The lack of Black love in film

Darius Lovehall (played by Larenz Tate) and Nina Mosley (Nia Long) fall in love on screen in “Love Jones.” The film received glowing reviews upon release. // Photo courtesy of Nick Wechsler, Jeremiah Samuels

“I’ve never auditioned to be a love interest — never —and I’ve been auditioning for like four years. Not that I’m the hottest person, but … people date me,” said Phoebe Robinson, an actress and New York Times best-selling author, during a podcast interview with actress Anna Faris on her show “Anna Faris is Unqualified” back in 2016. Robinson reflected on the lack of films that showcased Black love, saying “Why is that not in the realm of possibility in Hollywood?”

This poses the question that has been a topic of discussion and debate for decades amongst viewers and workers in the media industry: why is there a lack of Black love stories in film?

Actress Raven Goodwin, known for her roles in shows such as Disney’s “Good Luck Charlie” and films such as “The Clark Sisters: First Ladies of Gospel,” expressed her opinions on the matter in a recent interview. 

“There’s a lack of Black people in power as it relates to the people who are writing and directing these movies, which could be one of the reasons Black romance movies aren’t very common,” Goodwin told the Technique.

The first recollection of “Black love” on film dates back to 1898 with the creation of “Something Good — Negro Kiss.” Despite the film’s Black cast, the film was written and directed by white filmmaker William Selig, owner of minstrel company, “Selig and Johnson’s Colored Minstrels.” This questions how genuine Selig’s motive in making the film was. Was he truly trying to convey Black love in a positive light or was it simply made to parody Black love?

Flash forward over 120 years; the list of Black screenwriters is few to none compared to their white counterparts. As of 2022, Black people account for less than 6% of professional screenwriters according to recent studies by career company Zippia. 

Take a look at some critically-acclaimed films such as “The Color Purple,” where the main character Celie Harris is a Black teenage girl in an abusive relationship with a Black adult man.

In the 2021 two-hander film, “Malcolm & Marie,” starring award winning actors Zendaya Maree Stoermer Coleman and John David Washington, the two are in a relationship that is fueled by verbal and emotional abuse. The film is played by a married Black couple Malcolm (John) and Marie (Zendaya). In the film, Marie is a 23 year-old who has previously struggled with substance abuse, and throughout the film, Malcolm would make fun of the situation by reminding Marie of her troubled past and bouts of substance addictions. 

The entirety of the film revolves around Malcolm and Marie saying the most pernicious things to one another.

Despite the success of the two films, they both convey a negative perception of a Black relationship. The two films, like many others in this category, share a significant similarity — their screenplay was written by a white screenwriter.

It poses the question: How could a white screenwriter truly depict what a healthy Black relationship looks like if they aren’t Black themselves? 

“In reality they can’t,” said actor Rege Lewis, who is known for his roles in CBS’s “FBI” and “The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete,” in response to the question asked in a recent sit-down with the Technique.

The probability of finding a movie with a Black couple that does not revolve around domestic violence, mental abuse or promote a message of misogyny and that is also written and directed by a Black person is rare. This could possibly be why movies such as “Love Jones” and “Love & Basketball” are typically recurring names brought up in the discussion of “healthy” Black love movies, Lewis explained. Movies like “Love Jones” and “Love & Basketball” are actually written and directed by Black screenwriters and directors respectively.

“Love Jones,” a romance film produced in 1997, was written by Theodore Witcher. The film is often well-respected by many — even 20 years later — due to its authentic portrayal of what young Black love truly entails.

The film focuses on a Black couple Darius (Larenz Tate) and Nina (Nia Long). The two develop mutual feelings for one another when Darius meets Nina at a poetry club in Chicago after Darius performs one of his written pieces. 

However, their relationship is not smooth sailing throughout the entire movie. Darius and Nina go through ups and downs where they find themselves both struggling to communicate their needs and wants out of the relationship, which could possibly be credited to the characters’ young ages and simple growth to understand their desires as young adults. 

The movie ends jubilantly, leaving some viewers with tears of joy as the two confess their love for each other and vow to make the relationship work for better or for worse.

Darius’ and Nina’s love is something many young Black couples are able to relate to in some aspect. 

The film “Love & Basketball” is also a common title brought up in discussion of “iconic” Black love. 

The plot focuses on two young talented basketball players, Monica and Quincy, who are childhood friends and share a common passion for basketball. 

The two grow love for each other, but are faced with challenges just like any other relationship, as their goals of playing professional basketball threatens their bond through phases of their life such as college. The two rekindle their love for each other later in the movie.

One might simply argue that Black actors don’t want to act in Black love movies, but that isn’t the case. 

“Black actors simply are paid less for their roles in Black rom-coms compared to other roles, because people typically don’t want to see Black romance movies,” Goodwin told the Technique

This signifies that production companies often don’t view Black romance and love movies as necessary, or it might simply be seen as too vulnerable.

For example, in “Love & Basketball,” despite its relatability, Gina Prince-Bythewood, the film’s playwright, struggled to find a production company that would pick up the script for almost three years; many companies deemed the script as “too soft,” according to Prince-Bythewood. 

It wasn’t until globally-known filmmaker Spike Lee picked up the film in 1998 when the production began.

Today the same question stands: what can be done right now to combat this troubling phenomenon?

“The issue is not truly going to be fixed until you have more Black screenwriters, directors and actors that are not afraid to tell a story that goes against the norm,” Lewis said. 

That is what makes the works of films like “Moonlight” so special. 

The film, written by Tarell McCraney and directed by Barry Jenkins, won the Academy Award for Best Motion Picture and accumulated over 200 awards total. The movie shocked film critics and viewers alike, as it was produced by a Black crew and contained mostly all Black actors. 

It told the realistic and compelling story of a young Black man from childhood to adulthood and the challenges he faces with accepting his sexuality. 

The film challenged the media’s norm of a romantic movie and unraveled the issue of Black love from a different perspective.

Despite the success of Black love movies such as “Moonlight” in recent years, there is still work to be done in relation to creating more realistic Black love movies. 

The Black actors that have power and experience in the game have to start standing up and saying “No, I will not accept this role as it does not depict Black people in a positive outlook,” said Lewis. 

Will Hollywood eventually open up their eyes and become educated on the matter?