I must say that it has been a lot of fun watching people express their love for one another this week. Although Valentine’s Day is clearly a commercial “holiday,” it actually gets people thinking about ways to demonstrate their love to their partners. Many believe that couples should demonstrate their love throughout the year, but Valentine’s Day is a good reminder to show your appreciation for the one you love. It is always fun to watch colleagues delight (or not) in receiving flowers and other tokens of appreciation at work.
What I have especially loved about this Valentine’s Day are the many online expressions of black love, which began before Valentine’s Day, with the anniversary of the Obamas. Photos of the couple — who appear to have a strong marriage that is built on faith, mutual respect and affection — were present on social networks pretty much everywhere.
But black love doesn’t always have to be famous love, as indicated by the many readers who sent in photos for the The Root’s Celebrating Black Love photo gallery. What this says to me is that contrary to popular discourse about blacks and relationships — which is often negative and denigrating — black people still want and need to be loved and want to show the world the depth of that love, which may also include people of other racial and ethnic backgrounds. In my world, that’s pretty courageous and cool, particularly in the face so much venom directed at blacks in relationships throughout the year.
In honor of black love and to keep the celebration going, I decided to pull together a list of films that represent black love in all of its manifestations that you may not have heard about, thought about or seen. Sorry to disappoint you, but Love Jones, Hav Plenty, Mahogany and Claudine were purposely left off of this list. Some films do not have a love relationship at the center of the narrative but feature a strong relationship in the subplot. Other films don’t necessarily represent romantic love with a Hollywood ending, but couples trying to make it work in tough times.
Nothing but a Man (1964)
This film examines the relationship between a working-class man, Duff Anderson (Ivan Dixon), and a schoolteacher, Josie Dawson (Abbey Lincoln), as they attempt to build a relationship in the Jim Crow South. Nothing but a Man exposes how the stress of living under racial and economic tyranny can affect relationships and one’s sense of self. Duff and Josie must fight against society — including Josie’s father, a reverend who doesn’t believe that Duff is good enough for his daughter — while trying not to fight each other under dire social circumstances. This film features strong performances by the late legendary actor-director Ivan Dixon and jazz legend Abbey Lincoln. If that isn’t enough for you, the cinematography is mind-blowing.
Killer of Sheep (1977)
Filmed in Watts in Los Angeles, Killer of Sheep, directed by Charles Burnett, is a study of the life of a couple trying to survive poverty and each other. Stan (Henry G. Sanders) works in a slaughterhouse, while his wife (Kaycee Moore) stays home, raising their daughter. The film is not a romantic look at love, but a real look at what it takes to stay married amid the struggle against poverty. The film poses no solutions; rather, it gives the viewer a look at the day in the life of a young family trying to keep love alive in a world that has literally discarded them. Burnett’s film has been named a national treasure by the Library of Congress. Check it out and see what it takes for some couples to show up every day to face the world and each other.
Looking for Langston (1989)
Featuring the poetry of Langston Hughes, Isaac Julien’s fantasy black-and-white film examines black gay men during the Harlem Renaissance. The film explores high society in Harlem during the 1920s with intertextual references to archival footage and photos that juxtapose the past and the present in a symbolic and meaningful way. Alex (Ben Ellison) explores his relationship with his lover Beauty (Matthew Baidoo) through a dream sequence, highlighting the complexity of being black and gay during the Harlem Renaissance. The film demonstrates the need for freedom to be true to oneself, as well as the certain death that occurs when that cannot happen because of other people’s stuff.
Mississippi Masala (1991)
Directed by Mira Nair, Mississippi Masala stars Denzel Washington and Sarita Choudhury, who meet and fall in love in a small town in Mississippi. Demetrius (Washington) and Meena (Choudhury) come from two very different worlds: Demetrius is a black entrepreneur trying to succeed in a small town filled with even smaller minds, and Meena is from a working-class Indian family, bound by tradition and honor. Demetrius and Meena connect through sheer attraction and learn that they have more in common (as disenfranchised members of local and global communities) as they pursue their love against all odds.
Café au Lait (1993)
Black love can also be free love, particularly in Paris, as evidenced by this cinematic gem from the early 1990s. Biracial Lola (Julie Maudeuch) is in love with Jamal (Hubert Kounde), a well-heeled son of an African diplomat, and Felix (Mathieu Kassovitz), an impoverished Jewish bicycle messenger. If this storyline sounds familiar, Cafe Au Lait is Kassowitz’ homage to Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It, featuring an interracial ménage à trois and a surprise pregnancy to boot. If you wonder what would have happened had Lola Darling become pregnant during her trysts, check out Cafe Au Lait, which unpacks issues of interracial dating, class and sexuality in a thoughtful and comedic way.
The Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls in Love (1995)
This film introduces us to Nicole Ari-Parker (Brown Sugar/Soul Food), who plays the character of Evie, a well-off teenager whose unlikely friendship with Randy Dean (Laurel Holloman), a poor white girl being raised by a same-sex couple, develops into a love affair. The film explores themes of interracial romance, queer identity and conflict over class that sometimes supersede issues over race and sexuality. As we celebrate Pariah, we can also appreciate this film, which introduced viewers to the challenges of being in love as a young person when society, including your family, rages against you.
Jerry Maguire (1996)
The addition of this film may be a shocker to some, but one of my favorite representations of black love in film history is Rod and Marcee Tidwell, played brilliantly by Cuba Gooding Jr. and Regina King, who really should have gotten the Academy Award for her performance as the original ride-or-die chick in contemporary film history. You know the story: Sports agent Jerry Maguire (Tom Cruise) has an epiphany, gets fired and starts a new firm and a new life. Tidwell demonstrates his loyalty by joining Maguire and demanding loyalty and dividends in return. While Maguire is learning to love in this film, the Tidwells already know how to love, and they demonstrate it in their personal and professional lives.
Ray Joshua (Saul Williams) is a gifted poet who is trying to rise above his surroundings in an impoverished D.C. neighborhood (Dodge City) through his poetry, but cannot seem to free himself from his hustle mentality. Joshua meets Lauren (Sonja Sohn), a poet and community activist who helps change his outlook on life and challenges him to be a better man in the process. The film boasts strong performances by Williams and Sohn, as well as slam-poetry performances that are intense, thoughtful and provocative.
Something New (2006)
Sanaa Lathan, Simon Baker and Blair Underwood. Need I say more? Kenya McQueen (Lathan) is an upwardly mobile businesswoman who is unknowingly set up on a date with a white man, landscaper Brian Kelly (Baker). Despite her best attempt at rebuffing his attention, Kenya slowly but surely realizes that she and Brian make a good couple, to the chagrin of her well-to-do parents and hypocritical brother. Enter black doctor Mark (Underwood), and Kenya must decide whom to please — herself or her friends and family.
Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., is editor-at-large for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.