It began with a kiss. Just one decade after the birth of cinema, vaudeville actors and dancers Gertie Brown and Saint Suttle gleefully embraced one another on film. They held hands and locked lips, giving the world its very first image of Black romance and intimacy on-screen. 1898’s Something Good-Negro Kiss proved that love and affection was at the center of Black life. More than that, intimacy has always been essential to the survival of our people. Now, some 120 plus years later— cinema has finally reached the point where it has expanded to allow complex images of Black love, across time periods, between same-sex couples, and more recently, without being bogged down in trauma and pain.
Before Good-Negro Kiss was discovered in 2018, one of the earliest versions of Black romance in cinema was 1954’s Carmen Jones starring Harry Belafonte and Dorothy Dandridge. Filmed in sweeping cinemascope, Carmen Jones follows a soldier named Joe (Belafonte) who gets so enamored with Carmen (Dandridge) that he becomes obsessive, even going AWOL to be with her. Though the film is sexy, and the tension between the actors is palpable — the romance in Carmen Jones is stilted to make white audiences comfortable. Hollywood was only willing to see Black intimacy through the lens of a renowned musical, wrapped in what ultimately becomes a tragedy. By the end of the film, Joe murders Carmen out of obsession and jealousy. Despite Belafonte and Dandridge’s determination to showcase their sensuality, the material only allowed them to go so far. This sort of restraint would become the blueprint for generations of Black romance films.
Considering the utter chaos of the 1960s, it’s a wonder that 1964’s Nothing But A Man was ever made. A decade after Carmen Jones, Hollywood felt it was time to roll the dice on something different. Starring Ivan Dixon and Abbey Lincoln as Duff Anderson, a railroad worker, and Josie Dawson, a Birmingham school teacher, respectively, Nothing But A Man isn’t packaged for white audiences like the musicals of the previous decades. However, the burdens and pains of the couple’s relationship, namely Duff’s flakiness about commitment and the rage he feels as a Black man living in the South, fall on Josie’s shoulders. Moving into the 1970s with films like Claudine and Mahogany, and certainly, in the 1990s and early 2000s, Black romance on-screen would either be shrouded in comedic relief, or the relationships became the sole burden of the Black woman to bear. Often, both tropes were present.
Still, Black romance stories were always evolving. The 1980s sparked something new for Black sensuality in the movies. Though these were still heteronormative depictions, (aside from 1984’s The Color Purple), films made significant steps forward in terms of diverse images of Black people. However, they still held on to sexist ideals. 1986’s She’s Gotta Have It used a Black woman’s rape as a form of character development while 1988’s Coming to America — billed as a comedy, rewarded its protagonist for lying to his love interest. This would become the formula for the many Black romance movies that came to fruition in the 1990s. Cheating, lies, abandonment, lack of accountability, and trauma are all very present in some of our most beloved films. Poetic Justice, Love Jones, Jason’s Lyric, The Best Man, and Love & Basketball, all have some form of struggle love embedded within the narrative — typically leaving Black women wielding the shorter end of the stick.
Poetic Justice is riddled in misogyny, The Best Man has a serial cheater as a leading man, and in Love Jones, the lack of communication and accountability from both partners is dizzying. Moreover, women are often asked to overlook cheating, lying, manipulation, or being friend-zoned to present themselves as worthy of their male partner by the film’s conclusion. Yet, in our quest to connect and see brown bodies sensually and romantically in cinema, we hold these films close to our hearts, overlooking many of the toxic traits of the characters.
Despite the mega success of Black films in the 1990s— following the debut of Gina Prince-Bythewood’s Love & Basketball in 2000, Black stories in cinema, aside from a few here and there, were all but erased in Hollywood. Throughout this near decade-long drought, prolific director Tyler Perry was one of the only voices in the game. However, the quality of Perry’s storylines, as well as the portrayal of his female characters, have proven to be problematic. These characters are often emotionally broken, angry, and at times unhinged. If and when they do find love in movies like 2005’s Diary of An Angry Black Woman, 2008’s The Family That Preys and 2009’s I Can Do Bad All By Myself, it’s after they suffer some dire consequence or horrific punishment. This was particularly jarring during a time when there were hardly any other mainstream film images of Black people on-screen.
Thankfully, as we pressed forward into the second decade of the 21st century, Black filmmakers, writers, and producers were knocking down doors in Hollywood once again. In 2012, Ava DuVernay stepped onto the scene with her stellar film, Middle of Nowhere. The film follows Ruby (Emayatzy Corinealdi) grappling with the choice to leave her incarcerated husband, Derek (Omari Hardwick), to follow her dreams and possibly find new love with a bus driver named Brian (David Oyelowo). Though this was a significant shift in the way Black intimacy, sensuality, and romance was depicted in movies, the real transformation happened in 2016, with Barry Jenkins’ Academy Award-winning, Moonlight.
Loosely based on screenwriter Tarell Alvin McCraney’s real life, Moonlight puts the Black male coming-of-age story center stage. However, instead of honing in on the violence and despair of the inner city, like the hood homeboy films of the 1990s — Moonlight focuses on Black love between Black men. First, there is the relationship protagonist Chiron (Alex R. Hibbert) has with his father-figure, Juan (Mahershala Ali). Later, Chiron explores his queer identity with his classmate Kevin (Jharrel Jerome). The film is a sumptuous duality of hypermasculinity against lush sensuality. With this film, Jenkins effectively shattered our expectations regarding Black intimacy on-screen, while unraveling why Black love in all of its varied prisms deserves a spotlight in cinema.
Moonlight would pave the way for 2019’s Queen & Slim and 2020’s The Photograph. Two vastly different films, one— a harrowing dramatic thriller, centering Queen (Joe Turner-Smith ) and Slim (Daniel Kaluuya) who are forced together by circumstance. A dull Tinder date paves the way for a standoff with a racist police officer who eventually lays dead, prompting our leads to run for their lives.
Penned by Lena Waithe and directed by Melina Matsoukas — the film is almost an antithesis of what we’ve seen before when it comes to Black romance in the movies. Instead of the tried and true formula of a meet-cute, conflict, and resolution, Queen & Slim unites a Black man and a Black woman through Black radicalism. They come to lean on one another, inadvertently building a foundation when there is no one else either of them can trust or turn to. The weight of their relationship rests equally on both of their shoulders, as they become each other’s ride or die.
In contrast to Queen & Slim, writer/director Stella Meghie’s The Photograph, is a much-deserved presentation of soft Black romance, without the trauma or brutality. The film follows Mae (Issa Rae), an art curator grappling with the death of her estranged mother, and Michael (Lakeith Stanfield) — a journalist who crosses paths with Mae’s late mother’s work. The film follows the typical romance formula, but the conflict and resolution aren’t gut-wrenching or emotionally tumultuous. Mae and Micheal deal with real-life issues without being battered or broken. Both parties —like the lead characters in Queen & Slim, share the weight of their missteps and miscommunication. The Photograph is a recognition of straight-forward Black sensuality and love without the heaviness of Black pain. Despite all of this, the film has garnered mixed reviews. Since there isn’t any toxicity between the main characters or much comedy in The Photograph, it appears foreign to us. As a community, we’ve been conditioned to only recognize Black Love shrouded in chaos. Presently, Black women in particular, are asking Black people to look beyond archaic examples of love that are rooted in sexism, misogynoir, and rigid gender roles. Instead, Meghie presents two grown people who must hold themselves and each other accountable to have a chance at a loving and modern relationship.
Black women are also getting the opportunity to be seen as romantic leading women, in the broader scope of cinema alongside leading men from different cultures. Following the footsteps of the 2006 film Something New, where Sanaa Lathan’s leading man was Australian actor Simon Baker, Issa Rae will become a leading lady once more in Netflix’s The Lovebirds. The Insecure actress stars as Leilani, opposite Pakistani-American actor Kumail Nanjiani. Rae is a woman who is grappling with her strained relationship with her boyfriend, Jibran (Nanjiani). The couple’s commitment to one another is hilariously put to the test when they suddenly find themselves in the middle of a chaotic murder mystery.
Black film, and undoubtedly Black romance film, has come a long way since that very first kiss was captured on-screen in 1898. With more women filmmakers at the helm, diverse projects, and the current wave of Black cinema in Hollywood, Black romance movies have the opportunity to give the next generations more nuanced depictions of connection, sensuality, sex, and intimacy. With films like Queen & Slim, Moonlight, The Photograph, and The Lovebirds — we have witnessed Black people from all walks of life and sexualities dive into romantic relationships with love, accountability, and self-awareness, which are truly the ultimate relationship goals.