By Mike Dub
My pick for an All-Night Party Movie, the 1990 teen comedy House Party, is a lively and entertaining romp that follows a group of teenagers over the course of a night spent partying and trying to score. Directed by Reginald Hudlin and starring right-place-right-timers Kid ‘n Play (Christopher Reid and Christopher Martin), House Party is a notable entry into the teenage party movie subgenre, a huge crossover hit that predates Richard Linklater’s seminal party movie Dazed and Confused by three years.
While Dazed and Confused taps into the ‘70s nostalgia of ‘90s middle-class white culture, watching House Party again twenty-five years later, it is surprising to see how finely tuned a record it is of its own time. Sure, there is the predictable eye popping fashion and Kid’s trademark hi-top fade, and it features breakthrough appearances by soon-to-be stars (Martin Lawrence, Tisha Campbell, character actor John Witherspoon, and veteran comic Robin Harris), but there is also an underlying edge to the storytelling. The film weaves together the relatively minor, Ferris Bueller-level problems of teenage social life with larger issues of gang and police violence, somehow without ever wavering from its subversively light comedic touch.
The story is the same as most teen party movies: Play’s parents are away for the night, and he’s going to throw the biggest bash of the year. Kid sneaks out of his house after being grounded and heads to the party, sidestepping a slew of obstacles including racist police officers, street thugs, George Clinton, and eventually his father. The two best friends wind up chasing after the same girl, go head-to-head in a freestyle battle, and partner up in the inevitable dance-off, in which they showcase their famous “Funky Charleston” (thanks, Wikipedia).
Hudlin and his cinematographer, Peter Deming (who also shot Robert Townsend’s breakthrough satire Hollywood Shuffle) give the film a quirky, cartoonish feel, along the lines of Savage Steve Holland’s ‘80s teen comedies like Better Off Dead. That aesthetic, along with Hudlin’s script, creates a palatable tonic to the darker undertones of the film. Issues that would be more directly addressed in the viciously realistic Boyz n the Hood, released the following year, taste more like sugar than medicine here.
Police are just another symbol of adult authority in many teen films, but here the local cops literally threaten the lives of black citizens. In a satirical refrain, the same two white cops keep showing up to harass any black person they can find. Frustrated by the innocence of their suspects, when they finally do find a trio of hoodlums preparing to do some damage, a patrolman suggests that they take the teenagers to the docks, where “no one can hear them scream.” The kids huff, but their reaction expresses quotidian irritation more than shock or fear. They have been through this process before.
Despite the underlying subtext, House Party doggedly embeds positive messages for teenagers. A drunk is the dud of the party, thuggery is revealed as foolishness, lack of birth control foils an attempt at sex. Such moral sterility can cause the occasional eye roll, but for the most part the messages are unobtrusive and unapologetic.
There is an unfortunate exception – like many musicals, House Party features one deeply regrettable number. Following the lineage of Betty Hutton’s Native American screed in Annie Get Your Gun or the black crows singing the blues in Dumbo, House Party showcases a repulsive “comedic” rap that equates jail rape to homosexuality and provides HIV awareness by lightheartedly invoking the names of recent AIDS victims Liberace and Rock Hudson. The number is a blatant sore thumb in an otherwise responsible film that deals humorously with difficult issues.
Amid the social issues, House Party remains a perceptive teen film, which is not an easy achievement. Just as teenagers strive for independence from their parents, they also search for individuality in their own circles. The characters in this film are in a constant struggle between their self-serving violation of friendship and their dependence on their friends, and in that way, House Party is not unlike other popular teen movies. In the end, no matter the race, all teenagers have to deal with love, friendship, sex, and growing up. Of course, Ferris Bueller never had to deal with police beatings.