinois (they call it “the blackest city in America”), made notably deep imprints. Writer-director Reginald and producer Warrington seemed to be everywhere. At screenings, Q&A sessions and receptions, the Hudlins held forth on their debut feature, House Party. The film, about middle-class black teens, was one of sixteen films in the festival’s Dramatic Competition. For independent filmmakers, these awards damn near beat the Oscars. Last year, Steven Soderbergh’s first feature, sex, lies, and videotape (shot for a paltry $1.2 million), won the Audience Award at Sundance and went on to gross over $25 million. Prizes at this twelve-year-old festival are now taken very, very seriously.
While appreciating the Hudlins’ enthusiasm, I put off seeing their movie. Like many critics and journalists who made the trek to Utah, I had come looking for any flicker of independent light under the bushel of mainstream wannabes, and I had no expectations of unearthing creative risk in a teen farce. Financed at $2.5 million by New Line Cinema, cast with well-known rap musicians and set to open on March 9th in 800 theaters, House Party sounded like a ringer, unfairly competing against lower-budgeted films with no name value to attract distributors.
Robert Redford, whose Sundance Institute has operated the festival for six years, has stressed the need to showcase maverick American films. And the need has seldom been greater. Last year, independent film production dropped thirty-three percent, releases were down fifteen percent, and only five percent of the record $5 billion box office was generated outside the major studios. But the absent Redford — he was in the Dominican Republic, acting in the epic Havana — fretted over the growing hit frenzy, feeling that the festival shouldn’t be occupied “with how a film is going to do commercially.”
Despite Redford’s misgivings, this year Park City was a hunting ground for film execs looking for the next sex, lies. Nonetheless, except for the dark comedy Unbelievable Truth and the striking AIDS drama Longtime Companion, there were no early deals made. The buyers held off until the awards pointed the way. The Grand Jury Prize, selected by a panel of five critics and filmmakers (including So-derbergh), went to Chameleon Street, a stinging satire based on the true story of an uneducated black man who impersonated doctors, lawyers and other professionals. Wendell B. Harris Jr., the writer-director-star, had previously found no takers for his erratically brilliant film. Suddenly he was fielding offers.
The other awards were less surprising. A special jury prize went to Charles Burnett’s To Sleep With Anger, about a black family torn apart by a visitor. But its star, Danny Glover, and executive producer, Edward Pressman (Wall Street), would probably have lured buyers anyway. The Audience Award went to Longtime Companion, which already had a buyer. And the Filmmakers Trophy went to House Party, which already had an opening date.
Except for Chameleon Street, the booty seemed to go to movies with obvious commercial potential. Had the festival failed in its job? I don’t think so. Redford and his team had delivered on their promise to “exhibit what’s out there.” Sure, there were screw-ups. A nasty joke around town (What’s an independent filmmaker? Someone trying to become a dependent filmmaker with a three-picture deal) found apt targets in slick entries like A Matter of Degrees and Iron and Silk. But Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan, about Manhattan debs and their dates, was a small gem. And Everett Lewis’s Natural History of Parking Lots dealt daringly with the topic of male intimacy. Though the filmmakers may not have produced anything as self-assured as Soderbergh’s sex, lies, their skill was unmistakable. But the competition underscored a crucial point: As more independents fight for a piece of a shrinking pie, they have to learn to sell their films as cunningly as they create them.
A fact not lost on the Hudlins. Seeing House Party on the day of the awards, I was struck by the film’s appeal. But did it belong at a festival dedicated to craft, not commerce? The plot verges on the simple-minded: Kid, a black high schooler grounded by his widower father, skips out of his house on a school night for a party given by his friend Play. Complications ensue, just as they have in white teen comedies since the days of Andy Hardy.
At first, it’s hard to believe that Reginald Hudlin won a student award at Harvard when he made a shorter version of House Party in 1983. Or that Warrington Hudlin, who studied film at Yale, chose to make his feature debut on a project that seems as trivial as this. In 1978, Warrington cofounded the Black Filmmaker Foundation, which has assisted many black filmmakers, including Spike Lee on his debut film, She’s Gotta Have It.
Still, the Hudlins had a game plan. Their movie (with a sixty-percent-black production crew) would be fun, but it would also be an authentic depiction of black life. Most black films are set in New York or Los Angeles, yet the Hudlins — though working in L.A. — aimed for the Middle American look of their suburban neighborhood in Illinois. Strikingly photographed by Peter Deming (who won the cinematography award at Sundance), the film has a unique visual snap.
For the two male leads, the Hudlins hired the rappers Kid ‘n’ Play (Christopher Reid and Christopher Martin), who are making their acting debuts. Both are immensely engaging, with Reid, who sports an Eraserhead haircut (an hommage to David Lynch?), proving a real find. Paul Anthony, B. Fine and Bowlegged Lou, all of Full Force, score as villains out to ruin Kid’s night. Though Hudlin’s writing often stoops to the “Suck my dick” level, his direction is remarkably fluid. The extended party sequence, with Kid ‘n’ Play in a rap duel, is excitingly staged. Fast and lively, the film sweeps you along on a tide of music and laughs.
A genre movie has limits, but nobody seems to have told that to the Hudlins, who keep pushing against them. Stereotypes about sex, drugs, drink, rock and rap are vigorously exploded. Male teens’ arrogance about birth control (“It’s her responsibility”) is countered by young women who won’t buy the argument. The film’s two female leads — Tisha Campbell, as a project girl, and A.J. Johnson, as her upper-class counterpart — are admirably strong women who won’t let their mutual yen for Kid spoil their friendship.
Despite several misguided forays into gay jokes and toilet humor, the fundamental decency of the characters prevails, but without sugarcoating. There’s real anger in the film. The white cops who harass Kid’s father (a fine Robin Harris) and any other black person they see on the street at night are buffoons, but the venom of their casual prejudice — a fact of life for blacks of all classes — permeates the comedy and gives it weight.
So House Party, warts and all, earns its place in the Sundance lineup. While some independents try to invent new forms of expression in the cinema, the Hudlins and others are showing how much can still be expressed within familiar forms. Both methods are valid and necessary. Like the film festival that launched it, House Party is a celebration of possibilities.