Unbothered UK is a community celebrating everything it means to be a black British woman today. As our sisters in America mark Black History Month this February, we'll be sharing their stories from Roots, a series that delves into the tangled history of black identity, beauty and contributions to the culture.
There’s something about a good black love movie that gets me every time: the delight of being catapulted into a world of people you can relate to; the emotional rollercoaster ride of watching two people fall for each other and overcome the obstacles that come with choosing one another. The excitement of seeing the couple succeed against all odds.
The black love movies I grew up with knew what they were doing. The women were bad and the men were fine. The storylines were spicy, and the tea was piping hot. But for so long, so many black love stories were bogged down by baggage or emotional turmoil. There were no stories where a black woman didn’t need to emotionally sustain her partner, or ride an emotional rollercoaster before ultimately living happily ever after. We didn’t have a lot of films about two black people who just met and decided they want to love each other. As new stories of black love emerge, we’re seeing more representation of black couples from cisgender to same sex, to non-binary. And films like The Photograph, the highly-anticipated movie starring Issa Rae and LaKeith Stanfield, are proving that audiences don’t need the drama to be invested in an onscreen love. But it triggers an exploration of the blueprint set by some of the iconic black love movies that paved the way.
From Love Jones, to Love and Basketball to The Best Man — these stories filled our eyes with tears and our hearts with nostalgia. But did we grow up watching problematic storylines and rooting for relationships we wouldn't advise ourselves or our friends get into today? As I get older, I find myself taking a hard look at our favourite black film couples and asking the question: are they actually #relationshipgoals?
Before the congregation comes for me (which I know it will), let me be quite clear: not only do I love these movies — they’ve shaped a large part of my world view. Because of Love & Basketball, I wanted to lose my virginity the way Monica Wright did — with Maxwell’s “This Woman’s Work” softly playing in the background. Because of The Best Man, my husband and I walked out of the church to a string quartet version of Stevie Wonder’s “As” after saying “I do,” and we did the electric slide to Cameo’s “Candy” at the reception. And I’m still waiting for a man to tell me he’s the blues in my left thigh trying to become the funk in my right because of Love Jones. These movies shaped my view of what black love looked like — and that might be the problem.
Let’s highlight one of my favourites: Love & Basketball. The film follows the love story of childhood friends and next door neighbours Monica Wright and Quincy McCall — played by Sanaa Lathan and Omar Epps — whose shared love for basketball ultimately brings them together. We watch as the two grow from a childhood crush on each other, to a high school romance (I still see the compilation of McCall killing it on the court in my head any time I hear Kool Moe Dee’s “I go to work”). They eventually attend USC together where they confront the challenges of McCall’s rising fame as a star athlete following in his former NBA-pro father’s footsteps, while Wright struggles to prove she’s got what it takes on the women’s basketball team. Quincy tells Monica she doesn’t need to worry about succeeding on the court because she’ll be famous for being “Quincy McCall's wife.” Watching it now makes me cringe. But even if I can get past that misogynistic comment, it all goes downhill for me soon after.
Quincy is dealt an incredibly emotional blow when he learns his father, who has set a strong example for him not only as a basketball player but as a man, cheated on his mother. The news comes just as Monica, who has been fighting her own battle to be taken seriously on the basketball team, makes the starting lineup. Although Wright offers her boyfriend support, McCall is too self-absorbed to balance his girlfriend’s athletic aspirations with his own crumbling world. He gets upset when she suggests going back to one of their dorm rooms so she doesn’t miss curfew and can suit up for tomorrow’s game. The next day, rather than celebrating Monica’s big win, he gets drunk at a party and flirts with another girl — who he ultimately ends up taking on a date to Burger King right in front of Monica’s face.
McCall is a college freshman at this point in the story, so of course I don’t expect him to conduct himself like a grown man. But his actions sent a troubling message to me at a young age: that as a heterosexual black woman, I shouldn’t expect my partner to support my ambitions with as much vigour as I supported his, and that his needs would always trump my own.
The movie continues, and the pair break up. Quincy goes pro, against his father’s suggestion (we’re led to believe he leaves his ex behind at USC). Monica pursues her professional dream of being a basketball star overseas, albeit personally unfulfilled because of the void Quincy left in her heart years ago. When she returns to the states to find an injured — and engaged — NBA pro in McCall, she decides to lay it all on the line and play him for his heart.
That scene of Wright and McCall on the basketball court late at night with that damn Me’shell Ndegeocello song playing in the background gets me every time. The words “you made a fool of me” hanging in the balance as Quincy repeatedly scores and ultimately wins. I want to scream and shake Monica. I want to tell her Quincy owes her an apology, not the other way around. And yet, I continue to root for them. I still cry every time McCall says “double or nothing.”
The movie ends with a shot at a WNBA game, viewers see Quincy McCall with a baby girl in his lap cheering on his wife Monica Wright-McCall. The tables have turned, and it is in fact he who is famous for being her husband.
I often ask myself what I would say if Monica Wright was my friend and she called me for advice. I’d tell her to run. I’d tell her McCall was toxic and selfish. Ironically enough, I spent years trying to make my own toxic relationships work. When I first started dating my now-husband, I recall being extremely uncomfortable with the lack of issues or problems for me to fix. Today I wonder how much of that was influenced by the films that shaped my idea of what romantic relationships looked like.
My other favourites don’t offer much in the department of redemption. In The Best Man, Taye Diggs’ character Harper Lee struggles to commit to his girlfriend Robin (also played by Lathan). He only proposes (at his best friend’s wedding!) after nearly cheating on her with his college sweetheart Jordan Armstrong (played by Nia Long) the night before. Oh yeah, and his best friend Lance Sullivan (portrayed by the eternally handsome Morris Chestnut), just found out that Lee slept with his now-wife years ago in college. And don’t get me started on Sullivan’s cheating ass. Despite all of this, you’ll always find me across from the television cheering them all on and musing at how beautiful it all is. I still love seeing Harper hold Robin’s shoes as everyone does the electric slide at the end of the film.
Brown Sugar, Love Jones, you name it. My childhood was full of black love stories that included tumultuous and often troubling storylines. But we all still love those couples today. We dress up as them for Halloween. We watch them over and over again on girls nights.
And although we know they’re not perfect characters:
We still uphold many of the men as our ideal partner:
I was pleasantly surprised to see that with her film The Photograph, director Stella Meghie veers away from the traditional tumult that so often exists in black rom coms. It was refreshing to see a couple whose challenges have nothing to do with infidelity or dishonesty, and it was a delight to see vulnerability put on display by both the male and female characters.
During an interview on Ira Madison III’s podcast Keep It, Stanfield admitted that was part of what drew him to the film.
“That’s one of the reasons I wanted to do The Photograph, is because I wanted to just see normal love,” he said. “Like normal love between black people that isn’t influenced necessarily by all the tropes that we’re used to seeing in these love stories. I’m bored of watching the same thing, bored of seeing the same thing. I just want us to first be able to be human, and then we can be seen as everything else.”
In the film, Stanfield’s character Michael Block is regularly called out by his big brother (portrayed by the hilarious Lil Rel Howery) who himself offers an example as a husband and father of two young girls. The scenes between the two are heartwarming displays of candour that we rarely get to see between black men on the big screen. Rather than looking off into the distance in silence when Stanfield’s character says something questionable (y'all know the exact look I’m talking about), Howery calls him out in a loving way.
What if Quincy McCall, Lance Sullivan and Harper Lee had friends that called them out? What if we got to see them be vulnerable with their partners rather than come to accept the reinforcement of damaging black, male stereotypes that made them hide their emotions or express their sadness through anger and resentment? Of course, these are all just movies and not real life. But pop culture has power, and I can’t help but wonder if a small shift in the storylines would change how we see black love today.
There will always be a special place in my heart for all of these movies. Each of the characters feel like family to me. But I’m realising more and more every day that rather than holding their stories up on a pedestal as the prototype of black love, I should continue to hold a special place in my heart for them as representations of all the different ways black love can look: perfectly imperfect, at times problematic — but always very black.