The Photograph (and 10 more Black love stories to watch this Valentine's Day)
Stella Meghie's latest feature film arrives in theatres Feb. 14
Black Light is a weekly column by Governor General Award-winning writer Amanda Parris that spotlights, champions and challenges art and popular culture that is created by Black people and/or centres Black people.
This Valentine's Day, there's more to celebrate than a reduction in chocolate prices. A new Black romance film opens in theatres, and a Canadian filmmaker is at the helm.
Written and directed by Stella Meghie, The Photograph tells the story of Mae (Issa Rae), an assistant curator who is grappling with the death of her estranged mother Christina (Chanté Adams). While learning about Christina's past, Mae stumbles into her own love story when she meets a journalist named Michael (LaKeith Stanfield).
This very aesthetically pleasing film will have you yearning for Mae's closet and rooting for Christina's happiness. But if you're like me, it will also have you hungry to watch more films that show Black folks falling in love.
So I decided to celebrate Valentine's Day by curating a list of Black romance films for us all to enjoy. In order to make it on this list, the movie had to be made by a Black filmmaker, feature two (or more) Black people falling in love and the love story had to be the driving force of the film. As a result, films that place friendship (The Best Man) or a hustle (Touki Bouki) before the love story have been left off the list. Also absent are any films that look to Steve Harvey for relationship advice because I really don't think we need to bring that kind of toxicity into the new decade (sorry, Think Like a Man series).
After you see The Photograph this weekend, check out these movies.
Love & Basketball (Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood)
Who knew that basketball could serve as the backdrop to one of the most romantic stories of my generation? Doubling as both a romance and a coming-of-age tale, this film is truly perfect. The story of Monica (a brilliant Sanaa Lathan) and Quincy (Omar Epps in his most iconic performance since Juice) begins when they first meet as children, continues into their breakup in college and concludes with their reunion as adults. Almost every romantic movie is defined by some grand gesture. In Love & Basketball, it's a one-on-one battle for the heart that takes place under a basketball hoop. And somehow, it works! Plus, that soundtrack! It's filled with classic songs by Meshell Ndegeocello, Maxwell and Chaka Khan. What more could you ask for?
Love Jones (Directed by Theodore Witcher)
The film that sparked a thousand snapping fingers, Love Jones is the sexiest movie on the list, without a doubt. First, a little context: prior to Love Jones, Black movies in the '90s were defined primarily by gangsta flicks like Boyz n the Hood, New Jack City and Juice — important and powerful works, but highly limiting in their portrayal of Black life. Enter Love Jones, a movie by a first-time filmmaker about two Black artists falling in love. Be still, my heart. Photographer Nina (Nia Long) and writer Darius (Larenz Tate) casually drop references to John Coltrane and Langston Hughes while they share a steaming hot chemistry that made even a poetry lounge seem cool. It was a version of Black adulthood that looked so intellectual, so sophisticated and so sexy. Watching it as a tween, I was ridiculously impatient to grow up.
Poetic Justice (Directed by John Singleton)
Janet Jackson and Tupac Shakur. Need I say more? Coming straight off an Academy-Award nomination for Boyz n the Hood, plus the classic music video "Remember the Time," the pressure was on for the late great filmmaker John Singleton. And for his sophomore feature Poetic Justice, he decided to switch gears, telling the story of a young woman on an unexpected road trip that leads to love. The casting is, of course, as iconic as Janet's braids, but the film is also jam-packed with golden moments: Justice and Lucky's first meeting at the salon, the barbecue, renditions of Maya Angelou's poetry that are sprinkled throughout. I was shocked to realize how much critics hated it because in my world this movie is an indisputable classic (and the Rotten Tomatoes audience score suggests many would agree).
Love, Sex and Eating the Bones (Directed by Sudz Sutherland)
This debut feature by Canada's own Sudz Sutherland checks all the boxes when it comes to a sexy, fun rom-com. There's a great meet-cute in a laundromat, a sexy moment in a dancehall bashment (although Hill Harper may need to work on his bubbling skills). And our heroes face that age-old barrier to love: an inability to perform in bed. Michael (Harper) is an aspiring photographer with an addiction to porn who meets Jasmine (the distractingly beautiful Marlyne Barrett), a driven corporate manager. Their chemistry is electric until...he can't get it up. Beyond the fun plot, it's also very enjoyable to watch a romance taking place in Toronto on purpose, complete with red noses from the cold, a supporting role by Ed Robertson from the Barenaked Ladies and a cameo from the one and only Kardinal Offishall.
Atlantics (Directed by Mati Diop)
It's depressingly rare to find a romance featuring Black protagonists that can compete and win at the Cannes Film Festival. Atlantics, which clinched the 2019 Cannes Grand Prix, is both a love story and a ghost story that takes place in the Senegalese capital of Dakar. (The hybrid genre only makes Mati Diop's wildly successful feature debut even more of a standout.) Ada (the stunningly beautiful Mame Bineta Sane) is set to marry Omar (Babacar Sylla). The only problem? She's fallen in love with a poor construction worker (Ibrahima Traoré). At first, it seems to be a heartbreaking tale of migration and separation, but Atlantics evolves into a haunting romance that also manages to deliver a scathing social critique.
Jason's Lyric (Directed by Doug McHenry)
If you want a super steamy love scene, look no further...but maybe don't make the same mistake I did and watch this one with your mother in the room. Jada Pinkett-Smith has never looked more beautiful than she does in this film. She plays Lyric, the woman who inspires Jason (Allen Payne) to borrow a metro bus, take her rowing in a boat and wash her feet in lake water. Yeah, I know it sounds hella corny, but you haven't seen how Jada's curls drop so perfectly over her forehead in this movie! It makes sense once you see the curls! All of this romance takes place against a backdrop of intense family drama and violence, and it ends with a pretty shocking tragedy. The film also poignantly depicts a community irrevocably changed by the crack epidemic. But before the bloodshed, there's a ton of romance.
Rafiki (Directed by Wanuri Kahiu)
The first Kenyan feature to screen at Cannes, much has been written about Rafiki's struggle to be shown in its home country. But the controversy often overshadowed what makes Rafiki special: it is a beautifully told love story. Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) and Ziki (Sheila Munyiva) fall in love in a world dominated by pink and yellow prints, purple and turquoise lipsticks and rampant homophobia. As a result, their romance blossoms in abandoned vans and darkened nightclubs. The political rivalry between their fathers makes the tale reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet, but it packs more heartbreak than Verona could ever hold.
Burning An Illusion (Directed by Menelik Shabazz)
Calling this movie a romance is debatable, I'll admit. It avoids the fantasy encouraged by the genre, delving instead into the gritty realism of what it means for two Caribbean people to fall in love in early '80s London — a time when unemployment, police violence and racism abound. It's a love story told with a roots reggae soundtrack, iconic outfits and the kind of plaits I put into my hair each night. It's also a really compelling look at what it means to carve out a partnership in a world where a desire for dignity and stability is blocked by systemic resistance. But when the heroes Del (Victor Romero Evans) and Pat (Cassie McFarlane) become politicized and begin to recognize the larger patterns of oppression shaping their lives, they find a true connection. If your blood pressure can take Del's fragile masculinity, I highly recommend this one.
If Beale Street Could Talk (Directed by Barry Jenkins)
If a movie is ever made about my life, please hire Nicholas Britell to compose the score. From the music to the casting, the cinematography to the costumes, there are so many elements to celebrate in this exquisite adaptation of James Baldwin's love story. The tale of Fonny (Canada's own Stephan James) and Tish (Kiki Layne in a brilliant feature debut) has many tragic elements, but that heartbreak can only be felt once you invest deeply in their love. It unfolds throughout the film in beautifully rendered flashbacks. This young couple has simple dreams of finding a home and starting a family, but even those modest goals feel impossible in a time and space so deeply saturated with racism. Their love transcends every seemingly insurmountable obstacle, and through it the characters grow as individuals and as partners. It may not be the fantasy we look for in this genre, but when you think about it, is there anything more romantic than witnessing two people love each other against all odds?
Mahogany (Directed by Berry Gordy)
Mahogany is a classic campy Black romance film that always leaves me wondering if today will be the day I try individual false lashes on my top and bottom lids. It tells the story of Tracey (Diana Ross in full diva mode), a fashion student by night and shop girl by day who is discovered by a world famous photographer and whisked away to Rome where she becomes an international modelling sensation. She leaves behind Bryan (Billy Dee Williams oozing charisma), a passionate community activist with political aspirations who doesn't have much respect for her dreams but wears a turtleneck really well. Ross and Williams have so much chemistry you can almost forgive the hokey writing, messy storylines and highly problematic ending. But if you can shut off your critical brain and just immerse yourself in four-minute fashion montages (including many looks designed by Ms. Ross herself), comically melodramatic fight scenes (why has no one used Tracey's "I'm a winner" speech in an album interlude?) and a world where blown out hair never loses its volume, I guarantee you'll have an amazing time.