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Owen's reviews revisited: 'House Party' now looks like a blast from another world

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house-party-kidImage Credit: Everett CollectionWould anyone like to check out a really cool, fun science-fiction movie? You could see The Terminator, Forbidden Planet, or 2001: A Space Odyssey — or, as an alternative, you might consider watching House Party, the 1990 bubblegum hip-hop teen flick that I reviewed, 20 years ago this week, in EW. It takes place in a world so wildly removed from our own that there are moments when the whole film seems to be crying out for its own mockingly jaw-dropped and affectionate VH1 nostalgia special. Look, there’s the young Martin Lawrence, hording a DJ record collection and cutting up in a pork-pie hat. (“You’re so warm and comfy,” he tells the girl he’s snuggling, “like my Hush Puppies!”) There’s Robin Harris, as the grouchy father, dropping ancient references to Dolemite. And check out the movie’s villain, a high school “thug” who looks like Mr. T impersonating an L.A. hairdresser in a ripped Flashdance T- shirt.

No one, of course, could forget the movie’s exuberant star, Kid (a.k.a. Christopher Reid), who in my review I said “would be a magnetic performer even if it weren’t for his gravity-defying hair — an eight-inch-high flattop that adorns his head like a funky fez…He has genuine star presence. He could be a cross between Tom Hanks and one of Matt Groening’s glaring humanoids, with a bit of Buckwheat thrown in. Except that this is Buckwheat transfigured — a guy who chooses to look clownish because he knows it gives him a secret advantage.”

Ah, the early ’90s! The Simpsons were still so novel that I didn’t even bother to name them (and I’d obviously never heard the word “fade” applied to hair). Kid’s towering flattop was, of course, a knowing joke, but what’s striking about seeing House Party again is how clean, poppy, and innocent it all looks. It’s like John Hughes meets High School Musical meets Soul Train. The film was released at the dawn of the era of hood flicks (New Jack City, Juice), but the filmmakers, Reginald and Warrington Hudlin, wanted very much to tell a story of African-American teenagers that was rooted not in angry “street” postures but in the triumph of middle-class assimilation. You could argue that their vision was more truly defiant — at least, of what Hollywood wanted at the time – than something more scuzzy and “dangerous.”

Watching it again, I was struck by the sheer, almost goofy optimism of House Party. That spirit percolates up through the movie’s stylized candy colors and snappy, flirtatious banter. Or, as I put it in my review:

“The hip-hop lingo whizzes by at an exhilarating clip, as intricate an alternative language as [John] Hughes’ up-from-Valley-Girl slang. The movie is slick and cartoonish but also extremely clever, and its unabashed conventionality is exactly what’s fun about it.”

With House Party, the Hudlins made a boogie-all-night comedy that was also, in spirit, a joyfully shrewd rap musical. The thing is that when the movie came out, hip-hop, at least in America at large, had yet to acquire its full lethal, power-slinging edge. The first N.W.A. album, Straight Outta Compton, was released a year and a half earlier (in August, 1988), but the revolution in music that Straight Outta Compton launched — gangsta rap — was only just beginning to penetrate mainstream pop culture. And so House Party is that now-incongruous thing, a rap movie that’s honestly devoid of nihilism. Even when Public Enemy blares during the big party sequence, the film uses the group not for its militancy but for the pure jolt of its electro-ecstatic groove. Here, though, is something that doesn’t date — or, at least, looks just about as impressive now as it did then. When Kid ‘N Play launch into their big middle-of-the-living-room rap duel, the rhymes may be a tad corny, but they’re also right in the volatile tradition of hypnotic urban improv twistiness that would mark the two most seismic rap artists to come, Jay-Z and Eminem.

Before handing House Party a grade of B-plus (which I still agree with), I wrote: “If this rock-the-house movie finds its audience, it could start a different sort of revolution — a mainstream revolution.” Well, House Party did find an audience (it was a hit for New Line), and it certainly inched the revolution in black filmmaking along. (It also helped to make The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air possible.) Twenty years later, however, the doors are still being wedged open, one movie at a time. And a lot of those movies aren’t half as fun, or as good, as this one.

So who out there remembers House Party? And what did the movie mean to you?