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'House Party' at 30: Writer-director Reginald Hudlin on almost casting Will Smith, Hollywood's resistance to black teen movies, and more

Kevin Polowy
Senior Correspondent, Yahoo Entertainment

"Thirty is the age of a grown ass person," Reginald Hudlin declared on Monday, the day his directorial debut and cult classic House Party celebrated the 30th anniversary of its theatrical release. That means House Party, which starred popular rap duo Kid-N-Play as high school friends who plot a raucous blowout when one's parents leave town, is officially a grown-ass movie.

Hudlin's House Party journey extends well beyond 30 years back, though. As an undergrad at Harvard University, the East St. Louis, Illinois native directed a short film by the same name in 1983. The short won top honors at the Black American Cinema Society Awards.

"Back then, the whole black film hadn't exploded yet, it was everyone making little movies," Hudlin told Yahoo Entertainment.

"I'm meeting with different studios, and they're all turning me down. One executive said, 'Look. There's two things that nobody wants to see: black movies, and teen movies. You have a black teen movie. No one wants to see that.'

The project did eventually garner the attention of New Line Cinema, a fledgling studio then best known for its Nightmare on Elm Street series, or as Hudlin called the distributor, "the last stop on the train."

New Line bit, and they had the perfect hip-hop duo in mind to star: "Parents Just Don't Understand" tandem DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, a.k.a. Will Smith. "And I was like, 'I love them!," Hudlin recalled. "So I went to talk to their manager at the time, who was Russell Simmons. Russell's like, 'Oh, we're doing big deals in Hollywood!'"

In other words, no thank you.

"Years later, we're all in Hollywood together, and I'd see Will Smith, who is the nicest, greatest guy in the world," Hudlin said. "It was a great movie with Kid-N-Play, it would've been a great movie with Will Smith and Jazzy Jeff. I still would love to work with Will at some point. But this is what happens. It was meant to be the way we made it." (In a fascinating twist of Hollywood role reversals, Christopher “Kid” Reid has said the success of House Party earned them an offer for an NBC sitcom, which they passed on; it ultimately became The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, starring… Will Smith and Jazzy Jeff.)

Kid-N-Play in 'House Party' (New Line Cinema)

Hudlin was still interested in tapping into hip-hop to find his leads. "You really had to turn to the music world to find people who had a fanbase," he said. The filmmaker had seen music videos from Kid-N-Play, best known for hits like "Rollin' with Kid 'n Play" and "Gittin' Funky," was drawn to their aesthetics: Kid's famous high-top fade, their flashy wears, and synchronized dance routines. "They were cool, two guys with two different looks," Hudlin said. This is gonna to be great, he thought.

Audiences agreed. House Party went on to earn $26 million on a budget of $2.5 million, becoming one of the most profitable films of the year and boosting the profile of New Line Cinema, not to mention costars like Martin Lawrence and Tisha Campbell (who'd later reunited in Hudlin's follow-up Boomerang before costarring on the sitcom favorite Martin). It found an even wider audience on home video, and is credited with broadening on-screen portrayals of African American teens, helping usher hip-hop into the mainstream, and successfully endorsing the practice of safe sex thanks to its iconic broken condom scene.

It also led to four sequels, though Hudlin was not directly involved in any of them.

"I get a check," laughed Hudlin, who in recent years earned an Oscar nomination for producing 2012's Django Unchained and directed the 2017 Thurgood Marshall biopic Marshall. "Every year I open a mailbox and there's a check! You go, 'Yes!'"

That's one benefit that comes from writing and directing one very successful and influential grown-ass movie.

Watch our full uncut interview with Reginald Hudlin here:

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