Set in Spanish Harlem in the mid-70s, Aaron Loves Angela (1975) is a tale of young love; the titular characters are Aaron James (Kevin Hooks), an African-American high-schooler who’s fifteen, and Angela Sanchez (Irene Cara), a Latina (Puerto Rican) who’s the same age. The two of them meet during a basketball game—Aaron has high hopes of turning pro someday—where their respective high schools are playing in what is clearly a fierce rivalry. Aaron’s team loses…but the sting of defeat is wiped away since he’s quite smitten with Angela, and the two of them start seeing one another despite the disapproval of their friends and families.
Yes, I hear you saying—it’s a lot like Romeo and Juliet…though the familial objections don’t play quite as large a role in this one. Both Aaron and Angela come from strikingly similar backgrounds; she doesn’t see her father that much (he’s a trumpeter out in L.A.) and her mother moves around from city to city (Atlanta, N’awlins) due to her wanderlust. With Aaron, it’s his mom that lit out early on; a dancer, she moved to Paris and left him behind with his bitter, alcoholic father (Moses Gunn). Ike James was an All-American in college and played a few years of pro football before being sidelined with a career-ending injury…now he runs a bar/rib joint called Ike’s All American, and spends his evenings drinking and reliving his past gridiron glories via a slide projector.
Aaron Loves Angela was the final feature film directed by Gordon Parks, Jr. before his death in a plane crash in 1979—an important figure in the area of “Blaxploitation” movies (Gordon also helmed Superfly and Thomasine & Bushrod), Parks was following in the footsteps of his famous father, Gordon, Sr., an author/photographer whose Renaissance man activities also included the direction of important films such as The Learning Tree (1969) and Shaft (1971). Aaron Loves Angela is considered by many to be one of the best of the genre, featuring fine performances from the leads and a serviceable script that only falters when it adds an unnecessary drug dealing subplot into the mix.
Aaron Loves Angela marked the feature film debut of actress-singer Cara, who had by that time already demonstrated the acting (Love of Life, The Electric Company) and singing chops that would win her acclaim in the 1980 movie musical Fame…and an Academy Award for Best Song for the title track of the 1983 feature Flashdance. Her co-star Hooks had also demonstrated he wasn’t too shabby when it came to emoting, appearing in the Academy Award-nominated film Sounder (1972). Hooks is best remembered here at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear as student hoopster Morris Thorpe on the CBS-TV series The White Shadow; he later became a respected film and TV director with features like Passenger 57 and episodes of boob tube favorites like St. Elsewhere and Prison Break to his credit.
Kevin’s famous father—actor Robert Hooks (N.Y.P.D., The Hoop Life)—engages in a little nepotism in Aaron Loves Angela playing Beau Lincoln, a drug-dealing pimp who’s the focus of the subplot I mentioned earlier. Beau involves himself in a Mafia drug deal that goes sour, and involves Aaron so the movie can have an interesting payoff, I guess. It doesn’t completely wreck the film, but I was so wrapped up in the nice chemistry between Hooks and Cara’s characters that I thought it was a distraction.
The only other thing that I found unsatisfying about the movie is that Moses Gunn’s character—while certainly making his presence known in the film—sort of gets short-shrift as a result of the drug deal detour (though he does try to tell his son to do the right thing); I can’t recall Gunn ever giving a bad performance…and if he has, you probably shouldn’t tell me about it. There are also solid supporting turns from Ernestine Jackson (as the senior Hooks’ old lady, who inducts Hooks, Jr. into “the way of all flesh”), Leon Pinkney (as Hooks’ comic relief buddy) and Charles McGregor. Basketball legend Walt Frazier appears in a cameo (and demonstrates why he should not quit his day job), as does José Feliciano—who provides the songs for Aaron’s soundtrack (several co-written with Janna Marlyn Feliciano). This sleeper had been on my “see” list for a while now, and it was definitely worth the wait…though I was a little disappointed that The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ made do with a non-letterboxed version of the film.