Hollywood lacks a moral imperative to portray narratives with racially or ethnically diverse casts; data corroborates this disconcerting truth. The rigidity of the industry in greenlighting predominantly-Black films on an expansive level produces a ravenous cinematic appetite amongst certain Black audiences. In a futile effort to incentivize Hollywood to continue funding films with predominantly Black casts, these audiences forgo the critiques they would otherwise present towards mediocre or banal Black cinema. This uncritical acceptance is especially exemplified in the insatiable quest for films that depict romantic intimacy amongst Black characters, or “Black love” films.
The reductionist perception that American cinema has a vested interest in depicting “Black trauma” or “Black pain” erects a desperation for films that portray tenderness amongst Black characters. “Black love” films are thus positioned as the antithesis to the disproportionate depiction of Black people in hardship on screen: an opportunity to regenerate the image of Black people in film by centering intimacy, romance, and togetherness.
But “Black love,” too, is a cinematic category that is flawed, imperfect, and wholly incomplete. It fails at establishing the reconstitution that it purportedly embodies.
Stripped down to its most essential components, “Black love” signifies heteroromantic love amongst Black characters on screen. Several Black films fall under the tutelage of this category: Love & Basketball, Poetic Justice, Brown Sugar, Love Jones, Jason’s Lyric, and so forth. The enduring praise and glorification of these “Black love” films, however, appear to be not the result of their rare, compelling depiction of romantic love, but solely their portrayal of love amongst Black people.
Therein lies the failure of the “Black love” project: how these films depict love does not influence how they are perceived. It is what they represent – rather than what they truly are – that reigns supreme.
Despite being heralded as a classic “Black love” film, Jason’s Lyric is an absolute mutilation of romance. The purported “love” between Jason (Allen Payne), a dutiful man who is obsessively protective of his mother & brother, and Lyric (Jada Pinkett-Smith), an elusive woman who first peaks Jason’s interest as a patron at his job, is surface level at best. Their romance is very quickly submerged by a more significant plot point involving Jason’s strife to rehabilitate his formerly-incarcerated brother Joshua (Bokeem Woodbine), who struggles with alcoholism and often succumbs to organized crime to sustain himself. Overwhelmingly, the film is about familial love, not romantic love – particularly, the Jason-Joshua conflict, in which Jason, who accidentally killed his father as a child, feels unduly responsible for the way Joshua behaves as an adult; Joshua’s erratic, alcohol-influenced behavior is positioned as a traumatic response, a regurgitation of the behaviors of their deceased father.
Initially, Jason is rejected by Lyric twice before she agrees to go on a date with him, shortly after which their relationship turns sexual. The couple experiences their first conflict when Lyric is unintentionally introduced to Joshua at a Juneteenth carnival; he is belligerently drunk and gets into a fight with Jason, who humiliates Joshua even after he apologizes, much to the dismay of Lyric. Sex resolves this conflict. Jason and Lyric’s relationship grows more affective and they soon begin envisioning a life together far away from their hometown; this vision is stifled, once again, by the undue responsibility that Jason feels for his family, mostly his brother.
The film is not necessarily a failed depiction of romance because it centers familial love over romantic love, but because the quality and character of this romantic love is not substantial enough to be intracommunally exalted – to be glorified as a profound deviance from “Black trauma” or “Black pain” narratives in film.
In the last 30 minutes of the film alone, THREE characters die. Two are members of an informal, organized crime syndicate, and they are killed by Joshua in a personal plot for revenge after they brutalize him earlier in the film for botching a bank robbery. The sole member of this syndicate who survives is its de facto leader Alonzo (Anthony “Treach” Criss), who is also Lyric’s brother; he is not at home when these killings occur. Lyric, however, is. And she is thus pulled into this conflict when Joshua holds her at gunpoint, accusing her of trying to take Jason away from him and attempting to use her as bait for Alonzo’s return.
Jason, who was made aware of Joshua’s plan to kill someone, arrives as all of this is happening; he is too late to prevent the deaths of the first two characters and similarly unsuccessful in mollifying Joshua’s anger. In his heightened condition, Joshua accidentally shoots Lyric, rendering her unconscious and presumably dead; this signals a final affront that actualizes the growing ideological divide between Jason and Joshua. In a state of shock and disgust, Jason silently carries Lyric out of the house amidst a noisy background of Joshua’s impassioned yet unfulfilling apologies.
While the audience visually sees the deaths of the first two characters, the third death occurs only sonically. As Jason carries Lyric out of the house to an arriving ambulance, the audience hears the sound of a single shot. Joshua has died by suicide.
Is this not traumatic? Is this not gratuitous pain? Why is it deemed tolerable under the jurisdiction of a Black director? Do 45 minutes of “romance” in a 2-hour long film justify this unnecessarily graphic violence, violence that the audience is forced to witness in the name of romance? And more importantly, is this truly the character of a generative, impactful love story?
Needless to say, Lyric doesn’t die. In the final scene of the movie, which occurs right after Joshua’s death, she and Jason are seen traveling away from town on a Greyhound bus, presumably to start a life together as they had envisioned. Through this abrupt change in imagery, the death of Joshua by suicide is portrayed as liberatory for Jason, allowing him to abandon his compulsive desire to prioritize his family over his romantic pursuits. Because Joshua is dead, the pathway to romance has been opened.
On the callousness of this plot point alone, the film fails to produce a poignant love story. On the conflation of physical sex with profound emotional intimacy, the film fails to produce an imaginative love story. And on the reliance of trauma as a transitional device to progress the narrative, the film fails to produce a subversive love story. Yet, this is the point of the “Black love” category. To subvert, to reimagine, to regenerate. The continued veneration of Jason’s Lyric as a “Black love” film demonstrates the deception embedded into the genre. To examine these films with an uncritical eye is to position objectionable, disturbing depictions of love as worthy of our collective desire; it is to project idealized notions of romance on to imperfect subjects, glorifying them as who we want them to be rather than who they truly are.
We must grow comfortable acknowledging beloved Black stories as inadequate stories and unproductive stories, and we must do so regardless of how closely we identify with their characters or premises. Love is supposed to be painless. We should not hurt to receive it, nor to bear witness to it. And to allow American cinema to feed us tropes of love that necessitate violence, destruction, pain, and hurt while simultaneously positioning such drivel as revolutionary – this is to allow ourselves to be manipulated, and manipulated by those who purport to be in community with us. Love, of course, is imperfect, and it can encompass so many things, but it must always be wholesome, never incomplete.