Lupita, Michael, and the Future of Black Romance in Film

Lupita, Michael, and the Future of Black Romance in Film

The other night, I came across a photograph of actress
Lupita Nyong’o and actor Michael B. Jordan together on Twitter, with the
caption: “A romantic comedy we’d all love to see.” Several users commented, and
retweeted it. The actors’ beautiful brown faces burst from the image, and I became
excited in a rare way.   

I immediately thought of their faces together in a profile shot,
natural light falling onto their skin as they embrace by a window or near a
lake. I thought of an argument between them that ends in a kiss, or the dreaded
obstacles that stop them from being together. And what about their first date
at a popular diner, then dancing afterward, or maybe swimming? The thought of
Michael B. Jordan and Lupita Nyong’o dancing together in a film makes me happy.
It makes me happy because I don’t see many love stories like this.

Black moviegoers often speak of Theodore Witcher’s romantic
drama, Love Jones, as an example of
the classic black love story. Is there no contemporary equivalent
to this film, and does there need to be?  When black love is made
mainstream, I am often encouraged to laugh at it. In Think Like A Man, when Morris Chestnut’s character unexpectedly pulls up in a
Benz after Michael Ealy pulls off in that broke-down hooptie, I was in stitches.
There is nothing wrong with laughter, and good comedy is priceless. But what if we want to laugh, cry, and think, in one sitting? What if I want to be made
uncomfortable sometimes, through shot duration, moody lighting, or silence? What if
the form of black love films could be expanded? 

I think of some of the best love stories, like Jane
Campion’s
film The Piano, and how Ada ran through the murky New Zealand forest in muted grays and thick
fog, to be with Baines. An unfamiliar lust and passion overcame them, and a
beautiful union was forged. I also think of more recent films like Terence
Nance’s
An Oversimplification of Her
Beauty
, and how Nance’s adoration of Namik formed a surreal, enchanted
cross-genre blend of animation, live action, and sound that channels the
feeling of wanting and not being wanted in return.

I think of Ava DuVernay’s film Middle of Nowhere, and of Emayatzy Corinealdi as Ruby, a
brown-skinned woman with a round face, fierce eyes, and an expectation for her husband’s
eventual release from prison. She looked different than many of the black
female leads I’d seen, and this excited me because I look different than many
of the images I constantly ingest. She was a reflection of black women we don’t
see, women who come home from work, tired, and sit in a dark room, or go to
sleep in the middle of the day.  There
was a lived-in quality to these scenes, and to this character.

In just about every public appearance, Lupita Nyong’o astonishes the world with her smile, humility, physical beauty, her cropped haircut,
dashing gowns, and her smooth, dark brown skin. She is not the black female
protagonist I see in mainstream films, and it’s because of this, that she’s
needed there. Aside from talent, a large part of any romantic genre film, has
to do with the look of its lead actors. As viewers, we want to fall in love
too. Who wouldn’t want to look at Lupita Nyong’o and Michael B. Jordan for two
hours? Is that even a question?

Both actors have stepped into the spotlight for humanizing
characters on the bottom rungs of society. Oscar Grant was an unfaithful
boyfriend and loving father killed on New Years Eve, while Patsey, a female field-hand, picked more cotton than any man, but faced constant brutality from the plantation
owner. Both roles required total commitment to the vulnerability in these heavily
contested spaces, and both performances aroused audience emotion, causing us to
wonder about Patsey and Oscar Grant for days and months afterward, and to leave the theater with a full heart. Can you imagine what they could do in a love story?

So, will we ever see this film? I hope so. And, what would be the
obstacles to getting it made? The same systemic obstacles that prevent any Octavia Butler novels
from being adapted into films, or kept Theodore Witcher from making another
film after Love Jones. The same
reasons that prompted Viola Davis to speak about the lack of roles
offered to her
, and why certain young, talented actresses like Adepero Oduye
and Emayatzy Corinealdi, aren’t racking up roles left and right like their
white counterparts. 

It’s difficult to do or be something different,
when popular systems of preference and importance are built on foundations that
don’t include you, your image, or your idea of love. When black men and women’s
lives can be so easily extinguished in our own society
, it becomes hard to think about
Hollywood embracing an organic love story between a black woman and a black
man, or between a black woman and a black woman
. So, that leaves us- the
independent black filmmakers and supporters- to love, to make different images, to evoke
passion, to write a movie for Lupita and Michael, and others like them. I’m
starting now.

Nijla Mu’min is a writer and filmmaker from the East Bay Area. She is currently in development on two feature scripts. Visit her website HERE.

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Comments

Troublemaker

@Laddie You got some nerve calling Tyler Perry a coon when you’re one yourself. Who is going to watch a movie with a 61 year old black man and a much younger buxom blonde? Wh*te women? Black men? Stay delusional! The majority of wh*te women are with wh*te men. Just like the majority of black men are with black women. Stay cooning for a much younger wh*te woman.

Laddie

I’D be an excellent lead in a movie or TV role,but Tinseltown’s racist and that cooning Tyler Perry would rather date Gabourey Sidibe before casting me in ANYTHING,let alone a leading man role!!!!!

Laddie

How ’bout a handsome older black lad such as Yours Truly-I’m 61-and a MUCH-YOUNGER buxom blonde????Save the Troglodytes who watch the egregiously bigoted "Bachelor/Bachelorette,"I’ll bet LOTS of folks would watch THAT rom-com!!!!!!

anon

Well Lupita is planning on filming and playing the lead role in Americanah the adpatation of chimamanda adichie's novel and that is set in U.S. Maybe her american boyfriend could be micheal b jordan? Folks, thats the best you're gonna get but I look forward to the movie coz the book is pure class!
And to accidental visitor, did you know that the notebook was written by a MAN and directed by a MAN?
Gone with the wind (novel yes was witten by woman but film scripted by a man) AND Lawrence of arabia both done by MEN which debunks your theory about epic romances written ONLY by women.

handsomerandyblackladbrad1953

I of course, mean,"My COLOUR disqualifies me for "The Bachelor!!!!!!"

handsomerandyblackladbrad1953

I don't care about Lupita Nyongo (she's lovely but lacks boobs!!!!!!)but were Yours Truly considered for a leading man role,VERY FEW WOMEN WOULD TAKE THEIR EYES OFF ME!!!!(I'm a muscular,pinup boy handsome black Canadian lad,61,who's said to resemble a black cowboy stud instead of anyone remotely "urban,' which is likely why I'm avoided by casting directors,ie.,I don't fit TV's/Hollywood's black male stereotypes,and even were I half my present age,my olour disqualifies me for 'The Bachelor!!!!!!")

CC

"But our audience has to support this genre and demand it. Let's keep showing them strong box office when these films from our indie distributors are released and the business execs needing a profit will definitely follow."

That just about says it all. We ARE NOT "showing them strong box (except… **drum roll** stereotypical rom-coms). So, needless to say "Lupita Loves Michael" (The "black" Notebook) would not be a film they'd consider green-lighting.

jerzygirl45

"It’s difficult to do or be something different, when popular systems of preference and importance are built on foundations that don’t include you, your image, or your idea of love"

That says it all. About movies, about the current state of things in this country. Perfect assessment. Absolutely perfect

Nicole Franklin

Great article and I am looking forward to your work–a very loving portrait of our vibrant and sensual community. Hollywood knows these films exist in the indie community. But our audience has to support this genre and demand it. Let's keep showing them strong box office when these films from our indie distributors are released and the business execs needing a profit will definitely follow.

J

We need more AA's in the hollywood community. The Black Hollywood culture needs to hear our demands and meet them. This is plausible.
We just need more AA/black film makers because the talent is out here and willing to portray these stories.

urbanauteur

How`bout an remake of 'WARM DECEMBER'? or 'BLACK ORPHEUS'?

Zaneta

When I looked at these two Michael and a Lupita I NEVER thought they would be together in real life. Michael looks like he is into the racy chick. In a film kind of, but Lupita comes across as intellectual and probably into someone like Malik Yoba or a white guy like Mayor de Blasio!!!

Formerly From Tokyo

I think part of this stems from the fact that not enough (perhaps only to my personal liking) people of color get involved in the film industry. When thinking of making money, there are many who look to either music or sports, rather than the realms of film or fashion (my personal preferences). I've always been the kind of person who understands wanting (and even at times, needing) the help/validation of the mainstream, but at the same time feeling like, "If they don't represent you then represent yourself." If I was in film, I would create these opportunities, but I would not solely cast my race, because as a cinephile of color, I'm gratified to see multi-racial casts, while at the same time resenting the fact that it is not the norm.

Accidental Visitor

Forgot to mention that the only recent black love stories in movies that were worth a damn happened to be Chico and Rita, Mother of George and the aforementioned Middle of Nowhere. Chico and Rita had the type of epic love story that spanned over decades that you just don't see when it comes to black couples. Unfortunately it is also an animation. And of the three movies I mentioned, only one had a script written by a black person (Middle of Nowehere). The other two were written by whites.

Colleen

I have a genuine question that I hope comes across as respectfully curious rather than dense or offensive. I am white, female, and a storyteller. I appreciate good stories with well-written, interesting characters regardless of their background, and I'm angered at the lack of diverse roles in general. Truly, I am tired of the formula.

I think I'm in a position to do something about this. I only feel inspired to write characters who tend to be underrepresented (whether interracial couples, women in thriller genres, transgender men and women, etc.) because in one way or another, these stories are things I have witnessed within my own life, in friends' lives, or that I simply notice in the world around me. My question is: is it presumptuous of me, as a white woman, to try to tell the story of a person of color, whether through writing, directing, etc.?

I read articles like this one and envision very easily a love story between 2 black characters, but then doubt my place to tell it. On one hand, love is so broad that it feels wrong to shy away on the basis of race; it feels like a subtler form of racism, implying that for a "black" story to be valuable it must explicitly address the characters' "blackness." On the other hand, I would hate to exacerbate the issue by becoming a white creative who black actors work with to the exclusion of anyone else. What is the proper way to go about this? Is there one? Is it better for the stories to be written, regardless of the author's ethnicity, as long as human truth and integrity are paramount?

Sydney Levine

From the moment I saw that picture, I wanted to see more of these two vibrant actors, which led me to read your entire article, and again to bemoan the systemic lack of even monetary interest (and profit) in taking such action as making that perfect movie I would love to see. I'm white, even had a role in the system until I chose to go indie rather than Hollywood (read "corporate"). Hooray for Ana Duvernay, but is there no other black soul with money to spare who dares to risk it on such a movie? Is there no black Ryan Cavanaugh? How I wish our American system nourished that crazy sense of creative romanticism to make money play a role in movies we care about. It is left up to the individual will while in Europe and Latin America government funds help the artist in the name of cultural expression. Sadly in U.S., culture is considered a luxury not an imperative.

CareyCarey

"So, will we ever see this film? … what would be the obstacles to getting it made? The same systemic obstacles…. It's difficult to do or be something different, when popular systems of preference and importance are built on foundations that don't include you, your image, or your idea of love"

Now can we speak in a language called "straight forward". The basic "obstacle" is white folks, period! From the jump it's a proven fact, they have no love for (do not support) black films, period. Now add a black love story to the mix. Immediately, one might as well have posted a blast from the past "For Blacks Only". Think not? Why not? Look, we have been conditions to accept white love stories, but they, on the other hand, have never been forced to accept/love/seek out anything about our lives, so what – now – would compel them to change their habits?

So in this discussion they should be removed from the table. Moving forward, lets start from the top "what would be the obstacles to getting it made?"

Well, aside from money being the prevalent obstacle, who in the black audience desires such a film? But wait, before we answer, exactly what type of love story are we talking about? Are we clamoring for more Love Jone type affair? The author mentioned the good and not so good elements of Think Like A Man. Is that the type of black love story we would love to see Lupita and Michael highlight their skills? That reminds me, it should be noted that Tyler Perry has produced the most popular black love stories to date… and how did An Oversimplification of Her Beauty, Middle of Nowhere, Love and Basketball, Pariah and "I Will Follow" do at the box office?

I'm just saying… "what would be the obstacles?"

The devil's in the details of the proposed film… and who exactly, truly wants to see said film? Hey, I'm just posing the question because word to the wise, whomever they may be raising their hands in the air and hollering like they really care, money talks and…

Accidental Visitor

Here is an opinion that may prove unpopular. I do not believe that within the black community there is this clamoring for a real black love story. Sure, black folks when asked about it give a lot of the typical talk about how they would love to see such a movie, how it has been long overdue, etc. But do our actions match our words?

Love stories are stories that can be enjoyed immensely by both sexes regardless of how much we men deny it. Nonetheless in the end the main audience for such films are women, regardless of race or class. For a black love story to be successful it must have the backing and support specifically of black women. But in my opinion black women don't care as much about a black love story as they do about a love story that involves black women. In other words black women will easily settle for a love story involving a black woman and a non-black man in place of a love story involving a black woman and a black man.

This opinion, and it is nothing more than my opinion, has been formed by years of conversations I've had as well as written material and posts that I've come across. The times in which black women become MOST passionate about a black love story is in those cases in which the male star at the center is black and the woman is, say, Latina (non-black Latina to be specific). A movie like "Hitch". All of a sudden black females are asking "why couldn't they've cast a black lady in that role, why weren't any black actresses chosen?" It then morphs into the predictable "Hollywood needs to put out more black love stories." But when it is Thandie Newton being the damsel in distress and love interest of Tom Cruise in MI2 all you hear is crickets chirping. There is none of that "oh, I wish there was a black guy playing the Tom Cruise part or a black guy playing a character like Cruise's whom Newton could have starred alongside because that would have made a great black love story."

Nope. Black female viewers are more willing to overlook the invisibility of any black love story as long as they female part of the couple is black; they are far less willing to overlook this if the man is black and the woman is of another race. And this is the case whether it be a film like 'The Bodyguard" or a TV show like "Scandal". So that suggests to me that black women are more interested in being represented than they are in seeing the representation of black couples in a love affair.

Further proof of this are books. I rarely ever come across novels by black women that ever deal with a true epic love story that women tend to eat up. White women, Asian women, Hispanic women can write novels about a variety of topics that put women and front in center and yet they also manage to produce a bunch of love stories. I tend not to read these books unless the reviews are out of this world. However via the Sunday NY Times book section, Entertainment weekly and other sources, I do often come across reviews of mainstream books by non-black women that center on complicated, grand love stories that are described as taking place over long stretches of time. I'll admit at times I get envious and wish for such novels about a black couple to come down the pipe. If it got great reviews I would read that in a heartbeat (but wouldn't tell my friends, lol). I can go years without ever coming across or hearing about or reading about such black books. If you want black love stories your only option for a more consistent availability of them is to stoop to those badly written urban-hood romances (if you can call them romances) that people buy on the cheap.

Now is it fair to put all the onus on black female writers to provide black love novels? Perhaps not. But the reality is that female writers more frequently write such books in the first place. They drive that market. And besides when it comes to black writers there is a big discrepancy between black females who are published and black men who get published, regardless of subject matter. So the reality is that in as far as the chances of the publications of such novels centering on a black man and woman in a passionate affair, the best hope for such material would have to be from a black female author. Frankly I simply don't see black women doing that, especially not on stories that spend equal time and development on both the female and male protagonists. Instead what you'll likely get are works in which the male character is derided and not seen as being worthy of the female character's devoted love. Even if you buy into that description as being more true to reality the fact still remains that such a handling of characters typically does not make for great love stories (and I'm guessing most great love stories leave reality at the door anyway).

If I'm way off and am missing out on such novels that have been published please educate me and point me in the right direction.

JH

What if the form of black love films could be expanded? YES! I am no fan of romantic comedies (doesn't matter who is in them) and I am starved for roles featuring people of the African diaspora that are more nuanced than the predictable, albeit comfortable and entertaining, roles we get in the typical Afro RomCom. Love is an extraordinarily complicated thing, so I'd like to see films that portray that complexity (not the "Being Mary Jane" pseudocomplexity of what happens when you make stupid choices with predictable consequences).

truth hurts

I don't think Michael B Jordan would ever sign on to do a movie where Lupita was his love interest. Never!

C.

Hello… What I want its a Disney's Aida (musical) on the big screen.

Smith

Do you seriously, SERIOUSLY think it's "systematic obstacles of racism" that have kept Ted Witcher from making another movie???

Gassire

I feel as we see more movies focused specifically on the black audience you may see an expansion in the diversity of the appearance of black men and women in these roles. I've always admired my sisters in all shades, and to see movies that reflect black female beauty the same way would be refreshing. Lupita would be an excellent lead, no doubt.

Ashley

I would love for this combination of wonderful to play a romantic role together. However, I find it quite interesting how black male actors like to play in roles with a black female interest, but in real life, they date white women. That perplexes me.

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