Arguably one of the most talented of the recent African-American directors is Darnell Martin, who made a quintessentially indie movie within the studio system. When Columbia agreed to produce I Like It Like That, Martin became the first African-American woman to direct a movie at a major studio.
Martin was also able to go home again–to Findlay and 167th Street in the heart of Bronx–to tell an authentic story about the maturation of a young couple, Lisette (Lauren Velez) and Chino (Jon Seda) Linares, amid the push and pull forces of their barrio families. Defying easy labels, the film blends drama, comedy and romance in chronicling the emotional and sexual tug-of-war of an interracial marriage of a black woman and a Latino.
Inspiration for the movie came directly from the streets, the schoolyard (of Public School 64) and the building where Martin grew up. Its buoyancy reflects the director's firsthand familiarity with the milieu–her characters emerge out of the behavior, talk and music she saw and heard on her block. Martin shows a vivid ear for profane street language with all its put-downs and sexual frankness.
Set on a hot summer night, against Bronx's vibrant street life, the film follows the Linares after a citywide blackout. Though raising three children, the Linares are themselves kids who need to learn how to become responsible to each other–and to themselves. A goofy macho, Chino proudly times his staying power in bed (89 minutes in the first scene), but he can't support his family from his earnings as a bicycle messenger; Lisette sarcastically labels him “The Layaway King.” Running herself ragged, Lisette is trying to stave off creditors, raise boisterous kids, and keep from being overwhelmed by her husband. When Lisette threatens to get a job (to buy a new stereo), Chino impulsively joins in some neighborhood looting. Chino's imrisonment forces Lisette to get a job with a record company, and her success and tentative romance with her white boss threaten to tear the family apart.
I Like It Like That unfolds through the eyes of Lisette, whose role as wife-mother is challenged. Remarkably, Martin evokes the giddy but infuriating love of the Linares without demeaning the men. Her sympathy is clearly with Lisette's search for fulfillment, but she views Chino with compassion and humor. The story of a squabbling couple is old-fashioned, but Martin gives it a vibrant Afro-Caribbean lilt, placing it in a teeming multi-cultural neighborhood. Prior to this feature, Martin had worked as assistant to Spike Lee, absorbing his gift for lively, energetic imagery. Martin keeps everything perking along with a bouncy style, rap, salsa and colorful characters: women who desire independence, men who need to mature, a Latino transvestite yearning for sex-change operation.
If you want to know more about this issue, please read my book, Cinema of Outsiders: The Rise of American Independent Film(NYU Press, hardcover 200; paperback 2001).