Criterion Review: love jones (1997)

The love letter to ’90s era Chicago joins the Criterion Collection

Nia Long and Larenz Tate.

The moment I saw love jones in the theater, it felt like something distinct and new. The romance, humor, and music stayed on my mind for years afterwards; even in years when the film was harder to find, I could escape to the setting through the soundtrack I owned on CD (Admission: I would mainly listen to Dionne Farris’ “Hopeless” on constant repeat). Earlier this year, the Criterion Collection released a Blu-ray package of the 1997 film, celebrating the work and offering a gorgeous digital restoration.

Shot in Chicago, love jones takes the viewer into the world of photographer Nina (Nia Long) and Darius (Larenz Tate), a writer. They meet at a poetry slam; Darius quickly composes an ode in her honor (“A Blues for Nina”) and falls hard, while Nina, fresh off a broken engagement, is reluctant to become involved with someone new. As Darius works hard to charm her, Nina’s former boyfriend tempts her to come with him to New York.

While the central romance between Nina and Darius is hot and sensual enough on its own to make the film a standout, love jones also thoughtfully incorporates a supporting cast of dimensional characters, a witty screenplay, and luminous cinematography. In this most recent viewing, I was flat-out impressed with how much care went into shooting the performers, their skin highlighted and caressed with a range of hues by a crew who made a point to do so. The movie as a whole is a glorious composition of color.

love jones is intimate and romantic as hell. But it is still something of a revelation — even 25 years later— to see a romantic movie that doesn’t condemn or judge its female lead for wanting to find love and success in her career as well. If it’s a fantasy, it’s one that has aged surprisingly well. Even as the movie seems a sort of time capsule of its period, love jones is a classic in its own right, and worth revisiting often.

The recent Criterion Collection release includes:

  • A beautiful digital restoration of the 1997 film, approved by director Theodore Witcher
  • A commentary track from Witcher where he discusses his filmmaking influences
  • A fascinating 2021 conversation between film scholar Racquel J. Gates and Witcher, where we learn that Jada Pinkett Smith was originally set to play Nina, but couldn’t due to scheduling conflicts. Gates calls the romance a “fantasy that felt within reach of the audience” as well as a “snapshot of a moment.” Witcher talks about the development of his filmmaking style through trial and error.
  • A discussion between music scholars Shana L. Redmond and Mark Anthony Neal about the storytelling impact made through the songs of the love jones soundtrack
  • A 2017 Academy panel of cast and crew from the film, hosted by Moonlight director Barry Jenkins. Long shares that of the many characters she’s played, “Nina is the most like myself,” while Tates admits, “I wasn’t used to characters being as vulnerable as Darius.”
  • A featurette from the year of the film’s release
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