What's the best romance starring African-Americans and why are there so few?
Last night at a showing of Think Like a Man Too I was thrilled to see a trailer for the upcoming Gina Prince-Bythewood movie Beyond the Lights. It’s the story of the romance between a vulnerable young woman on the brink of pop stardom (Belle breakout actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and Nate Parker (Non-Stop). Hello, sold. But I was already in because of Prince-Bythewood, who wrote and directed one of my favorite romances, 2000’s Love and Basketball. The movie, which stars Sanaa Lathan and Omar Epps, just earned snaps in the second season of Orange Is the New Black when, in a flashback scene during episode 7, it’s revealed that Big Cindy named her daughter after Lathan’s character Monica.To get a sense of folks’ great affection for Love and Basketball, check out the numerous video tributes to the film on YouTube. Here’s a corny but effective one:
Love and Basketball is a great movie, but I think a part of the reason we fans continue to cling to it so hard is because there’s so few contemporary stories depicting romance between black characters. All respect to Kevin Hart and his patented brand of high-octane comedy, but I don’t think of a hit franchise like Think Like a Man as relevant to this discussion. I’m talking about quieter movies in which average, modern-day black men and women—not historical figures like Jackie Robinson or James Brown, good God Chadwick Boseman must just want to pair of jeans in a movie for once, or beleaguered women from the Civil Rights era—fall in and out love like the rest of us. Love and Basketball, about a couple of college ball players struggling with their passion for their game and each other, is just a simple, little love story that sits nicely on the shelf between 1997’s Love Jones and 2012’s Gimme the Loot. But damn, we need more offerings on that shelf.
During one of the more devastating interviews I’ve done in my tenure at EW, the great Viola Davis, in a conversation about her upcoming movie The Help, described to me the divorce between who she is in her real life and the type of black women she sees on screen: “I’m a black woman who is from Central Falls, Rhode Island. I’m dark-skinned, I’m quirky, I’m shy, I’m strong, I’m guarded, I’m weak at times, I’m sensual, I’m not overtly sexual, I am so many things in so many ways and I will never see myself on screen. And the reason I will never see myself up on screen is because that does not translate with [people’s ideas of] black. You know, who’s ever seen a nerdy, quirky, timid black woman on screen? I don’t know where she is. It’s like Toni Morrison wrote in her literary criticism book in 1994, that as soon as a character of color is introduced in a story, imagination stops.”
Shonda Rimes, who I imagine is going to show us everything Davis has to offer in her new ABC drama How to Get Away With Murder, is helping us expand our imagination. So is Orange Is the New Black, which is not only employing so many fascinating women of color, but also doing such great work within the Litchfield confines and in the flashback episodes of granting them such marvelously intimate and specific interior lives.
But we need more from our movies. In an interview with Kevin Hart, he bemoaned our habit as a culture of segregating entertainment, like when we carelessly label movies like Ride Along or Think Like a Man Too as specifically black entertainment. “I hate the stigma of black films,” he said. “At the end of the day I love to make movies for all audiences.” But if the majority of films made with African-American casts only tell larger-than-life stories (12 Years a Slave, The Help, The Butler, 42, Red Tails, The Great Debaters), however crucial and demanding to be shared, then we’re missing the chance to know and relate to everyday people and remember that we’re all more than archetypes. (The same goes with the down-on-their-luck genre of storytelling.)
I loved Love and Basketball because it felt real to me. I recognized the characters. Their romance had a sweetness and rawness and realness that I want from my love stories. That’s why I’ll show up opening night, November 14, to see Beyond the Lights.