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To Hav and Hav Not

Last year, when Soul Food and Eve's Bayou opened within weeks of one another, conversation in my largely Afro-American and Latino barbershop spun squarely on the two films, with comparisons favoring the decidedly mediocre Soul Food. Explaining his preference (and echoing the sentiments of many in the room), a twentysomething brother remarked, "When I looked at Eve's Bayou, I just saw people . . . but when I saw Soul Food, I saw black people." He smiled and exhaled as though Terry McMillan had indexed his every fantasy. But his statement, a depressing cultural confession/critique, revealed the dilemma faced by every serious contemporary black filmmaker: How to get not just the larger world but black folks to engage with images of blackness that are not cartoons?

It'll be interesting to see what the barbershop crowd makes of writer-director Christopher Scott Cherot's Hav Plenty. Like Love Jones, another small gem that black folks napped on, Plenty is a romantic comedy in classic Hollywood fashion: Struggling guy writer infiltrates the world of the snooty rich girl he loves, and his wisecracking presence alternately charms and appalls her, her friends and her family. And like Love Jones, the specificity of the cultural milieu narrows the broadness of the formula, ladling unmistakably black flavor into the mix. In this case, that means taking well-aimed potshots at the current state of black music, its practitioners and content. It means giving the female lead, Havilland Savage (Chenoa Maxwell), a distinctly Jack & Jill air. ( Jack & Jill being the hyperexclusive, national social club for the sons and daughters of wealthy Negroes with light skin and good hair.) It also means putting black bohemia onscreen in the tattered threads that the gilded Love Jones strenuously avoided.

When Hav Plenty opens, Lee Plenty (played by Cherot himself) - who's been living out of his car - is house sitting for Havilland in New York while she visits her mom in D.C.; it's the New Year's holiday. At the last minute, she invites him down for the weekend and he accepts. What follows is a bank of flirtations, miscommunications and thwarted love connections. Hav is avoiding her two-timing fiance, Michael (Hill Harper), a slick and successful R&B singer; her younger sister, Leigh (Robinne Lee), is a newlywed on the brink of divorce; her best friend, Caroline (Tammi Katherine Jones), is a horny diva who speaks in butchered French; and Mom is an offscreen presence whose voice fills the house like God's. Aside from a few moments of slapstick, the whole thing is dialogue - Philadelphia Story by way of Spike Lee.

It's a crudely made film, and at times its $49.95 price tag all but waves from the screen. But Cherot - as both writer and director - has a good-spiritedness that never wavers, that smoothes over some of the rockier acting moments. In other hands, Havilland would have been a one-note bitch (I suspect a lot of folks will read her as such, anyway), but Cherot allows her moments of humor and reflectiveness that flesh her out. He's also sharp enough to let us glimpse a hint of snobbishness beneath Lee's laid-back demeanor and sarcastic quips - Lee's undoubtedly the hero of the film, but he's not above looking at some folks from down his nose.

What's really wonderful about Hav Plenty are the bolts of realness that ground the film: the rug that's pulled from under us at film's end, when we should be standing firmly on happily-ever-after; the smart but not exclusive insider joke of the film-within-a-film that comes at Plenty's end (cast with a handful of young Black Hollywood luminaries); even the fact that Lee wears the same clothes for three days running. What I really loved, though, were the close-ups on Cherot's own face. His unvarnished pimples and blemishes spoke volumes about his character's poverty and priorities. They did the same for Cherot as writer-director, clueing us that here's a man who knows that the real stories are in the details.