I saw “Like Crazy” the other day. It is the latest indie film darling- a frenetic yet poignant portrayal of young love. There’s nothing particularly remarkable about the story or actors. But maybe that is the charm- its quotidian view of love is jarring as you realize that you have experienced the same highs and lows as the people on the screen.
There is something about these “ordinary” movies that bothers me every time I see one. Whether it is a sweeping narrative of family from Texas or a jet-setting bachelor realizing the emptiness of his life, these stories are almost never about black people.
Instead, films about black people are usually relegated to a tragic trifecta:
1. Aspirational blacks trying to demonstrate how much they have achieved while keeping it real; (All of the circa 2000 rom-com films fit in here like “The Best Man,” “The Wood,” “Love and Hip-Hop,” as well as attempts at drama such as “The Pursuit of Happiness”)
2. Modern minstrelsy (The “Big Momma” enterprise, any movie with Mike Epps, and every thing Tyler Perry has ever touched); and
3. Some odd mix of romanticized pathology (“Precious,” as well as all of the strange drug dealer admiration stories like “Belly” and “New Jack City”).
Sure, I am being simplistic and there are some outliers. Don’t take my black card- I loved “Love and Basketball” too. But for the most part, black movies subscribe to stock characters and static plot lines and never dare to contemplate the idea that the ordinary lives of black people could be complex and compelling.
Imagine a plot similar to “Like Crazy” with two black lead actors. Imagine that they are normal kids, middle class, no drug-addicted mother, no deadbeat dads, no stripping to stay in school. They meet in art class; fall in love, meet the parents and then one has to move away for a job. It’s hard, they wander, they fall apart, and they come back together again.
It’s actually hard to visualize, isn’t it? Your mind strays to one of those contrived plot lines (surely, one of them has to be low-income? Both parents are married? When will the glitzy wedding at Martha’s Vineyard take place?) We are so conditioned to only seeing white people in these roles that it is almost impossible to envision.
I’ve had this argument with friends over the years that protest of my neat characterization of black movies above. There is a particular defensiveness around Type 1. “What’s wrong with stories about weddings?” they ask. “Why does everything have to be deep?” In some ways, they are right. Black weddings make me as happy as the next 30-something buppyish female. But there is something nefarious about the reluctance to believe black people won’t go see anything that doesn’t cater to that one narrative. The lack of “ordinary” black movies points to a belief that our everyday stories – being dissatisfied with your career, tensions with your father’s side of the family, falling in love with the wrong person, struggling to find your way in the world – are not worth telling. There is a denial of the human existence there that just doesn’t sit right with me. Are our lives not interesting enough to pay $11.50 to see if it doesn’t involve a familiar trope?
I know independent movies generally don’t receive a lot of audience support. But they are an important part of our artistic world and the lack of color in the genre is stunning. People go to see independent movies because they offer an alternative to the studio version of life offered in the megaplex. If black people don’t live in that space, if our quiet struggles are never chronicled for the world to see, that implicitly says that the only version of our lives worth telling is the “unreal,” contrived stories we know don’t represent all (“ordinary”) black lives.