Much like Blackness is not monolithic, neither is Black love. The relationships in this collection range from young passions to midlife romance, and the types of movies range from glossy studio pictures to vital queer indies. They are poetic, comedic, rapturous and politically minded films — told with soul-stirring intimacy.
‘The Best Man’ (1999)
It’s been years since Harper Stewart (Taye Diggs) has seen his old college buddies. With his best friend, Lance (Morris Chestnut), a star running back, getting married to Mia (Monica Calhoun), he must travel to New York City to attend their wedding. That prospect would be easier if Harper, a writer, didn’t base his new book off his friends’ lives. During the long weekend leading up to the wedding, Harper works to keep Lance from reading the novel, which contains a secret he’s kept from the groom, and from acting on his desires with an old flame, Kendra (Nia Long).
Composed of a deep ensemble — Terrence Howard, Sanaa Lathan and Regina Hall included — the film follows multiple relationships as these adult friends confront their romantic futures through biting humor and unflinching honesty. And thankfully, it kicked off a charming romantic film and TV franchise.
The Black romantic studio pictures of the 1990s were far different from their 1970s Blaxploitation predecessors. Rather than depicting an urban milieu populated by hustlers and pushers, the films that arrived during the newer decade captured an emerging, well-educated Black middle and upper class occupying high rises and boardrooms.
In the director Reginald Hudlin’s screwball romance “Boomerang,” Eddie Murphy is Marcus Graham, a hot shot advertising executive and ladies man struggling to cope with having women like the hard-nosed Jacqueline (Robin Givens) as his boss. Though Marcus tries to seduce Jacqueline, hoping he can sleep his way to the top, he soon develops feelings for Jacqueline’s unassuming friend Angela (Halle Berry). Marcus and Angela’s whirlwind relationship teaches Marcus to love someone other than himself, making for a heart-melting finale that’s stronger than any business deal.
‘Lovers Rock’ (2020)
Taking place over a single night in 1980, the director Steve McQueen’s “Lovers Rock” begins with Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) sneaking out of her parents’ home to attend a West London reggae house party, and ends with her intertwined with Franklyn (Micheal Ward) on a steamy dance floor.
“Lovers Rock” is episode two in McQueen’s “Small Axe,” a rich anthology series loosely connected by its intense interest in the young Black adults of the Windrush generation — these migrants arrived in Britain from the commonwealth’s Caribbean nations between 1948 and 1970 — who were searching for cultural, racial, romantic and artistic freedom. It’s why house parties like the one depicted were imperative places where members of an oppressed community could openly gather.
Franklyn and Martha meet cute amid the resplendently dressed throng of partyers., Their electric attraction culminates in them slowly grinding to the serenading splendor of Janet Kay’s “Silly Games.” Eventually, the onscreen music fades. But the party-going cast continue singing Kay’s song, a cappella. Amid this communal outpouring of love, these new sweethearts are wholly bound together.
The director Rashaad Ernesto Green’s tastefully explicit and acutely realistic indie, “Premature,” is a throwback to intimate 1990s Black dramas like “Love Jones” and “Poetic Justice.” Like those films, it concerns two artists — a poetic Ayanna (Zora Howard) and a music producing Isaiah (Joshua Boone) — who fall in love fast before quickly feeling growing pains.
Ayanna and Isaiah occupy a precarious world: Most of Ayanna’s friends are young single Black mothers and both are painfully aware of the police violence afflicting New York City’s Black residents. While Boone is slippery as a man afraid to commit, Howard, the film’s co-writer, is equally striking as a woman tortured by a love she so desperately wants to work.
What stands out in the director Wanuri Kahiu’s lesbian romance, “Rafiki,” is the power of a glance. Classic Hollywood directors like David Lean and Douglas Sirk knew the amorous potentiality contained in the human face, harnessing its elastic electricity to illuminate soaring embraces and aching breakups. Kahiu grasps that power whenever Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) and Ziki (Sheila Munyiva), young women living in the charged neighborhoods of Nairobi, Kenya, catch each other’s eyes. The camera lingers on their enraptured visages, allowing their furtive looks to bloom under the neon glow of a clubbing black light or the soft touch of the sun as they lounge in a park.
Living in a country with homophobic policies, unfortunately, tests their bond. As do their respective father’s political ambitions. But Mugatsia and Munyiva are so luminescent, you can’t help but believe they can overcome whatever obstacles may come their way.