Black Star is a celebration of the range, versatility and power of black actors on film and TV, taking place in cinemas nationwide, on DVD and on BFI Player, October-December 2016
There is joy to be found in the formulaic nature of the romantic comedy. It’s probably the most low-stakes genre out there – you’re told the two main components of the film you’re about to watch. There will be romance. There will be comedy. You can anticipate the final kiss soundtracked by swelling strings even as the opening credits roll, but the joy of watching the romcom is just how the chosen couple will get their happy ending.
But this formula can also estrange some viewers, because, for the most part, romcom stars are white. There are some exceptions to the rule, but it seems that whiteness, along with beautifully maintained kitchens in Nancy Meyers films, is part of the territory with romcoms. And yet, sitting just outside of the mainstream white romcom, a distinct subgenre has long existed: the black romcom.
While the Eddie Murphy-starring, John Landis-directed Coming to America, back in 1988, can be seen to be one of the first modern black romcoms, the genre really found its strength for a glorious decade starting with another Murphy film, the audacious Boomerang in 1992. One of the simplest, and yet most crucial, facets of the genre is that these are all films made by black people, with all-black casts, in which black people are allowed to exist as… people. Any problems that the characters in these films find themselves in have absolutely nothing to do with their race.
There’s no auteur system in place in the black romcom genre, but there is still very much a key set of players. Just as you come to expect to see Meg Ryan in a Nora Ephron film, you’re more than likely to see Morris Chestnut, Taye Diggs or Nia Long (all three star together in Malcolm Lee’s The Best Man (1999), a Big Chill-esque film that finds college classmates reuniting for a wedding) in a black romcom.
While there’s some variation from film to film, such as Diggs trying (and failing) a Jamaican accent in May-December romance How Stella Got Her Groove Back (1998), there’s a reassurance that comes with seeing these actors crop up – you expect Diggs to be charming, Long to be acerbic, and, most importantly, that Chestnut will be introduced in the slickest way possible. Just take his introduction in Two Can Play That Game (2001), which sees the camera panning in on him while Missy Elliott and Da Brat’s sex jam ‘Sock It 2 Me’ plays – a moment that deserves to be canonised along with any of Scorsese or Paul Thomas Anderson’s soundtrack-based introductions.
Music is a crucial component of the genre, and the films were very much a reflection of the time period in which they were made. The 1990s was the height of the neo-soul music genre, so it seems almost criminal to see a black romcom soundtrack not featuring at least one Lauryn Hill or D’Angelo song. A decade’s worth of films really highlights a decade’s worth of music – 2002’s Brown Sugar is a love letter dedicated to hip-hop, featuring not just the tunes but also the acting skills of Mos Def and Queen Latifah. This embracing of the musical star as an actor in the black romcom first started with Boomerang way back in 1992. In two absolutely pitch perfect cameos, musical legends Eartha Kitt and Grace Jones star as two of the women hoping to join the long list that Murphy’s Marcus has bedded.
His sexual reputation aside, Marcus shares a trait with many other protagonists of the black romcom – he’s highly affluent. Working as an advertising executive, Marcus provided a template for other high-flying protagonists such as high-profile journalists, heads of record labels, writers, TV network producers and stockbrokers. There were countless portrayals in the genre of black people working hard and having extremely successful careers. Whether you were a creative or an entrepreneur, in the black romcom there were no limits to what you could achieve.
It’s this aspirational nature that sees me returning to this golden age of the black romcom again and again. While there are many other films featuring black stars that are more critically acclaimed, or win more awards, they are so often about black people in pain. But this unlikely subgenre provides a place where they are allowed to shine. The black romantic comedy seeks to remind its audience members that whether it be love, a career or friends, it really is possible for black people to have it all.