Why 'Hav Plenty' Deserves Its Flowers, Even 20 Years Later
Hav Plenty is the indie film based on a New Years weekend spent between Christopher Scott Cherot and former Def Jam A&R, Drew Dixon. Premiering in 1997, Cherot wrote and directed the film, also starring as protagonist Lee Plenty after his initial lead dropped out of the project. Chenoa Maxwell plays Havilland Savage, the well-to-do magnet that reels in men and women alike. Robin Lee and Tammi Katherine Jones star as supporting characters with cameos from Nia Long, Shemar Moore, and Lauryn Hill. The film's highly regarded soundtrack was produced by Babyface and Tracey Edmonds. It opened at what is now known as the American Black Film Festival in the summer of 1997.
"I know what it means to be in need, I know what it means to have plenty. I have learned the secret to being content in every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want."
The mid to late '90s were the height of Black rom-coms and soundtracks, with production quality of large budget films mirroring that of Love & Basketball and The Best Man. Movies like Love Jones and Hav Plenty, both released in 1997 with significantly smaller budgets, have garnered a cult following over time. A following most prevalent amongst Black middle-class college attendees. Love Jones has that "can't-eat, can't-sleep, reach for the stars, over the fence, World Series kind of stuff" that we learned would be our gateway to love as kids in It Takes Two. It's the silence of a maturing love, the comfort of sliding her toes underneath his legs as he watches TV, the dismissal of elder familial figures claiming that two beings are destined for one another that takes precedence in Hav Plenty. The poor production adds an existential charm to Scott's tale, unconventionally complementing the writing to make it appear wittier. In Love Jones, it's the in-your-face artistry of music, photography, and poetry that bind Nina and Darius. However, in Hav Plenty it's the artistic subtleties that strengthen the plot of the film. For instance, Lee brings Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights on his trip to visit Havilland, paralleling the unrequited love between Heathcliff and Catherine Earnshaw. A detail that lovers of the arts can't help but notice. It is also important to note that while Darius and Nina are both struggling artists, Hav and Lee come from two vastly different backgrounds though they both attended college at New York University. Hav is the product of a prominent lawyer and a software investor, and was raised in the mansion in which the film takes place. Lee lives out of his car, and occasionally on Hav's couch. As Variety described in '97, "Hav is a woman who has everything but love; Lee is a man who has nothing but love."
The film opens with a home video of Havilland's fiancé, world-renowned musician Michael Simmons, telling her to look at the camera. She is a quiet narcissist, gushing in timidity before the viewer realizes it is all a hoax. Her face melts into that of a supermodel as she stares fiercely into the lens— showing off the skating rink perched on her engagement finger and proclaiming her soon-to-be's to the world. It is Hav's didymous personality that makes you hate to love her; seemingly thoughtful with excusable ulterior motives because they are never so bad. The name "Havilland" means "lively," and that she is. She's the focal point of any room she enters and name drops celebrities so excessively that Hillary Banks suddenly appears humble. She has a way of keeping everyone where she wants them, except for her superstar ex-fiancé who had trouble remaining faithful.
The scene then cuts to Lee on Havilland's couch watching the home video of Havilland and Michael, in an agonizing yet amused gaze. There is no greater moment that articulates Lee's self-deprecation than this moment of solitude. Havilland calls and interrupts his antics and, learning that Lee doesn't have any plans, invites him to her family's estate for the weekend. Throughout the weekend, Lee's easy going charm inadvertently attracts Havilland's best friend as well as her newly wed younger sister. Though he's expressed admiration during their tenure at NYU, Havilland grows increasingly attracted to Lee seeing him reject other women. As a conquest of sorts, she urges him to kiss her. It's as comical as Taming of the Shrew, except that they are both the shrew. As the weekend concludes, Havilland and Lee find their way back to New York and their stubbornness inevitably leaves the two estranged. Her urging him to call the next day as she exits the car, him responding some time later with the greatest damn fictional love letter of all time. But for Hav and Lee, much like Drew Dixon and Chris Scott Cherot, there is no fairytale ending.
Hav Plenty touches on a theme that most Black rom-com narratives fail at: real love doesn't always work out. After discovering Hav Plenty, the film company Miramax offered to buy the film and urged Scott to give the movie a "happier" ending. Scott defies, however, and concludes the film on a more ambiguous note— leaving the audience to interpret for themselves. Happy-ish to juxtapose the fact that happily ever afters in Black romantic comedies are oversaturated. Think of Q's "double or nothing" remark after he kicks Monica's ass in a game of 21 with his wedding at stake in Love & Basketball. Relive Darius and Nina's rainy kiss in Love Jones that was urgent like a motherfucker. Imagine how many student release forms Marcus had to fill out in Boomerang to get Angela's students to come to her new job for that apology. The theory that "everything is okay in the end and, if it's not okay, it's not the end" directly negates today's dating norms. This likely explains why films like (500) Days of Summer and Café Society were widely successful. Relationships fall apart for a myriad of reasons and it could be as simple as not being ready or feeling worthy of being loved by the right person. Maybe the real life Havilland Savage simply adopted her surname. Either way, you may want to rethink your favorite movie villain of all time.