When Darnell Martin’s I Like It Like That premiered at the 1994 Cannes Film Festival (and later opened in U.S. theaters later that year), the Bronx-set film was breaking new ground. With her directing debut, Martin became the first African-American female filmmaker to take helm of a film produced by a major film studio. Not only that, but the fact that her project focused on an Afro-Latina living in the South Bronx made it one of the few U.S. Latino stories to ever play the Croisette. I Like It Like That follows Lisette Linares (Luna Lauren Velez, most recently heard on Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse as Miles Morales’ mom), a young mother of three whose explosive relationship with her husband Chino (Jon Seda) is tested once he’s jailed for petty theft.
As Linares tries to provide for her family (and keep her man away from the buxomly neighbor who has her eyes on him and may well have carried his son), she lands a gig as a personal assistant to a major record label producer (Griffin Dune), who’s intent on signing a new Latin music group. With subplots that include a contentious father-son relationship that puts in stark relief the drug epidemic that was coursing through the city in the early ’90s, and a sympathetic look at a trans character who gives voice to the violence that community suffers at the hands of intolerant families, I Like It Like That is a snapshot of a community in all of its complexities.
Now celebrating 25 years, this Independent Spirit Award-nominated film remains a classic. Not that you’d know it from the mostly mixed reviews it received upon release. While highlighting its stellar cast, which also includes Rita Moreno, Jesse Borrego and Lisa Vidal, most reviewers downplayed its cultural specificity despite noting that Velez and Martin were talents to watch. You can read five of those original reviews below. Unsurprisingly, none were written by women of color, who no doubt would’ve brought some fascinating insight into their assessment of Martin’s filmmaking.
I Like It Like That first hit theaters on October 14, 1994.
“Taking its title from the song played over the opening credits, writer-director Darnell Martin’s debut is a warm friendly hug of a film, lightweight and fluffy but enjoyable for it. And if any doubts remain that this is yet more ghetto oppression or some irksome Girlz N The Hood riff, they are quickly quashed by the film’s opening scene — a marathon session of mattress flexing between leading lady Lisette Linares (Velez) and her sexually voracious Hispanic husband Chino (Seda). Unfortunately, Lisette soon discovers just how much of a super-stud her hubby really is after an ill-judged robbery during a blackout lands him in jail and stories of his philandering sweep the neighborhood. Not one to take things lying down and desperate for money to support her unruly kids, she joins the ranks of the employed and takes sweet revenge the only way she knows how.” — Caroline Westbrook
“For the tenderness and generosity with which Martin explores life in her own backyard, I Like It Like That is most closely related to Spike Lee’s Crooklyn. But Martin’s particular impressive gifts are a sexiness and a just-do-it-girlfriend practicality that is, I do believe, inextricably a part of her feminine sensibility. It’s a sensibility that allows her to give Lisette a funny, believable, transvestite brother who is neither a cartoon nor a tragic figure; it’s also a sensibility that knows exactly how to compare breasts (Lisette hates that hers are small; a local vixen who wants to steal Chico away preens because hers are large) in language that is just as teasing and heartfelt as such a fundamental subject requires.” — Lisa Schwarzbaum
New York Times
“Sometimes Ms. Martin has to manipulate her characters blatantly to move her film along. And she has to fall back on the occasional stereotype. (Rita Moreno, as Chino’s excitable Hispanic mother, who boasts about her ‘pure Castilian blood,’ denigrates Lisette’s black lineage and has no idea how to handle her three grandchildren, is one of the film’s typically broad comic figures.) But she brings such familiarity and affection to this material that it works exuberantly, with a keen appreciation of back talk and backbone from all its characters. As a forthright visual stylist who coaxes the very best out of her actors, Ms. Martin has no difficulty bringing her story to life.” — Janet Maslin
“Mostly unknown thesps throw themselves into their roles with abandon and emerge appealingly. Velez convinces as she manages to cope while being on the brink most of the time, and Seda is fine as the temperamental young father torn in several directions. Dunne is OK as the music exec, while Moreno has little to do as the haranguing mother. Pic jumps to a strong urban beat, and tech credits are solid. While delivering nothing remarkable, Martin demonstrates that she knows her way around a camera and actors, and will certainly be heard from in the future.” — Todd McCarthy
“This is not exactly a riveting plot, but what makes the film interesting is the way Martin sees the details. Instead of going for obvious contrasts between the two men in Lisette’s life, she sees the similarities: In one way or another, they both always have their eye on the clock. Neither one believes Lisette is as smart and capable as she obviously is. And both make their decisions with their libidos, not their intelligence.” — Roger Ebert