RomCon: Our Failure to See Black Romantic Comedies

Despite the growing popularity of black romcoms, they remain segregated in public perception due to cultural white-washing.

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | November 2018 | 10 minutes (2,438 words)

When I think romcom, I think white — Meg Ryan, Julia Roberts, Nora Ephron, Nancy Meyers — white women, white houses, white stories. But I was weaned on white culture. More striking is that Vanity Fair film critic K. Austin Collins, who had a “low-whiteness diet” growing up, thinks the same thing. So does The Undefeated culture critic Soraya Nadia McDonald, who attended a predominantly black high school and remembers kids “losing their minds” over Love & Basketball. Yet the first thing that enters her mind when she thinks of romcoms is her favorite, Bridget Jones’s Diary. “It’s funny because even in my head the movies are segregated,” McDonald says. “I can list off a whole bunch of movies with majority black casts that of course are romcoms, I just didn’t necessarily think of them that way.”

Earlier this week Rebel Wilson, star of next year’s Isn’t it Romantic, was shamed into apologizing for claiming to be “the first ever plus-sized girl to be the star of a romantic comedy” and then blocking the black women on Twitter who reintroduced her to Queen Latifah and Mo’Nique. “To be part of a problem I was hoping I was helping makes it that much more embarrassing & hard to acknowledge,” she tweeted. No kidding. While both my boyfriend (white) and I (half-white) have seen a number of black romcoms, including Queen Latifah’s, we were ashamed to realize that we were as complicit in their erasure as Wilson — we likely would have forgotten them too. For this, Collins has understanding, if not sympathy. While he sides with Rebecca Theodore-Vachon — one of the first to call out Wilson — he also recognizes that the critic is occupying a space of lucidity independent of the white-washed culture that formed Wilson (and me and my whiter boyfriend): “It is true that it would take a mental adjustment for her to think of some of those movies as romcoms because no one advertised them as those things.”

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The romantic comedy has heroically evaded formal definition, in part because of its mutability, more vexingly because the prick-dominated critical mass typically dismisses genres that prioritize women (as both producers and consumers). In Romantic Comedy: Boy Meets Girl Meets Genre, Tamar Jeffers McDonald describes it as “a film which has its central narrative motor a quest for love, which portrays this quest in a light-hearted way and almost always to a successful conclusion.” So, love, lightness, a happy ending. That doesn’t mean the genre has always been mere froth, however. Perfected for Hollywood by Ernst Lubitsch post-depression, romantic comedies not only featured central female characters, they were heavily class conscious, appealing to a predominantly indigent audience by presenting the poor as morally superior in love stories like The Shop Around the Corner — which Nora Ephron famously remade into the unambiguously upmarket You’ve Got Mail in 1998. But the genre remained mostly white for years with a famous inflection point arriving in 1967, right in the middle of the civil rights movement, when Sidney Poitier came to dinner. But even after this, it took a while for black romcoms to really take root.

In 1986, Spike Lee released the “seriously sexy comedy” She’s Gotta Have It, which featured a black woman having sex with not one, but three black men. “Even the top stars like Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor never get to have any love interest in their films,” he told The New York Times at the time. “How often have you seen a black man and woman kiss on the screen?” Eddie Murphy finally got to have love interests after that, providing a sort of bridge to the subsequent boom in black romcoms with 1988’s Coming to America, which is remembered more for its comedy than its romance, and the much sexier Boomerang (1992), which is not remembered at all.

After this came Love Jones. I was mortified to find out I had never heard of what one writer called “the holy grail of black romcoms.” McDonald was surprised too. I discovered Theodore Witcher’s 1997 debut starring Larenz Tate and Nia Long as an artsy Chicago couple in my research. The film didn’t do much at the box office, but had a hit soundtrack and was even adapted into a musical in 2016. “Larenz tate is still dining out on that movie,” McDonald says. Witcher, on the other hand, never made anything else. “It was challenging to get other material like that through the system,” he told The Village Voice this year. I watched the film with my boyfriend, who compared it to Chasing Amy (which came out the same year), and it does have that ’90s indie feel — I would have loved it as a teenager. Embarrassed by my 21 years of ignorance, I conducted an unofficial Love Jones experiment on Twitter, messaging five black critics and five white critics. The results were stark: All the black critics had seen it, none of the white ones had.

As it happens, the golden age of the modern romcom was as black as it was white. When Harry Met Sally… (1989) prompted the genre’s mainstream rebirth and in parallel a black industry exploded (20 percent of the top 20 grossing romcoms since 1978 have featured stars of color, according to the Times). Nora Ephron and Nancy Meyers became Gina Prince-Bythewood and Malcolm D. Lee. Meg Ryan and Julia Roberts became Sanaa Lathan and Queen Latifah. Standouts from this boom include Kevin Rodney Sullivan’s How Stella Got Her Groove Back, Prince-Bythewood’s Love & Basketball and Rick Famuyiwa’s Brown Sugar — which had been pitched to the director as “When Harry Met Sally…, in the world of hip-hop,” but which he saw as a much-needed successor to Love Jones. I saw all of these movies on video; at Blockbuster I didn’t have to look for them, at the cinema, without being marketed to, I didn’t think to. “The studios were not putting the money behind advertising an all-black romcom the way they would have done for an all-white cast,” confirms Sanaa Hamri, who directed the 2006 interracial romance Something New as well as 2010’s Just Wright with Queen Latifah.

I love Queen Latifah. Everyone loves Queen Latifah. The woman Hamri describes as a relatable antidote to “the skinny white waif” is the female version of Will Smith — they are both palatable, softly edgy, chaste. As McDonald says, “there has been for a very long time this sort of panic about showing black people as remotely romantic or sexual on screen.” Early on black intimacy was censored in Hollywood, then blaxploitation flipped it. The result is a weird paradox, films with black casts that are greenlit either have little romance or lots of sex to appease a broader audience that in the end isn’t even told about them. Maybe this is why so many black romcoms tend to skew dramatic or comedic, even more so than the white ones, which admittedly lean asexual. After Famuyiwa earned more than three times his budget back with Brown Sugar, one studio executive dismissed a subsequent pitch with, “Love does not really resonate with black people. Comedy does.”

Maybe this is also why so many black romcoms are ensembles, like breakouts The Best Man (1999) and Think Like a Man (2012). While white romantic comedies also group together, Hunter Harris noted in Vulture last year that there had been seven black ensembles in as many years. “In the modern romantic comedy, two single black people rarely just meet,” she writes. “Instead, one group of black friends meets another group of black friends, and somewhere in there Kevin Hart shows up to make a few jokes.” This reduces the acuteness of black intimacy, for one thing, for another the stereotypical image of black people is in a large community. Pervasive negative stereotypes — gangster guys, ghetto hos – also factor into why black romance is not intuitive. “The ideology of romcoms, the look of romcoms aren’t generated by a popular perception of black culture,” explains K. Austin Collins. “They are super aspirational.”

Aspiration has always been essential to the romcom, but it developed a particularly homogenous conservatism post-Reagan. Nancy Meyers (Something’s Gotta Give, The Holiday, It’s Complicated) established the standard, an aesthetic of ambient colorless wealth. That muted pale sprawl of extremely large homes in nondescript suburbs. The suit-wearing men and women with the vague careers and impeccable manners. There is no specificity, just an all-encompassing gesture towards brightly lit apolitical moneyed comfort, whether you are white or, under the gaze of Malcolm D. Lee and Tyler Perry, black. As Andre Seewood wrote in Indiewire, “Even as the United States becomes increasingly less White (in its population aggregate) the notions of privilege, power and control associated with upper class status is still seen through the prism of Whiteness on the movie screen.” Thus the highest grossing romcom to star a black actress, Bringing Down the House (2003), has Queen Latifah’s crude (but smart!) ex-con self-actualizing with the help of Steve Martin’s crisp tax lawyer.

“I feel like studios have been making romcoms with black people in them for years, they just don’t market them as romcoms, they just market them as black films,” says McDonald. “That’s how they think of them too.” It’s a wonder that anyone outside the black community sees them. Tyler Perry, the man behind the Madea comedies and a number of romcoms (Daddy’s Little Girls, Meet the Browns), has his own studio and was listed by Forbes in 2011 as the highest paid man in entertainment, yet he admitted only two years ago, “I still have issues getting screens in white neighborhoods believe it or not.” So not only do people like me not see these films as romcoms, we barely see them at all. “I think it’s the film industry thinking like at best white people are just not going to be interested in this,” says McDonald, “at worst white people will be actively offended.”

Either way they are ignorant. More importantly, critics like me are ignorant and perpetuate ignorance. In 2014, Vulture’s Bilge Ebiri and David Edelstein, both white men, published a feature on the 25 best romantic comedies since When Harry Met Sally… and failed to include any films with black casts. Acknowledging “blind spots,” they wrote, “while African-American rom-coms, as exemplified in films like The Best Man and Waiting to Exhale (and this week’s About Last Night), have thrived during this time, we couldn’t agree on any titles we felt were strong enough to warrant inclusion on this list.” They included 50 First Dates though. And the gaping blind spot they failed to mention was that they had not included writers of color in the list’s formation. Despite a minor backlash, three years later Vulture produced a package called “The Rom Com Lives!” in which Jen Chaney, another white writer, only mentioned Love Jones in brackets. I also consulted several books about romantic comedies for this article, none of which addressed black romcoms beyond a reference or two. For that you have to go to the books about black cinema — as though that were a genre.

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I’m not sure when I first realized I was an embarrassment as a culture critic. It had to have been before I saw Unforgettable last year, the thriller starring Katherine Heigl and Rosario Dawson, who self-identifies as “half Puerto Rican/Afro Cuban & half Irish/Native Indian.” I remember laughing in shock with my boyfriend at the blatant race-baiting when the trailers all, obviously, turned out to be for films with black casts, even comedies (it was a thriller, remember). It stuck out because I don’t often see those trailers even though I go to the movies a lot. And it didn’t make sense here, Dawson is of ambiguous ethnicity and the other leads in that film are white. What does make sense in retrospect is that a stream of black erotic thrillers — Obsessed, Addicted, No Good Deed, The Perfect Guy, When the Bough Breaks — were doing well at the box office at the time. Unforgettable was transparently cashing in. As Hamri says, “It all has to do with racism in America, coupled with the distribution of wealth. Where is the wealth? Who has the money?”

In 2013 it was Malcolm D. Lee. That year The Best Man Holiday, the sequel to 1999’s The Best Man, earned $30 million at the box office prompting USA Today to announce that “race-themed films soar.” That didn’t go down well. “I remember the twitter conversation being, ‘What the hell is a black-themed film?’” says McDonald. That was the moment she believes she became fully conscious of romcom segregation. Around this time, a time in which black romances were “over-performing,” the mainstream media was paradoxically announcing the demise of the genre as a whole. The Best Man Holiday had been marketed to African Americans, who made up 87 percent of the audience. With African Americans comprising 13 percent of the population in the U.S., what if the film had been marketed to everyone? “There’s this huge lag in terms of how people understand the popularity of black culture,” says Collins. “It’s too many people to be niche.”

It is interesting (see shitty, perverse) that despite the success of black romcoms and the growing number of TV romcoms with black casts (“Insecure,” “She’s Gotta Have It”) it took Crazy Rich Asians to convince Hollywood that a non-white version of the genre could be commercially viable. While the film was marketed primarily to Asian Americans, it was also aimed at young white women who liked the book it was adapted from, the same women who contributed to the success of the Netflix adaptation of Jenny Han’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. The recent announcements of romcoms in the works starring Gabrielle Union and “Insecure’s” Issa Rae suggest this may be changing, but that can’t be enough. Systemic segregation in Hollywood can only be addressed by change at multiple levels. People of color beyond the handful of known names – Tyler Perry, Shonda Rhimes, Oprah Winfrey – need to be hired as producers as well as filmmakers, not to mention marketers, so that we no longer operate on a flawed perception of genres like romcoms. And those of us who have been complicit in the white-washed culture that surrounds us must acknowledge it and strive for lucidity, rather than blocking it out like Wilson did. Because as filmmakers of color are given more opportunities to create their work, it’s on the rest of us not to erase it.

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Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.