Twenty years ago, the romance about two Black artists depicted a very different Chicago than the struggling city we're seeing now. And this administration is only going to make it worse.
Twenty years ago, the big-screen romance Love Jones opened in theaters, its first images of a darkened Chicago cityscape set to a jazz-inflected R&B soundtrack. The story of an on-again, off-again relationship between two artists in Chicago, Darius Lovehall (Larenz Tate) and Nina Moseley (Nia Long), was a celebration of Black love and Black creativity.
With the anniversary of its release last month, the film has been celebrated with oral histories and award show reunions looking back at the legacy of Love Jones. It was a fresh artistic bent on a familiar boy meets girl-boy loses girl story and a window into a Black middle class not often reflected on the big screen. The movie helped pave the way for a legion of romances to come and marked a welcome moment of Black characters given their chance to shine onscreen. Two decades later, the communities those characters inhabited face serious threats from the philosophies and policies of the Trump administration.
The movie’s opening images of Chicago’s downtown skyline transition to ones of Black Chicagoans. Families, young people, and the elderly pose for photographer Nina Moseley’s camera, but the movie’s scenes also depict real Chicago communities. The opening sequence does not list the names of the movie’s cast or crew; it cedes the full screen until it finally brings into focus Nina and the ex-boyfriend who will cause a rift between Nina and Darius.
Community first, the sequence tells the audience and it isn’t the only moment that Love Jones grounds us this way. Pivotal moments of Nina and Darius’s relationship happen in the midst of Chicago’s Black community. They meet in a lounge where artists and art lovers are gathered to hear poetry and jazz and here Darius declares his attraction to Nina with a poem.
He details all the ways she is #blackgirlmagic nearly two decades before that phrase has entered the cultural lexicon and wants to know if she and the audience approve of his desires. “Is that alright?” Darius asks at the end of his performance. “That’s alright, baby, that’s alright,” comes back the loudest reply, along with snaps and claps. It is a safe space to praise blackness and praise the desires of Black people including the desire for love, the “jones” of the title.
And while it is easy enough to see how that desire shapes a romantic relationship, it also shapes the paths of both as artists. Twenty years changes a place, but the community Love Jones portrayed—Black, creative, dynamic—still thrives. The precise spoken-word venue in the movie may not still be around, but Darius could share his work in 2017 Chicago through the live-lit scene where voices like Samantha Irby’s flourish.
Nina would have found her place in today’s visual art scene as well. Darius likens Nina’s photography to Gordon Parks, who once called Chicago home. He also could have invoked the work of Dawoud Bey or if she were a painter, Kerry James Marshall. There is the work of other black Chicago-based visual artists LaToya Ruby Frazier, Jefferson Pinder, or Theaster Gates.
Both Darius and Nina are at critical moments in their careers, Darius leaving his job to work on a book and Nina having just been fired and trying to take her career to the next level. Darius has savings to get him through. Nina is transient, subletting from a friend. For more established artists and emerging artists like the fictional Nina and Darius, Trump’s budget calling for the elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts narrows the options to fund their work, both through direct funding and the funding of Chicago non-profits and arts organizations.
The threat budget cuts pose to the communities shown in Love Jones don’t end there. If Chicago remains a sanctuary city for undocumented immigrants as Mayor Rahm Emanuel has promised, the cut in federal funding would hit Chicago hard. According to the Better Government Association: “The city of Chicago and sister agencies could lose at least $3.6 billion in federal aid if President Donald Trump carries through with a threat to deny all funding to communities that refuse to help his efforts to deport undocumented residents. ” The city would lose funding for everything from transportation to education to low-income housing.
Cuts in education and housing, as well as limited economic opportunity, that have already been named among the reasons for Chicago’s high murder rate. No violence happens in Love Jones; the nearest hint of worry comes when Nina leaves a party by herself and Darius goes after her, vaguely concerned for her safety. In the real life version of 1997 Chicago, the murder rate was just one fewer than the murder rate that led Donald Trump to single out the city’s “horrible carnage” and to offer federal intervention.
But Trump’s federal intervention would not continue the most recent initiative of the government: the Justice Department’s investigation of the Chicago Police Department. After two years of work toward reformation of the department, and a damning video of the killing of LaQuan McDonald, it seems unlikely the full scope of change will come. Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered the review of all consent decrees, potentially the first step to ending federal oversight of local law enforcement. In an interview with a local PBS station (also under threat in Trump’s America), the President of the Chicago Police Board and chair of the Mayor’s Police Accountability Task Force Lori Lightfoot said, “I think it’s very unlikely that a consent decree is going to come to Chicago.”
At the end of Love Jones, after Nina declares her love for Darius in front of the artistic community that brought them together, Darius tells her that love is “urgent as a motherfucker.” The moment is the culmination of years of back and forth between them, when the desire for the future overcomes their fears of the past. It could be a lesson for Trump, Sessions, and the rest of this administration. Decades’ old crime statistics, failed criminal justice policies, and past rhetoric of the danger of “inner cities” have been the guiding principles when it comes to cities like Chicago rather than forward looking creative solutions. The Darius and Nina in Chicago today might still be thinking about the urgency of their love, but as Black artists they would have little choice but to also think about the urgency for the future of their community and their city.
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