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‘House Party’

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 09, 1990


Reginald Hudlin
Kid n' Play;
Full Force;
Robin Haris
Under 17 restricted

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A swizzle stick with hair. Skyscraper hair. That's what Christopher Reid looks like as Kid, the teenage hero of Reginald Hudlin's hilariously fresh "House Party." This is hair that's hard to miss. A cop hitting him with the beam of his flashlight hollers out, "Yo! Eraserhead!" The stuff just sits up there, proud and indestructible. If a nuclear blast wiped out the rest of the world, that hair would still be standing.

Kid's hair is a one-of-a-kind phenomenon, but then so is the movie he appears in. The teen genre hasn't exactly covered itself with glory, but "House Party" is a swinging exception to the rule. The film, which began with Hudlin's promise to friends that he'd make a picture about the parties they went to in high school, has a beguiling sweetness. Hudlin's style is loose and rhythmic; he keeps the gags coming and his energy up.

But though the film's premise appears run-of-the-mill, even exploitative, Hudlin remains steadfastly faithful to the world of middle-class blacks he's set out to describe. His characters are the rarest breed of movie kids in existence -- black kids who tremble at the prospect of being grounded by their parents, who have curfews, who don't drink or do drugs and don't like it much when their friends do, and yet still figure out a way to jam with the wildest abandon.

Take Kid, for example. Kid's in trouble, has been all day. Not that he's a bad apple. It's just that today's not his day. First off he's sent to the principal's office for absorbing a lights-out punch in the face from a cafeteria thug named Stab (Paul Anthony of Full Force). But what's a guy s'posed to do? The man called his mother a name -- a name that, in fact, has the principal baffled. ("Can you tell me, young man," she asks Stab, "why in God's name you called his mother a garden tool?")

Trouble like this would be bad news on any day, but today of all days, when his friend Play (Christopher Martin) is throwing a party in honor of his parents being out of town, it's a virtual plague. No way is his father (played by Robin Harris, who was Sweet Dick Willie in "Do the Right Thing") going to let him out of the house when he gets wind of this. And sure enough, as soon as the notice from school arrives, Kid is told that "every little step you take tonight's gonna be right here in this bedroom."

He sneaks out anyway, figuring that things can't possibly get any worse. (He's wrong.) And as advertised, the party is a "super def throwdown." It's infectious, watching these kids run through their teenage rituals, their dances, their raps, their lingo, all of which feel completely their own. This jam rocks, especially when Kid demonstrates a new step to a friend and the entire party joins in an impromptu dance routine. Or when Kid and Play (who make up the rap group Kid 'N Play) engage in a good-natured rap-off, challenging each other to higher and higher flights of hip-hop fancy.

Hudlin takes all of it seriously, but not too seriously. In the love scenes he stages between Kid and a girl from school named Sidney (Tisha Campbell), you can tell he remembers how crucial those first big romances were. His cast, which down to its last member is remarkably assured, helps him greatly. As Kid, Reid is a kind of walking cartoon, but he has a nonchalant one-to-one rapport with the camera that even Bugs Bunny might envy.

Not all the characters are quite as financially well off as Kid. Some, like Sharane (A.J. Johnson), one of the girls at school with a crush on Kid, live in the projects, but when Hudlin pokes fun at the lives of poor blacks -- by showing, for example, Sharane's little brother, Peanut (Desi Arnez Hines II), pouring what looks like a 10-pound bag of sugar into a pitcher of Kool-Aid -- he does so with affection.

Not all of the picture works on the same level of inspiration. The scenes in which Stab and his gang of three (played by B. Fine and Bowlegged Lou of Full Force) try to brutalize Kid feature a broad, borderline raunchy slapstick that looks familiar from a hundred other teen pictures. The same goes for John Witherspoon's lurid tirades as a neighbor calling for peace and quiet.

But these are merely faltering steps in an otherwise sure-footed debut. From its horror movie beginning to its final (somewhat perplexing) joke, Hudlin and cinematographer Peter Deming pack the screen with vibrant, colorful detail. The lives of the people Hudlin puts on-screen are all the more enticing for having been left off of it for so long. "House Party" isn't a great movie, but it's heartfelt and enormously winning. In its own modest, ramshackle way, it manages to seem innocent even when it's profane. And maybe a party that demonstrates that those two qualities aren't necessarily opposed is exactly the kind we need.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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