You won’t find Eddie Murphy charming his way into the hearts of his leading ladies in any one of his 1980s or 1990s mega-hits. Or Sanaa Lathan and Omar Epps playing one final game of one-on-one and inevitably falling in love in “Love & Basketball.”
The pop culture writers who put together these lists are partly responsible, but they don’t take all of the blame. Hollywood has been slow to greenlight films for black and general audiences created by black moviemakers seeking to highlight black life and love in all its complexity and relatability.
Sure, Sidney Poitier came to dinner in 1967, but, by and large, black romantic portrayals were given the short shrift.
Luckily, the 1990s ushered in an era of rom-coms with plenty of black leads, from “The Best Man” and “Love Jones” to “How Stella Got Her Groove Back.” Black love ― the simple, but revolutionary idea that black couples exist in their culture and in their affection for each other ― was finally given its due.
It’s high time we recognize some of these films. With Black History Month underway, we asked black writers and editors to share a film depicting a black romance that’s spoken to them through the years. See what they had to say below.
“The Best Man” (1999)
″‘The Best Man’ debuted to American audiences around the country in 1999, but in 2019, for me, it is still one the most relevant and most beautiful examples of black romance to date. In the ’90s, representation was limited for black Americans. We had a few sitcoms and movies that turned into iconic portrayals, but it still gave us a limited scope of what it truly meant to be black and in love. ‘The Best Man’ was iconic for various reasons, but specifically, it portrayed the black middle class in a way that had not been done before in cinema. It ignored the overused narrative of oppression and dove into complicated emotions and relationships, multifaceted portrayals of expression, and most importantly, forgiveness within the context of a romantic comedy.
‘The Best Man’ showed that even when a couple can appear to have it all, everyone has their problems. It narrated the importance of valuing your partner and appreciating their uniqueness. It unpacked how not every couple is meant to be together, but your next great love you could be right knocking at your door (literally). Finally, it showed us that you have to love yourself first before you can ever be in love with someone else. The movie will always be one of my favorites, and as it reaches its 20th anniversary, its portrayal of black love is classic.” ― Brennan DuBose, audience editor at HuffPost
“I think it’s important we discuss ‘Moonlight,’ and the ‘forbidden’ type of black romance. As a black queer person, ‘Moonlight’ touched on masculinity and sexual interactions that spoke to me in a way like no other movie. I was able to connect with the characters much differently than some of my other favorite romance movies like ‘Love and Basketball’ or ‘The Best Man.’ ‘Moonlight’ made a piece of me feel seen, and I believe opened the door for there to one day be a movie with a specific romance that looks like mine.” ― George M. Johnson, a journalist and activist whose work has appeared in Teen Vogue, BuzzFeed and Vibe
“Eve’s Bayou” (1997)
“There are so many different types of love dynamics between black people represented in ‘Eve’s Bayou:’ familial (in the relationship between the main character Eve and her hero, her father), romantic love, toxic love. And what resonates with me most deeply about this film is that it is set apart from the typical narratives about race and racism included in stories about black Americans set in that era (1940s-1960s); ‘Eve’s Bayou’ depicts a world where black people are free to simply exist, and work/love/play in an atmosphere where the burden of discrimination is not the central focus.” ― Samantha Willis, a writer whose work has appeared in Glamour Magazine and Essence
“Naz & Maalik” (2015)
“‘Naz & Maalik’ was the first full-length film I ever saw with two black queer teens intimately centered. Both actors, Kerwin Johnson Jr. and Curtiss Cook Jr., were a revelation as they navigated the confines of homophobia, racism, and Islamophobia in a big city. Their innocence and exploration resonated deeply with me as they struggled to come out and protect their joy while considering how such decisions could impact family, faith and their future. I saw my younger self in their forbidden love and the compassion they had for each other to envision a future worth striving for. I was around 24 when the film was released and it spoke to the growing call for more intersectionality needed in both LGBTQ+ and black cinema. I truly believe this film helped pave the way for Oscar-winning films such as ‘Moonlight’ that took the issues addressed in this film to a broader audience.” ― Ernest Owens, writer at large at Philadelphia Magazine
“Of all movies on this list, Reg Hudlin’s ‘Boomerang’ has the unique distinction of boasting the greatest film cast of all time. I mean, c’mon: Eddie Murphy, Robin Givens, Halle Berry, David Alan Grier, Martin Lawrence, Eartha Kitt, Chris Rock, John Witherspoon and more! Truly, it offers a gamut of blackness. And while ‘Boomerang’ abides by some typical rom-com themes (namely, the ‘playboy-learns-the-error-of-his-manipulative-ways’ character arc), it is profound in its depiction of black sexuality. It features mature black sexuality (Eartha Kitt), trifling sexuality (Martin Lawrence), awkward black sexuality (Grier and Berry), queer black sexuality (depicted through actor Geoffrey Holder), righteously self-serving sexuality from a black woman’s perspective (Robin Givens), and ‘Grace Jones sexuality,’ which is so potent and freewheeling as to almost demand its own classification.
Plus, ‘Boomerang’ features all the trappings of iconic 90s-era black cinema: the bluesy background music, the quiet and sensual banter of lovers, the boxy garb popularized by black middle- and upper-class professionals. It is simply the best romantic comedy ever made.” ― Ja’han Jones, reporter at HuffPost
“The Inkwell” (1994)
″‘The Inkwell’ is the first romance movie centered around black teenagers I had ever seen, and while it’s far from a perfect film, it’s definitely one of the most memorable for me. It’s a period movie that takes place at Martha’s Vineyard in the summer of 1976, and it left a really big impact because it showed African-American wealth and success in a way that I had never seen in any film. ‘The Inkwell’ explores wealth disparity within the black community through the eyes of a teen from a working-class background, and though it’s a film celebrating black love and family, it’s not about race at all.
Larenz Tate is easily the king of ’90s black rom-coms, but I love his portrayal of Drew because he’s a classic fish-out-of-water lead who is discovering a world he knows little about. Drew visits relatives that have a summer home in the Inkwell (which is the nickname of a real-life beach community in Martha’s Vineyard where members of the black elite have owned homes and vacationed for decades) and falls in love with Lauren (played by Jada Pinkett Smith) at first sight. The romance between Drew and Lauren blossoms over the summer despite the opinions of those around them, and though you know the relationship will be short-lived, it’s the kind of whirlwind love you aspire to have if you watch the film in your youth as I did, and the kind of innocent relationship you look back on fondly later in life.” ― Shontel Horne, a writer and editor whose work has appeared in Popsugar, Angeleno and the New York Observer
“Baggage Claim” (2013)
“I’m in love with the rom-com ‘Baggage Claim’ by David E. Talbert. Just like Paula Patton’s character Montana Moore, I’m a Bmore chick that has always had a roster of eligible bachelors to pull from if I want a date. But oh my God, the problematic personalities and the issues are never far behind. We’re talking everything from businessmen, politicians, poets, revolutionaries and even a couple of preachers in training… I’ve seen every variation of a dumpster fire date. I relate to Montana’s enthusiasm for being open-minded and finding love deep in my heart. Don’t judge me, I’m a hopeless romantic. I have been known to ‘give a guy a shot’ when my brain said, ‘hmmm, girl, hard pass.’” ― Nicki Mayo, a digital consultant and multimedia journalist for The Crisis Magazine
″‘PUNKS’ is a hard-to-come-by indie film that premiered in the festival circuit in 2000. Directed by Patrik-Ian Polk, the creator of LogoTV’s ‘Noah’s Arc,’ the film centers around the lives a queer friend group made up of blacks and Latinos in LA. I was nine when the film was released, but I had heard about it for years. Due to its obscurity, it took me more than a decade to actually watch it. When I finally saw the film at a screening in Harlem I understood the hype immediately. The main character, Marcus, falls in love with his neighbor Darby, a closeted bisexual man, and each attempts to navigate his feelings for the other in typical romantic comedy style.
While the plot is a little meh, as a gay black man, being able to see myself on screen was a significant moment. In both TV and film, queer people of color aren’t often visible, and when they are the role is usually that of a sassy sidekick to a white lead. In rare instances when those characters are given a love interest, it’s usually in the form of an interracial relationship. Given these trends in media, ‘PUNKS’ is such a powerful film, and one of my favorites, because it celebrates the love between two black cis men and is an affront to both homophobia and racism.” ― Aaron Barksdale, associate producer at VICE Digital
“Coming to America” (1988)
″‘Coming to America’ is the only black rom-com you need to see. Eddie Murphy’s groundbreaking creation tells the story of Prince Akeem (played by Murphy) from the fictional African kingdom of Zamunda. Akeem is of age to be married and rule the kingdom but first needs to find a suitable bride to become his queen. And what better place to look than Queens, New York? Akeem and his man-servant Semi (hilariously portrayed by Arsenio Hall) travel across the globe to New York City where they meet the McDowell family, learn about life outside of the palace and discover that love and happiness are not things royal riches can buy.
This movie doesn’t just deliver a unique love story, it delivers the laughs. If you’ve seen the film, I bet you can quote a one-liner from the barbershop scenes, you probably know all the words to the Soul Glo commercial, you likely prefer Randy Watson’s rendition of ‘The Greatest Love of All’ to the original and, if you’re like me, you’re cautiously curious about what a McDowell Big Mick tastes like.
It’s a movie that sticks with you and not just because your abs will hurt from laughing (or from trying to do the opening dance number choreographed by Paula Abdul). This movie taught me that love was more than something felt between two beautiful back people. Love can be felt for the entire black culture. Play me out, Sexual Chocolate!” ― Jolie A. Doggett, reporter at HuffPost