LOVE is in cinemas and online from October to December 2015.
The Whitewash of Romance: Why Don’t People of Colour Fall in Love at the Movies? is a discussion group taking place at BFI Southbank on 18 November.
On 24 November, the panel event Race & Romance on TV investigates how TV has represented BAME relationships over the years.
The romantic comedy has enjoyed a long life. From Ernst Lubitsch in the 1930s and 1940s, Billy Wilder in the 1950s and 1960s, Elaine May and Woody Allen in the 1970s, Rob Reiner in the 1980s, Nora Ephron in the 1990s, Richard Curtis and Nancy Meyers in the 2000s, the great auteurs of the genre have captured the tenderness – and the humour – of falling in love in its many guises.
However, looking back at the last 90 years of meet cutes and false starts, of flawed protagonists and grand epiphanies, the cityscape of the romantic comedy is overwhelmingly, enduringly white. It wasn’t until after America’s civil rights movement crested in 1964 that African-American actors began to infiltrate the English language romantic comedy canon. One of the earliest examples of an African-American romantic comedy lead was Sidney Poitier in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), Stanley Kramer’s groundbreaking exploration of an interracial relationship within America’s middle-class milieu. Yet it is remembered as an issue film rather than a genre staple.
10 to try
Each of the recommendations included here is available to view in the UK.
Things weren’t much more progressive here in Britain with regard to black, Asian and other ethnic minority romances on screen. While a trickle of films featuring the love lives of people of colour emerged in the 1980s and 1990s, the comedy in these movies was often sacrificed for the sake of social commentary. It was only really with the advent of the New Queer Cinema movement in the 1990s that there finally came a welcome deluge of pure and playful romantic comedies starring people of colour. The pure romcom doesn’t sideline love as a secondary concern, but wholly invests in the emotions, neuroses and interior lives of its romantic leads. Here are 10 great films that do just that.
Director Reginald Hudlin
Eddie Murphy plays a smooth-talking marketing executive on the quest for his perfect woman. Murphy’s Marcus meets his match in Jacqueline (Robin Givens), an attractive, powerful and sexually aggressive player – and his new boss. At first, their screwball repartee almost recalls the office romance of Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd (1950), though things falter when Marcus fails to maintain the upper hand. “Do you think Malcolm X died so you could walk around looking like a chump?” scoffs Marcus’ best friend, unimpressed by the effortless way Jaqueline derails his confident charm. Inevitably wounded by her throwaway attitude towards their sexual encounters, Marcus seeks solace in Angela (Halle Berry), the sweet foil to Jacqueline’s man-eater.
The film also features hilariously well-cast cameos from Grace Jones as European supermodel ‘Strangé’ and Eartha Kitt as Lady Eloise, the weathered, sex-crazed founder of the cosmetics company Marcus works for.
The Watermelon Woman (1996)
Director Cheryl Dunye
Sitting comfortably within the canon of the New Queer Cinema movement, Cheryl Dunye’s film is as much a meta-textual experiment as it is a romantic comedy. African-American lesbian filmmaker Cheryl (played by African-American lesbian filmmaker Dunye) is making a documentary on African-American actor Fae Richards (also known as ‘The Watermelon Woman’) and her rumoured lesbian love affair with the white Hollywood director Martha Page. Meanwhile, at her dead-end day job in a Philadelphia video store, Cheryl strikes up a flirtation with Diana (Guinevere Turner), an attractive white customer.
Offering an alternative twist on the romcom’s signature tropes (like Cheryl’s butch best friend as comic foil, an awful blind date and an adorable video store meet-cute), Dunye’s low-key comedy is a queer classic.
Love Jones (1997)
Director Theodore Witcher
This stylish celebration of the Harlem Renaissance and its after-effects has been largely forgotten. A shame really, as director Theodore Witcher’s interest in the specificity of courtship among the black bourgeois sets Love Jones apart from its African-American contemporaries. It’s situated in the company of Chicago’s creative class, with its protagonists photographer Nina (Nia Long) and novelist Darius (Larenz Tate) hang out at poetry slams and in smoky jazz bars and underground dance clubs.
Darius attempts to woo Nina with words, reading a sensual spoken-word ode to her on stage but – of course – she’s interested in an intellectual connection. Unable to deny their erotic attraction, it’s not long before the two are on the same page, though they are soon driven apart when Nina leaves Chicago for New York to pay her ex-fiancé a visit. Love Jones plays close (and critical) attention to the way relationships between twentysomethings often remain casual and uncommitted – and the bold gestures needed to jolt them into something more serious.
Love & Basketball (2000)
Director Gina Prince-Bythewood
Gina Prince-Bythewood’s much-loved debut feature tracks the personal and professional journeys of burgeoning basketball player Monica (Sanaa Lathan) and her childhood sweetheart Q (Omar Epps). Set in 1980s Los Angeles, this coming-of-age story looks at how how love changes over time, and follows a classically constructed will-they-won’t-they narrative trajectory.
Prince-Bythewood makes the most of the sizzling chemistry between the two leads, ensuring there’s no shortage of boisterous banter – and competitive sexual tension – between them. Featuring an excellent R&B soundtrack (and a very sweet makeover sequence), Love & Basketball takes her time developing the interiorities of her central characters, building the stakes of their relationship, and resisting flat, tired stereotypes about African-American culture in the process.
Bend It like Beckham (2002)
Director Gurinder Chadha
When tomboy Jess (Parminder Nagra) joins a local football team against her traditional Punjabi family’s wishes, she soon develops a fast friendship with her teammate Jules (Keira Knightley) – and a heady crush on her handsome Irish coach Joe (Jonathan Rhys Meyers). Depending on how you prefer to read it, Bend It like Beckham is either about the challenges of an interracial romance, or a failed lesbian love affair between two best friends.
The film takes a genuine interest in the tension between Jess’s desire to please her parents and her desire for the freedom afforded to her by football – and bravely allows her to eventually get the guy and the job while maintaining her relationship with her family. The comedy value is high too, anchored by Goodness Gracious Me writer Chadha’s laser-sharp observations on the cultural specificity of the British Asian immigrant experience.
Director Ruba Nadda
Also choosing to tackle the culture clash of an interracial relationship is Canadian film Sabah. Forty-year-old Syrian Muslim immigrant Sabah (Arsinée Khanjian) lives at home with her mother in Toronto, under the watchful eye of her loving but conservative older brother. In an attempt to escape the pressures of her demanding family life, she sneaks off to the local swimming pool, catching the blue eye of Stephen. Despite their differences, the two become friends, the film revelling in their blossoming attraction, which develops slowly and deliciously. Encouraged by her rebellious niece, the smart, shy Sabah begins to come out of her shell and, as the pair grow closer, gains the confidence to confront her family.
An Oversimplification of Her Beauty (2012)
Director Terence Nance
Operating from the point of view of Terence (played by writer-director Terence Nance himself), this wryly observed, elastic experiment plays with time and linearity, voiceover and Afrofuturist animated sequences, shifting between modes of memory, fiction and autobiography. Though Nance’s film does not fit the narrative conventions of the romantic comedy genre, it is both romantic and comedic, skipping through Terence’s agonising brushes with the ‘Friend Zone’. Unrequited love is explored by Terence’s film within the film ‘How Would U Feel?’ and unpacked further in documentary-style interviews with the object of his unreturned affections (Namik Minter).
A celebration of Afro-centric fashion and music (the film is soundtracked by experimental electronic producer Flying Lotus), this unapologetically introspective post-mortem on feelings and failed relationships is as insightful as it is original.
Think like a Man (2012)
Director Tim Story
Recent romcoms like Love Actually (2003), He’s Just Not That into You (2009) and the hopelessly, frenetically edited Valentine’s Day (2010) have been derided for their reliance on ensemble casts in lieu of genuine chemistry between two stars. But these films, so densely packed with celebrities, are nowhere near as energetic as the glossy, quick-witted Think like a Man, based on Steve Harvey’s bestselling self-help book Act like a Lady, Think like a Man.
Though its formulaic approach doesn’t offer any surprises by way of structure, there’s plenty of fun to be had with its cast of leading ladies (Regina Hall, Gabrielle Union, Meagan Good and Taraji P. Henson in a relaxed west coast riff on Sex and the City’s central foursome). The women rearrange their love lives around the rules espoused in Harvey’s book, determined to manipulate their men into monogamy – though not before their respective beaus catch on and attempt to play them at their own game.
Appropriate Behaviour (2014)
Director Desiree Akhavan
Desiree Akhavan wrote, directed and starred in this film based around the love life of bisexual Iranian-American Brooklynite Shirin (a fictionalised version of Akhavan herself). Unable to come clean about their relationship to her Persian parents, Shirin gets dumped by her girlfriend Maxine (Rebecca Henderson), initiating a romcom about a messy breakup in the vein of Annie Hall (1977) or High Fidelity (2000) in which Akhavan revisits their relationship through flashbacks.
Though its hipster trappings (Shirin lives in a trendy Bushwick apartment and teaches kindergarteners how to make films) give the film a lo-fi, mumblecore feel, Akhavan’s appealingly flawed Shirin actually has more in common with a Nancy Meyers heroine. She’s outspoken, self-effacing and more than a little neurotic, muddling her way through a series of ill-advised flings (including a painfully funny threesome) with deadpan wit and charm.
Top Five (2014)
Director Chris Rock
Starring and written and directed by Chris Rock, this is a walking-and-talking New York comedy about stardom gone sour à la Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories (1980). Rock features as a washed-up comedian and former alcoholic attempting to reinvent himself as a serious actor.
Obscured by the persistent, shallow celebrity of the ‘Hammy the Bear’ franchise through which he made his name and his reality TV star girlfriend (Gabrielle Union, in a joyfully catty riff on the Real Housewives series), Rock’s Andre Allen agrees to an interview with cynical, straight-talking New York Times reporter Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson) in a last-ditch attempt to regain clout. Over the course of the interview, which stretches into a Before Sunrise-style stroll around the city, Andre softens, revisiting his past and cementing his connection with Chelsea. The jokes are fast and loose in this smart, sweet, self-reflexive meditation of fame, authenticity and celebrity culture.