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3 reasons we need a great black romantic comedy
It’s time for black cinema to have its Annie Hall moment.
Earlier this week, Chris Rock gave an Internet–shattering interview in New York magazine, in which he discussed everything from Lost in Translation to Obama. A lot of what Rock said was funny, but a lot of it was also extremely poignant, often at the same time. However, one of Rock’s most interesting comments was not socially or politically charged at all. At least, not on the surface: Chris Rock wants to do a romantic comedy.
At one point in the conversation, Rock brought up rom-com guru and fellow famous New Yorker Nora Ephron. In an interesting turn, he mentioned that the two of them had discussed working on a project together. “She always used to say to me, ‘Are you ready to walk? That’s the only way we’re going to make a movie. We’re going to have to do a lot of walking and talking,’” he revealed. “She would’ve directed it. I wanted her to direct me really bad. I’d love to do a Nancy Meyers movie.”
According to Rock, his preference was to just be involved with the project as an actor, letting Ephron/Meyers do all the work behind the camera. When asked who his leading lady would be, he quipped, “I don’t know. Kerry Washington? It can be anybody though. Whoever she [Meyers] likes. I love her. It’s nice taking your mother to a Nancy Meyers movie. It’s tradition. They should have one every Thanksgiving or Christmas.”
Though we’ll never get to see the Rock/Ephron collaboration, it’s hard not to get excited at the thought of a brilliant comic like Rock working under Nancy Meyers’ skilled comedic touch, especially with an actress as talented as Kerry Washington onboard. However, the bigger picture that Rock enlightens here has to do with the intersection of black comedy and the Hollywood romantic comedy.
So with Rock’s words in mind, it seems an appropriate time to examine just why we need a great black romantic comedy so much.
1) Romantic comedies are an essential part of cinema.
City Lights. It Happened One Night. The Philadelphia Story. The African Queen. Roman Holiday. The Apartment. Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Harold and Maude. Annie Hall. The Princess Bride. When Harry Met Sally…. Sleepless in Seattle. Groundhog Day. Clueless. Jerry Maguire. As Good as It Gets. Amélie. Punch-Drunk Love.
These films contain some of the most iconic moments and dialogue in film history. Together, they prove that the romantic comedy is one of the most essential genres in all of moviemaking, particularly in terms of U.S. cinema. Like the western or the gangster movie, there is something uniquely American about the romantic comedy, and out of all the types of movies to ever grace the silver screen, it remains one of the most iconic. As the times have changed, romantic comedies have evolved, becoming a tapestry of the way we think about movies from decade to decade. But the formula has never truly died.
Which is why romantic comedies should start to reflect the changing, increasingly diverse face of America, too. The thing is that white romantic comedies only tell part of the story. But a great black romantic comedy could be the start of a new chapter, where the story of one of film’s oldest and most unforgettable traditions finally transforms into something that’s no longer thought of as a “white people” trope.
Romantic comedies have suffered a lot of hits lately, but that’s no reason to give up on them entirely. Hollywood just needs to inject the genre with some new, untapped talent to get it off the ground again.
2) There are plenty of black artists who would be perfect for the genre.
Despite what you may think, there are a handful of black romantic comedies floating around out there. There just aren’t many of them, and some the ones that do exist, unfortunately, tend to be rather forgettable.
The last successful black romantic comedies were Think Like a Man and The Best Man Holiday, both of which made a sizeable impact at the box office and proved that there is, unsurprisingly, an audience for black romantic comedies out there. However, what charm the original Think Like a Man had was washed away by this year’s awful sequel. And while we’re on the topic of sequels, it’s worth noting that The Best Man Holiday was a followup to another film too, 1999’s The Best Man. Sadly, the quality of Think Like a Man Too and the gap between the Best Man movies illustrates the aforementioned facts: Black romantic comedies haven’t always lived up to their potential, and they’re hard to get made in the first place.
And this is a shame. Because while Hollywood is blindly scrambling to cater to black audiences in any meager way they can, black actors, writers, and directors are killing it everywhere. Last year’s Best Picture winner, 12 Years a Slave, was written and directed by black filmmakers. And the yet to be released Selma, which many people are calling the frontrunner for Best Picture at this year’s Oscars, was directed by a black woman. Moreover, the casts of both these films are filled with an array of insanely talented black performers.
12 Years a Slave and Selma both deal with deadly serious subjects, but to suppose that black artists are only capable of working with life and death subject matter is just another way for Hollywood to limit these artists’ potential. Who’s to say that Ava DuVernay can’t write a snappy, romantic yarn? Or that Spike Lee won’t one day deliver a comedy where couples walk and talk around his version of New York City?
Oddly enough, Chris Rock and Kerry Washington already sort of did do a romantic comedy together, 2007’s underrated I Think I Love My Wife. And Rock also starred opposite Julie Delpy, in her 2012 rom-com, 2 Days in New York. But, to state the painfully obvious, Rock and Washington are hardly the be all and end all of black actors who’d be perfect in a romantic comedy. Will Smith proved that he could do it in Hitch. Michael B. Jordan has already demonstrated that he’s plenty capable of comedy and drama. And the same could be said of Taraji P. Henson or Jurnee Smollett-Bell.
Chris Rock mentions in his New York magazine interview that his own daughter thinks Kevin Hart is funnier than he is. So at this point, it’s pretty unacceptable to say that there isn’t enough talent out there to support a truly great black romantic comedy. On top of which, audiences should have more to choose from in this realm than Tyler Perry movies.
This is what it basically all comes down to. Yes, Nancy Meyers makes movies about rich, white people, but that doesn’t mean her films don’t have merit. Nora Ephron made movies about rich, white people, too, but can you honestly argue that When Harry Met Sally… isn’t one of the most memorable comedies of all time? There’s a reason Chris Rock has expressed interest in making movies with these talented women, and it’s not that they’re rich and white. Ephron was a great storyteller, Meyers has a distinct voice. These are the real reasons creative people find each other. Romantic comedies may be undervalued right now, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have merit. And although it might be awhile before the genre reclaims its glory days, a melding of minds like Rock’s and Meyers’ could be just the thing to help it get there.
Statistics show that between 2007 and 2013, only a little more than a quarter of all speaking roles in major U.S. releases were given to non-white actors. Quite frankly, this is pathetic, no matter what genre you’re talking about. So while it may seem silly to call for black romantic comedies where there are clearly so many more important problems facing black America today, it’s important to remember that the art we consume should represent the wide array of people consuming it.
On top of which, we have to stop assuming that black romantic comedies won’t play for anybody other than black audiences. Cinema should be for everyone, no matter who’s behind the camera or onscreen. No one would say that a movie with mainly white people was just “for” white people. Therefore, it’s imperative to believe in the idea that all genres will play to all audiences, if we ever want to cross the thresholds that still divide us in art, and in life.
A romantic comedy with Chris Rock and Kerry Washington isn’t going to change Hollywood overnight, but it’s a good start. And a romantic comedy with another set of black actors, writers, or directors would be too. In that spirit, here’s to the great black romantic comedy, whenever it may arrive.
Hopefully, it’ll be sooner rather than later.
Photo via The Best Man Holiday/Trailer
Chris Osterndorf is an entertainment reporter and movie critic based in Los Angeles. He holds a degree in cinema from Chicago’s DePaul University. His work has appeared on the Daily Dot, Mic, the Script Lab, Salon, the Week, xoJane, and more.