Between the attention for #OscarsSoWhite and Nate Parker’s “The Birth of a Nation” landing the Sundance Film Festival’s highest sale — not to mention its grand jury prize — the appetite for more black movies couldn’t be stronger. Though we’re nearing the exit from one narrow dichotomy, we might be entering another. For so long, the industry standard for black cinema was the preachy, moralistic R&B-sermon-of-a-movie (usually written by Tyler Perry) or the farcical funny one. Yesterday it starred Eddie Murphy, today it stars Kevin Hart.
Now, black narratives seem trapped in a historical drama, where we’re free to dig Nat Turner as a good guy, but at the expense of almost everything else.
So now I’m waiting. There’s no “Love and Basketball” for the current generation of young black moviegoers (the kind of black sports love story I grew up overhearing my cousins whispering about). The dreamy Terry McMillian romances of the nineties have been Eat, Pray, Love-d out. Where is the script that will keep a millennial Taye Diggs employed, or the black woman whose love isn’t narrated by Shonda Rhimes?
“How to tell you’re a douchebag,” which premiered last month at Sundance, tries to address this deficiency, offering a talky, cynical romantic comedy. Clumsily, and with a bit of sexism, it almost succeeds. Many times director Tahir Jetter’s camera shows his protagonist – a black playboy in Brooklyn writing a blog called “Occasionally Dating Black Women” – staring at a screen or working out on a rooftop, thinking deeply about his romantic life. These scenes are a bit of a double-edged sword – oftentimes Ray is saying something sexist or simplistic or both – but they’re striking in how fresh they feel, if only falsely. Jetter isn’t showing anything really novel, but rather something that seems so often overlooked: black lives untouched by brutality or poverty texting and talking, having awkward dates, trying to find romance.
In the mainstream, romantic comedies with black actors are more foolish than fun. This year’s releases in that category include Shemar Moore’s Indiegogo-funded “The Bounce Back,” “The Perfect Match,” and “50 Shades of Black,” the Wayans brothers spoof on “50 Shades of Grey.” All of these movies seem packaged with some kind of bougie veneer that lacks candor. Nothing indicates they’ll be at all intimate or sincere. Maybe these movies can be entertaining and sweet with a syrup that’s laid on a little too thick, but there aren’t enough movies that look at black love in a way that’s untouched by silliness or sermons.
Put simply, black history and black lives don’t start and end with slavery or the Civil Rights Movement. The hyper-visibility of “Selma,” “The Butler,” and “The Birth of Nation” are positive, but unintentionally restrictive. A New York Times analysis of Oscar winning performances by black actors quantifies just how limited the black experience is on film: “In the history of the Oscars, 10 black women have been nominated for best actress, and nine of them played characters who are homeless or might soon become so,” wrote Brandon K. Thorp. Oscar-nominated black actors also share similar commonalities, Thorp reported, with 13 of the 20 nominations going to roles where men were arrested.
This is all a part of the same problem. “Bridget Jones” is getting a third shot at figuring out the limits of her love life’s misgivings in September’s “Bridget Jones’s Baby,” but it’s 2016 and there aren’t enough opportunities to be reminded that black people can seek and stunt and flex and find relationships – or at least dutty wine at a club with a great DJ. Everything still suggests that feeling cynical about a romantic cynicism or neuroses doesn’t extend to black and brown faces, and that’s just unrealistic.
I would think there’s more anxiety here if our culture didn’t actively engage with black romance in nearly every other space. Beyond the popularity of “Scandal,” “Being Mary Jane,” and other TV shows with complex conceptions of blackness, Beyonce and Jay-Z flaunt their love in songs that play at parties and in earbuds. The Obamas fist bump and share their love notes online. Hamilton fuses history and hip hop culture to cast a founding father’s romance as one with black and brown actors.
Those movies I miss – ones like “Brown Sugar,” “Love Jones,” or “The Best Man” – weren’t perfect, and sometimes they weren’t even that good. But the fact that they happened still feels so important. There is evidence that their absence is felt – in an interview with Indiewire’s Shadow and Act, Bill Bellamy painted the upcoming “Bounce Back” as a descendent of those nineties rom-coms — but there’s nothing suggesting these heteronormative perspectives will evolve into something that can also recognize and represent black queer identity. Black relationships should be visible enough to be ordinary, and not always with happy endings. There’s no monolithic blackness, and there ought to be more movies that appreciate that black lives don’t only matter, but contain multitudes. Black characters with full romantic lives don’t always need to end in a punchline.