Is Love Colorblind? A Palette of Opinions on Film Romance

"Something New" (with Sanaa Lathan and Simon Baker) breaks the romantic comedy mold by crossing racial lines. (By Sidney Baldwin -- Focus Features)
By Teresa Wiltz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 28, 2006

In "Something New," when the blond and buff hottie steps on-screen and, with a masterful gesture, sweeps the caramel-skinned heroine into his arms and then into bed, a roar goes up in Howard University's Cramton Auditorium. A few cup hands to mouths, their boos ricocheting through the room. Others stand up, pumping fists in solidarity, hooting and hollering, "All righty then !" And when the hunk whips out the nail polish and paints the honey-dipped beauty's toes scarlet? The largely female audience squeals, apparently embracing the film's thesis, as uttered by one character: "At the end of the day, it's not about skin color. It's about the love connection."

Well, yeah. Except when was the last time that you saw a white Adonis literally worshiping at the feet of an African American beauty? Or saw a chick flick in which the Kate Hudson/Meg Ryan/Cameron Diaz character sips her no-foam lattes at Magic Johnson's Starbucks and comes equipped with some hair issues and a full-throttle ethnic moniker like "Kenya?" Indeed, the glossy romantic comedy "Something New" presents a new paradigm in the Hollywood Shuffle. It is perhaps no coincidence that it arrives in a package written, produced, directed by and starring black women.

The quick version: Kenya is a product of the black bourgeoisie (doctor father, academic mother, debutante cotillion, Ivy League degrees). She's beautiful, rich, black -- and alone. She's looking for a man, specifically, a black man. Fixed up on a blind date with Brian, a white landscape architect, she bolts. Still, family and friends are dismayed: "Are you skiing the slopes? Are you sleeping with the enemy?," asks her lawyer brother. Then an eligible black man begins pursuing her. But she can't stop thinking about the white guy. It's an equal opportunity love triangle. The film hits theaters Friday.

The question that's burning up movie message boards: Is "Something New" a step forward -- or backward? Even in 2006, in this post- Loving v. Virginia world, the notion of black/white love still comes fraught with some heavy-duty historical baggage.

Says Kellina Craig-Henderson, local psychologist and author of "Black Men in Interracial Relationships: What's Love Got to Do with It?": "We're still back where we were 60 years ago, when it comes to race and sex."

So let's talk about the baggage: Yes, folks of all colors have been mixing and matching since the beginning of time. After all, fully 70 to 90 percent of African Americans are estimated to be of mixed race, according to a widely quoted statistic. But much of the history of race-mixing is filled with danger and ugly images, such as lynchings just for the perception of untoward interest in a white woman; sexual exploitation and rape of black women working as domestics in white homes at the hands of their slavemasters and, later, employers.

That was the reality, but on the big screen, black women from Sapphire to Beaulah were Aunt Jemimaed, neutered, erased. Or they were crazy sluts like Carmen Jones. Or, in the case of "Pinky," "Showboat" and "Imitation of Life," if they were deemed beautiful, "tragic mulattoes" cast as the love interest of a white man, white actresses were cast in these roles more often than not.

So no wonder the on-screen love connection between an African American woman and a Caucasian man is almost always viewed through a political prism. (Never mind last year's "Guess Who," a loose remake of "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," which had little to do with interracial love and everything to do with the ebony/ivory slapstick of Ashton Kutcher and Bernie Mac.)

African American men get to play the romantic lead these days. But not, as Will Smith bemoaned in an interview to promote his movie "Hitch," with a black woman, because then the movie will be deemed "black" and not worthy of big-bucks marketing. He can't kiss a white woman, he says, because that's deemed too scandalous for mainstream consumption. So lighter-skinned Latinas like Eva Mendes and Jennifer Lopez get to split the difference.

Even in "black movies" such as 1992's "Boomerang," and 1999's "The Best Man," the romantic fantasies of black women are given short shrift. Notwithstanding Halle Berry's "Catwoman" and "Die Another Day" roles, African American women rarely get to be the chased-after babes.

Which is why, at Howard, they were cheering.

"We build our role models on the media," says Asso Aidoo, a 21-year-old senior who says she's headed for Wall Street after graduation.

Given the "reality of black women," Aidoo says, where suitable African American suitors appear to be in short supply, watching a character in a movie finding love outside the racial box was heartening.

After all, the statistics are grim: The filmmakers refer to the statistic that 42.4 percent of African American women are not married and the higher their socioeconomic level the less likely they are to wed. Only 5 percent of black women marry outside their race. ("Something New" writer Kriss Turner originally named her movie "42.4.")

So this is a primal thing, fueled and fed by generations of feeling erased.

"In so much of the movies and television, we're these hard. . . kind of chicks," says Turner. "There's a time for that when we can be strong, but there's also this soft side that we can be . . . a very soft, yummy, tender, sexy, beautiful, desirable side to the black women that we don't see."

Writer Debra Dickerson, who married a white man and has two children, wrote about this yearning to be recognized in a Salon essay analyzing her discomfort with last year's megahit comedy "Wedding Crashers:"

"But somehow, by the end of the parade of weddings crashed and women laid, I realized I was sad. It took me an entire martini to figure out why: The crashers seduced their way through every culture and every ethnicity but mine. Why didn't Owen [Wilson] and Vince [Vaughn] want to seduce me, too? Why don't they want to dance with my nana at a wedding?"

"Something New" doesn't necessarily advocate for black women dating white men, says its producer Stephanie Allain. "We wanted to put something on film that we haven't seen before. . . . Why shouldn't we have choices as women? Just as we can be sitting at a table [in a business situation] with 12 white men looking at us for our opinion, it was high time to show a woman in that position being sought after by a lot of different men. . . . It echoes the promise of endless possibilities that haven't always been available to us."

The concept of endless romantic possibilities appeals to at least a handful of the Howard students who milled around after "Something New." For freshmen Reginald Darby, Jennifer Onyeador, Alexandria McBride and Jason Woolfork, who are African American, interracial dating is no big deal. Most of them are from the burbs, and back home, they say, they either dated interracially -- which their parents don't like -- or didn't date at all. Coming to historically black Howard changed that for them. But they're still open.

Mostly, they're open to love.

The way Brian grabbed Kenya in the movie and kissed her?

"You've got to take charge," Onyeador says, grabbing Darby by the collar and shaking him a little. "I wish that would happen to me."

"He wouldn't give up," McBride says. "He loved her. And he just came and took her."

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