In Remembrance of the Black Romantic Comedy

illustration by Dani Manning

“I can’t think of one,” my mother said to me, after a stagnant pause. 

There was a brief moment of discomfort on my side; I wasn’t sure how to respond. I had asked my mother if she could think of a romantic comedy with a mostly Black cast that she had loved in her youth. That was her answer. She couldn’t think of one. I then asked her—and it wasn’t a question I wanted to ask—“Do the majority of the romantic comedies you can think of have mostly white people in them?” She said yes, without hesitation, without the lull. 

I nodded my head because it was expected, even though I didn’t want her to say it. Usually, our conversation might shift to another topic, but she fell back into the pause again, thinking about my question. Finally, she said, “Oh, I remember one! Diana Carroll and James L. Jones were in the movie. She had a lot of kids.” (My mother was thinking of Diahann Carroll and James Earl Jones. She often has a difficult time remembering the names of actors; it’s one of my favorite qualities about her, among many others.) “I loved that movie,” she said, adding another pause, this one more in awe of the actors and the film. 


In 1974, Carroll and Jones starred in John Berry’s Claudine, a rom-com about a single mother and the garbage man who falls in love with her. Prior to this film, Carroll had become the first Black woman to lead a TV series, Julia, in the late ‘60s. And Jones was a powerhouse Shakespearean actor, dominating the stage in multiple plays on Broadway. Yet, when asked if she could remember these actors at first, my mother failed to do so. Her recall of these two great Black talents wasn’t as immediate as the white actors she named right after—Fred Astaire, Clark Gable, Richard Gere, Tom Hanks. I reminded her of one major Black actor she forgot, who starred in a few romantic comedies when she was a teenager—“What about Sidney Poitier?” I asked. 

She made a “duh” expression. “The movie where he was a schoolteacher—To Sir, with Love,” she breathed out. I didn’t want to correct her. To Sir, with Love isn’t a rom-com. In fact, it’s far from it. The film, released in 1967, is about Poitier’s character teaching white students in a low-income area in East London. But I didn’t want to break it to her. She seemed happy to remember another “romantic comedy” that she’d loved when she was younger.

I thought back to the rom-coms I loved in my youth, and though I remembered a few Black ones, just like my mother, those also weren’t initially at the forefront of my mind. Because, like my mother, my childhood and teen years were drowned in movies featuring mostly white casts. To end our conversation on the topic, my mother said one final thing: “I only watched the white romantic comedy films, because I thought there weren’t any Black ones.”  


When I typed “romantic comedies” into Google a couple of weeks ago, I wondered what movies would be brought up as examples of the genre. What actors would be mentioned first? Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan, Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Lopez, Julia Roberts—this group of rom-com ringers was referenced several times. Each article I read was structured the same way. If they spoke about Black or other POC films, it was only after the introduction of the “classic” romantic comedies that included the white actors listed above. Most articles didn’t mention Black films or POC films at all. (Where were Taye Diggs or Sanaa Lathan or Gabrielle Union?) Some mentioned how the genre has become a lot more diverse than it previously was. But there were Black films that existed before this newer understanding of the importance of diversity; white audiences just weren’t exposed to them, or didn’t care to watch them. 

Upon further reading, I discovered that some consider Black rom-coms to be a cultural niche. I feel incredibly conflicted about this idea. Why would these films be considered a niche rather than welcomed into the canon? Are they seen as suited to a specialized audience only because they are constantly left out of larger conversations? 

On the other hand, Black people deserve films for us, by us, and not everything has to be introduced and included into the white film gaze. I don’t want to seem as if I am begging for a white audience to acknowledge Black films, because this isn’t a personal desire of mine. I know that, at the end of the day, Sanaa Lathan and Taye Diggs and Gabrielle Union and many other Black actors will always be known by Black audiences—but this doesn’t mean that more people can’t be aware of their performances, and give them the same respect for their work as the Toms, Matts, and Megs of the world receive. Talking with my mother helped me think through this—but, more importantly, it made me reflect on the ways Black romantic comedies have positively impacted my life.


For decades, Criterion had fewer than ten Black films by Black filmmakers in its collection. Then, in March of last year, Love Jones entered the Criterion Collection, followed by Love & Basketball six months later. Part of me was happy to know that more people would watch these films and understand how special they are. But another part of me was upset it took this long. Why did it have to take over 20 years to acknowledge them?

What’s so wonderful about Love & Basketball is that it’s romantic, dramatic, and comedic, all while functioning as a classic coming-of-age tale. It tells the story of how two friends, Monica (Sanaa Lathan) and Quincy (Omar Epps)—both obsessed with basketball—fall in love. It brings me back to my bedroom at 11, covered in photos of the Spice Girls, rewatching this movie on VHS while my mother was asleep. My room was my nest where I would watch movies and blast Backstreet Boys on my aggressively massive stereo. I hadn’t seen many films about Black love at that age. I hadn’t seen many depictions of Black love in real life. My parents were never married. My mother was single for most of my life. I didn’t really see a lot of positive examples of what love could be or would be when I was older. And so I specifically remember the lead-up to the love scene with Monica and Quincy. The two friends have just come from prom, and there’s a quiet turn in their friendship—the way their eyes connect, the way their bodies move around each other, the way their laughing turns into a sudden kiss. Their relationship changes at this moment. I think of Maxwell’s cover of Kate Bush’s “This Woman’s Work” as the two leads make love for the first time. I think of how carefully, graciously, and warmly the director, Gina Prince-Bythewood, treats this scene. Still, to this day, I haven’t seen a love scene with two Black people that makes me cry the way this one does. It also didn’t feel as if we needed to sit for too long in this moment. It was private, intimate: for them. When Prince-Bythewood cuts away, we understand why. 

When I think about watching Love & Basketball as a teen, I can’t help but remember how hilarious it is. Most importantly, the jokes in this film are the type I grew up laughing at. This Black cultural humor isn’t included in films like You’ve Got Mail or When Harry Met Sally…. But in Love & Basketball, I heard asides from my family dinners, my hangouts with my friends, and the hallways in my predominantly Black middle school. I saw myself in this film in ways I hadn’t before. I saw the possibility of a future love and life as a Black woman that hadn’t been represented before. The tenderness of Black love is heavy throughout Love & Basketball—and showcased alongside the flaws of their relationship —and I’m thankful for it. 


Around the same time as Love & Basketball’s release—between 1999 and 2002—films like The Best Man, The Wood, Brown Sugar, The Brothers, Two Can Play That Game, and Deliver Us from Eva made their appearance. I rented these films from Blockbuster or watched them at a friend’s house without my mother’s permission. The Wood’s portrayal of high-school lust that evolves into adult love was probably too much for me to truly understand at ten years old, but I appreciate it now. Gabrielle Union’s beauty and power in Deliver Us From Eva stuck with me. Brown Sugar, with Sanaa Lathan and Taye Diggs, introduced to me how Black love and Black music intertwine and influence us—and reaffirmed to me Taye Diggs’s importance in the genre. His introduction to the screen in How Stella Got Her Groove Back is a prominent memory for me. Both Lathan’s and Diggs’s work in the romantic comedy genre was monumental for the way they were able to walk the tightrope of dramatic and comedic so easily and elegantly. Lathan’s work in Love & Basketball, Brown Sugar, Something New, and The Best Man is underrated and undervalued among many audiences, as is Diggs’s, who appeared in The Wood, Brown Sugar, The Best Man, How Stella Got Her Groove Back, and later in Our Family Wedding and The Best Man Holiday. They should be as highly valued and esteemed in the genre as Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Meg Ryan, and Matthew McConaughey are. 

How Stella Got Her Groove Back was a favorite of my mother’s, even though she didn’t mention it in our conversation. She watched it on repeat for the same reason I would watch Love & Basketball on repeat: she saw herself in that film. Stella, played by Angela Bassett, is a woman in her 40s who has everything going for her but love. She meets Winston, played by Diggs, while on vacation in Jamaica. Again, there was a moment in time when my mother played this film so much that I knew every line. Her dream was always to go to Jamaica and vacation there, especially with her friend, just like Bassett’s character does.

How Stella Got Her Groove Back and Waiting to Exhale were the first films I saw where Black love is shown not only in romantic relationships, but also in Black female friendship. Part of the Black romantic comedy is the platonic love between the female protagonist and the Black women who support her in her most low and high moments. When I was in my early teens, I had a group of Black girls in my life that I yearned to have as my friends into adulthood: Black girls who would become Black women who would support me and actually see me, without the need to explain myself. I’ve been in many predominately white spaces, especially in my 20s, and the need to explain myself or be seen was something I struggled with. This is no longer an issue, as I know myself and I don’t seek validation outside of myself, and, especially, outside of my race. I am thankful for those films that I would see my mother watching, as they also taught me that Black love expands past romance, and that Black friendship is a necessity in the growth and evolution of Black women. 


I can’t end my acknowledgment of the Black romantic comedy without mentioning Eddie Murphy. Though Coming to America, released in 1988, was directed by John Landis, Murphy co-wrote it, and its portrayal of both love and comedy is extremely Black. In the film, the jokes don’t overshadow the romance, and the romance never outweighs the jokes. Murphy’s comedic roots are apparent here, but the way romance is portrayed feels grounded no matter how absurd the situation seems. The film revolves around an African prince seeking a wife in Queens, New York, but Murphy is still able to realistically show how two Black people from different backgrounds and cultures could fall in love. Murphy went on to co-write and star in another rom-com that made a big imprint on my childhood, Reginald Hudlin’s Boomerang (1992). Murphy plays Marcus Graham, a womanizer who gets a taste of his own medicine from his new female boss. Murphy is attractive, rich, and powerful in this film, as is Robin Givens. In the majority of the films Murphy co-wrote, he portrayed Black wealth in ways that I had not seen in white films before.


My favorite romantic comedy would probably not be considered a romantic comedy to many, as it is often deemed more of a drama. The hilariously poignant conversations and the romantic overtones, however, make me think it’s more of a rom-com than anything else. Love Jones (1997), directed by Theodore Witcher, wasn’t a film I saw until my early 20s. Due to the multiple sex scenes, my mother didn’t want me to watch it at eight years old, which is understandable. However, watching it as a young adult altered something in me. I rewatched Love Jones for the first time in years two months ago. As a single woman in her 30s, I immediately understood how meeting a Nia Long or Larenz Tate in a smoky bar would be the sexiest thing that could ever happen—but, more importantly, the way the characters speak in this film, with comedic moments sprinkled in, shifted how I saw dialogue. I have studied screenwriting and even written a few horrible screenplays, so I know that creating conversations that feel real onscreen is not easy; I hate writing dialogue. The dialogue in Love Jones feels so rich with unapologetic Blackness. There are multiple scenes where characters are sitting down having conversations about love that I only heard at the grownup table when I was younger—conversations that include the words “We’re just kickin it,” even though the person saying them is clearly lying and actually falling for the person they’re talking about. I dream of writing something that portrays love the way this film does. 

I miss films like Love Jones. I need them. I’ve steered away from dating apps because that smoky bar still calls me. The want and need to meet someone organically and to get the “love jones” is far too heavy. Despite the influx of white rom-coms, I have always known that Black love was real because these other films existed. I’m thankful for Issa Rae and The Photograph, which came out a couple of years ago. But I’m still wishing for more. When I am my mother’s age, I don’t want a lulled pause after my children ask me about Black romantic comedies—I want a rich and immediate answer.