Black Rom-Coms Are Back

Baggage Claim reminds us of the sweet and funny romantic flicks before the Madea era.

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Paula Patton in Baggage Claim (screenshot)

(The Root) -- I recall being somewhat disappointed the first time I watched Brown Sugar. Remember, this was the early 2000s. Movies like The Wood, The Best Man, Love & Basketball, How Stella Got Her Groove Back -- basically anything starring Taye Diggs and/or Omar Epps -- were the norm.

Back then, it was anything but rare to see black people on the big screen in well-written and sweet romantic comedies. So much so that when I saw Brown Sugar, I actually wanted more hip-hop and less romance. For the next decade, that's exactly what we got -- that is, if you define "hip-hop" as gospel-infused passion plays (cough -- Tyler Perry -- cough).

Like a lot of women (and men) who grew up during the birth of the genre with films like When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle and You Got Mail -- basically anything starring Meg Ryan and/or Tom Hanks -- the romantic comedy is more than just the cherry teetering atop an otherwise very serious cinematic pie. The rom-com then was a lot like what reality TV is now: Despite knowing it's all fake, you're along for the ride.

With the addition of black-themed storylines and actors in the late '90s, the genre finally gave long-overlooked-but-just-as-lovelorn audiences the chance to fully participate in some of the same wish fulfillment as a generation of Meg Ryan wannabes. You could say The Cosby Show did the same thing for fans of family-oriented sitcoms. Whether the fantasy was attainable was beside the point. The real payoff was in letting folks dream in as many colors as possible.

With Friday's release of Baggage Claim, starring Paula Patton, Derek Luke and Jill Scott, the low tide for black romantic comedies seems to be on the rise -- and one can only hope for a full-on tsunami. Oscar-buzz-worthy films like Lee Daniels' The Butler and the yet-to-be-released 12 Years a Slave are a far cry from the instant popcorn gratification of movies like Baggage Claim, and that's precisely the point. 

The film follows the romantic misadventures of Montana Moore (Patton), a flight attendant who's as unlucky in love as she is jet-lagged. When Montana's little sister (Lauren London) decides to get married, Montana dreads the very real prospect of showing up alone, especially since her five-times-married mother (Jennifer Lewis) places a huge premium on putting a ring on it. So Montana & Co., which includes a bestie (Jill Scott) and a backup (Adam Brody), hatch a plan to link up Montana with every one of her romantic misconnections. Of course, comedy and lots of cheese ensue. 

Last week I attended an Essence-magazine-sponsored screening of the film after an especially arduous day of closed doors and missed opportunities. The last thing I wanted to spend 90 minutes doing was thinking about my 99 problems. Baggage Claim did exactly what every movie starring Katherine Heigl -- the new millennium's Meg Ryan -- does: It allowed the audience to escape to a place that isn't political, practical or even all that plausible. But it's still a good place to be. 

As far as the resurgence of the black rom-com goes, Baggage Claim seems like a hint of more to come. Last year's Think Like a Man got the ball rolling by grossing more than $96 million at the box office, and a sequel is scheduled for 2014. And for those who lament the good old days when Taye Diggs ruled with a blinding smile, The Best Man Holiday comes out later this year, along with several other movies without Tyler Perry's stamp of approval.

As black love and the jokes that follow -- President Obama's crack about being "scared" of Michelle, anyone? -- take up permanent residence in the popular zeitgeist, hopefully there won't be another decadelong drought of movies that reflect the lives of the people paying to see them.

Helena Andrews is a contributing editor at The Root and author of Bitch Is the New Black, a memoir in essays. Follow her on Twitter.

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