Film & Television

Love in Black and White — Onscreen Romance

In The 1619 Project (four episodes are now available on Hulu), host and Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones makes a compelling case that the very concept of race is a man-made construct, created to keep wealth and power in the hands of what Karl Marx would call, “the dominant class.” According to the Harvard University Library, although attempts at scientific racism still exist, “Contemporary scientific consensus agrees that race has no biological basis.”

So, it’s little wonder that people of all colors have fallen in love with people of all — different — colors. Or, as Lin-Manuel Miranda preached (referring specifically to LGBTQIA+ unions, but relevant here as well), “Love is love.” And, interracial love on the big screen is nearly as old as movies themselves.

Some of cinema’s first forbidden romances, silent shorts from the 1910s, depicted white men falling for Chinese, Native American, or Polynesian women. This gave the stories an exotic air of forbidden fruit, without committing fully to the taboo — and in many places, literally illegal — miscegenation of black and white. In 1929, an early adaptation of Edna Ferber’s novel Show Boat included the subplot (more familiar to most of us from the 1951 film and various stage productions) of mixed-race entertainer Julie and her white husband Steve. Unfortunately, the film, a jumble of silent, talkie, and musical, also featured white actress Laura LaPlante singing, “Coon, Coon, Coon,” about a Black man wanting to change his race to win his sweetheart. Suffice it to say, the lyrics do not (and should not) hold up.

Pinky, a 1949 film directed by Elia Kazan, starred Jeanne Crain as a mixed-race nurse, passing for white and in love with a white doctor. Although Crain wasn’t Kazan’s first choice (Lena Horne had been considered), he noted later that, “The only good thing about [Crain] was that [she] went so far in the direction of no temperament that you felt Pinky was floating through all of her experiences without reacting to them, which is what ‘passing’ is.” The film met with controversy, but its ending — Pinky turns her back on life as a white woman in order to help the Black community — probably placated some. Pinky is notable for earning multiple Oscar nominations, including one for Black supporting actress Ethel Waters (Hattie McDaniel had won that award for Gone With the Wind ten years prior).

Band of Angels (1957) starred another white actress, Yvonne de Carlo, as the mixed-race love interest of plantation owner Clark Gable. The film received bleak reviews, due in no small part to a thoroughly convoluted plot, but the lovers did get a happy ending. The same year, Island in the Sun paired Black Dorothy Dandridge with white James Mason, and white Joan Fontaine with Black Harry Belafonte. A melodrama, loaded up with political intrigue, romance, murder, and — no surprise — racism, it nevertheless broke ground with Hollywood’s first interracial kiss and with the symmetry of its two forbidden romances. Fontaine received hate mail that she later turned over to the FBI.

Ten years later, Stanley Kramer’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner became one of the first movies to depict an interracial relationship as natural and positive, rather than star-crossed and unavoidably tragic. Liberal parents Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy (in his last performance) are surprised to say the optimum least when daughter Katharine Houghton (Hepburn’s real-life niece) brings home her new fiancé, Sidney Poitier. The film, which is available to rent from Amazon and holds up remarkably well fifty-plus years later, has become the stuff of Hollywood legend. It was nominated for 10 Academy Awards and took home two. It earned more than $56 million at the box office and did surprisingly well in Southern states despite its controversial story.

Interestingly, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was released the same year the Supreme Court struck down Virginia’s anti-miscegenation law. Seven years ago, the romance behind that historic case, Loving vs. Virginia, was made into a powerful Oscar-nominated film, starring Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton. And, other fairly contemporary dramatizations of interracial love stories cross genres, from historical A United Kingdom (2016) to “chick flicks” Guess Who (2005) and Our Wedding (2010), from teen romance Save the Last Dance (2001) and musical Hairspray(2007) to horror movie Get Out (2017).

The latest addition to the mix is You People, currently in select theatres and released recently on Netflix. A fan of three of its stars, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Nia Long, and Eddie Murphy, I was looking forward to enjoying it. Unfortunately, I found it alternatingly dull and disappointing. In hindsight, I think there was some confusion about exactly what genre its creators Kenya Barris and Jonah Hill were working in.

The romantic relationship at You People’s center is between Jewish podcaster Ezra (Hill) and Black costume-designer Amira (Lauren London). Although from different communities, their “meet cute” is just the sort of fate-fueled, otherwise entirely unlikely, event that Eli Wallach’s veteran screenwriter described to Kate Winslet’s visiting Brit in 2006’s The Holiday. Ezra mistakes Amira for his Uber driver, which seems like an unforgivable act of racism. (“I’m a Black woman in an economy car, so I must be a driver?!? So, we all look alike?!?”) — until he shows her the photo of the aforementioned missing driver, and she has to agree that they’re practically doppelgangers. Amira’s a bit lost; Ezra knows the roads well. They move quickly from foe to frenemy to the world’s longest lunch date. Soon, Ezra recognizes that no one has ever known him as well as Amira, and he buys her a tiny diamond in a little blue box. The only thing left is to meet the parents.

And, there’s the rub.

Ezra’s parents Shelley (Louis-Dreyfus) and Arnold (David Duchovny) are painfully liberal. They rejoice that Ezra has found Amira, filling their awkward first visit with thoroughly cringey comments about braids and police brutality. On the other hand, Amira’s parents Fatima (Long) and Akbar (Murphy) are conservative Muslims. They resent Ezra’s attempts to adopt Black culture and slang, and they’re adamant that he is not good enough for their daughter.

You People alternates between its rom-com set-up and decidedly un-funny observations on racism of every flavor. Much of the humor is of the sophomoric nature we’ve come to expect from Hill and his cohorts (there are multiple mentions of Ezra doing so much cocaine that he “sh*t himself” on the Las Vegas strip). Yet, casual mentions of the Holocaust, slavery, and Israel vs. Louis Farrakhan create genuine discomfort. Unfortunately, the result is simultaneously crass and tone-deaf.

With a terrific cast and still timely topic, You People must have sounded like a formula for success. Sadly, even with (or maybe because of) its nearly two-hour run time, it just doesn’t add up.

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