Updated: Oct 1, 2021
Finding feel-good love stories without an obligatory side of trauma for people of color is no easy task. Despite the entire world clamoring for diverse leads in “just plain fun” movies, they still feel impossible to find. Fortunately, Lyvie Scott has done the leg work.
End September, the month of love, on a high note with Lyvie’s go-to selection of comfort films and chick flicks. The following films are chock full of swoonworthy romance and (most importantly) people of color at the center. And did we mention no trauma?
Il Mare (2000)
I have to tell you a secret.
The effort of compiling this list is actually an exercise for me, as a shocking number of my comfort films would not pass The DuVernay Test. I know, it's a shock. For all my constant criticisms of the Hollywood Industrial Complex, I am not perfect. I am unlearning day by day, and releasing myself from the shackles of Eurocentrism as quickly as I can. But sometimes, some days, I just want to curl up and watch a Sandra Bullock movie from the ‘00s, whether or not it is, in today’s age, considered politically correct.
One of my favorite Sandy films (yes, I unironically call her that) is a quasi-sci-fi romance called The Lake House (2006). Sandy stars opposite her on-screen soulmate Keanu Reeves, and they play two people residing in the same lake house… two years apart. They connect by sending letters through the house’s mail box, an intertemporal portal whose origins are never explained.
I am obsessed with it. And though Keanu is Chinese-Hawaiian, making The Lake House half-eligible for my list — this is all an exercise, remember? I’m trying to break free, and I want to avoid as many white/POC matchups as possible.
Which is why, when I discovered that TLH is actually a remake of a Korean romance from 2000, I nearly ascended like that Spongebob meme.
If there’s one thing Korean filmmakers know how to do, it’s tell an original, intriguing story with tenderness and simplicity. It’s quite obvious that Il Mare was made at the turn of the millennium, and is unable to shake some of the more melodramatic trends of the era. But director Lee Hyun-seung still knows what the film needs — and what to leave out, unlike The Lake House. Lee knows the film is about two people, two lonely people dealing with love and the loss of it, and finding comfort in each other. Nothing else needs to make sense. Nothing else needs to be shown, or said.
The moral of this story? Sometimes Americans adapt perfectly good foreign language films for white audiences. Are they always better? That’s a matter of opinion, and you’ll never have one of your own unless you watch the original as well as the remake.
The Personal History of David Copperfield (2019)
One of Earth’s greatest mysteries is why Dev Patel is not a freaking star. I say this knowing full well that it’s not a mystery and people are just racist, but feigned indignation is always less painful than the truth, isn’t it?
BAFTA-winner Dev Patel, 6 foot 2, with a gorgeous crop of hair, a yummy accent, a blindingly endearing smile and eyes bigger and browner than a baby cow’s, has only really done one film you could consider a rom-com: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011). And while it’s cute, the sheer number of old British white people rounding out the cast disqualifies it from any entry into my list.
It’s fine though, because David Copperfield is enough to tide me over until Dev finally acknowledges all the women begging him to do more romance.
Based off the Charles Dickens book that no one born after 1992 has read, David Copperfield is about a writer who spends his entire life struggling to build his identity. Director Armando Iannucci explores this conflict without getting too bogged down in the depression that comes with a lifelong existential crisis. Copperfield still yearns, he still deals with sorrow and loss and shame — but that’s not all this quirky little film is about.
During his adventures, Copperfield takes on the nicknames given to him by friends and strangers. Each moniker seems to change him, and he seems to discover a new version of himself (and suppress an old one) each time. As the different facets of his past inevitably clash, these versions of himself are resurrected and shelved with the boyish desperation that Dev Patel has honed so well in his short career.
For anyone who’s been there, you know why Copperfield does what he does. You know he hides himself, he shifts himself, because he doesn’t know himself. He might not particularly like himself either. But the beauty of the film, the real treat, is watching Copperfield realize that he does not have to be just one thing, just one shard of himself. He can be them all. And he doesn’t have to love himself right away. Sometimes knowing yourself is loving yourself.
While the “to thine own self be true” plotline takes up a considerable chunk of screentime, hindering David Copperfield from actually being a rom-com as well, the privilege of watching a South Asian man take center stage in a Victorian costume drama is revolutionary enough for me. Plus (spoiler!) Dev’s eventual love interest is a black woman.
He did that for me.
Brown Sugar (2002)
Hold on. I need to take a deep breath before I go feral talking about this movie.
If you asked someone to describe Brown Sugar, they likely wouldn’t be able to do so without relating it to rom-com staple When Harry Met Sally… That’s a valid connection to make: director Rick Famuyiwa has cited it as inspiration before. Both stories orbit around two lifelong friends who slowly but surely fall in love with one another. But that’s about where the similarities end.
For one: Taye Diggs is hot, Billy Crystal is not.
Secondly, the story of Andre (Diggs) and his other half Sidney (Sanaa Lathan) is as much about hip-hop as it is about love. Andre and Sidney discover the genre together, on the streets of New York, when the rap scene was as young and impressionable as they were. They love the music because they love each other — or maybe it’s the other way around. And as they mature, so does hip-hop. So does their love.
Brown Sugar is THEE quintessential black rom-com, at least for me: a fledgling black rom-com connoisseur. Nothing feels as easy-breezy as the chemistry between Sanaa Lathan and Taye Diggs (though, to be fair, they’ve had plenty of chances to build such a strong rapport). No other film has such likable characters, such an iconic soundtrack. And while many feature Queen Latifah, very few are grounded by an appearance from Yasiin Bey (FKA Mos Def, absolute legend).
It’s not exactly When Harry Met Sally… but, if we’re being frank, it’s better. It’s just better when you can see yourself on screen like that. It feels familiar to me in the best ways. It reminds me of my childhood, when I first moved to a city with four seasons, and all my father figures dressed exactly like Taye Diggs, and my aunties had their hair styled after Sanaa Lathan’s. I miss the kangols and the Banana Republic turtlenecks, the long drives listening to India.Arie and Black Star. Brown Sugar preserved these memories perfectly, and thanks to the brilliant people who made the film, I can unlock them any time.
Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995)
I really have a soft spot for films that are as old as I am. 1995 was such an iconic year. Everything that came out of it came out blessed, and DDLJ is no exception.
The cultural significance of this film, arguably Bollywood’s most popular romance, nearly overshadows the film itself. If it weren’t for the sheer excellence of it all, the romance, humor, and family drama that still holds up even after its silver jubilee, hardcore stans would be up a creek. But DDLJ has earned all the praise and all the passionate rhetoric.
Clocking in at a titanic 3 hours 9 minutes, DDLJ is half rom-com, half diasporic coming of age. It’s about two NRIs — “non-resident Indians” — living in London, worlds apart. Simran (portrayed by superstar Kajol and her gorgeous unibrow) has had her entire life plotted out for her, thanks to her father: your archetypal overprotective immigrant dad with a vice grip on the traditional values of his homeland. Raj (played by Shah Rukh Khan, who you must immediately Google if his celebrity eludes you) on the other hand is the spoiled, care-free, and initially-annoying son of a literal millionaire. He and Simran meet on a Eurorail bound for a month-long holiday abroad, and loathing quickly blossoms to mutual adoration.
And that’s just the first half. Unfortunately (gasp!) Simran has been engaged since childhood to the son of a family friend back in India. And as soon as she returns from her whirlwind trip in Europe, her father packs up the family (gasp!) and whisks them away to kick off the nuptials. Raj, after confronting his feelings too late, follows Simran to India. He doesn’t necessarily have a plan, but he knows one thing: he’s not leaving without her.
At the risk of unwittingly performing a Stefon impression, this film really does have everything: enemies to lovers, second-generation guilt, lushly choreographed dance numbers… Any trope you can think of, DDLJ has it. Hell, DDLJ probably invented it. And before you ask, there is of course a happy ending. You’ll just have to ride through 190 minutes of low-stakes melodrama to get to it. But isn’t it all about the journey with a classic like this? That, and the intermissions?
Someone Great (2019)
If you’ve yet to see Someone Great, forget everything you’ve heard about it. Forget everyone’s comments about the buzzword-y script, the one-dimensional “fake wokeness'' of the main characters, the outlandish cameos. Forget it! Put it out of your mind. Honestly, you’re going to let the opinion of a stranger rob you from experiencing a perfectly adequate post-2000s chick flick?
Anyway, as I, the cool stranger with valid and sexy opinions, was saying: Someone Great is part of that beautiful subgenre of films where everything takes place in the span of a single day. For Jenny, played by (don’t cringe) Gina Rodriguez, it’s the day after her boyfriend of almost 10 years breaks off their relationship. Fortunately — and conveniently — it’s also the night of a super-dope music festival, one Jenny and her friends always attend. And since (again, conveniently) Jenny is about to move across the country to take her dream job in California, it’s the last night she’ll have in the city she came of age in. She’ll be damned if it’s not a night to remember.
While Jenny has lost what she thought was the love of her life, her mad scramble for distraction only affirms the proof of non-romantic love all around her. She’s buoyed by the support of her girlfriends — who, I should add, have arcs just as realized as hers. Their friendship is the engine pushing the plot forward, keeping the night from buckling under the weight of Jenny’s crushing, imminent heartbreak.
To be fair, if LaKeith Stanfield dumped me, I’d be spiraling too. But Erin (DeWanda Wise) and Blair (Brittany Snow) do everything in their power to help Jenny through it. They stand in the freezer section of a bodega, quietly singing along to Selena’s “Dreaming of You” when the song renders Jenny catatonic. They drink, dance, and commiserate over the past ten years they’ve shared together. They call each other out on their bullshit. They’re the realest friends I’ve seen in a recent rom-com — aforementioned wokeness aside. Relationships like that are what make rom-coms great. It’s not always about wondering if the guy and girl will be together in the end. Sometimes the girls who were there from the beginning are the most important part.
Chungking Express (1994)
Now, did you really think I was going to make a list about romance without even mentioning the king?
There is nothing I can say about Wong Kar-Wai that hasn’t already been said. He’s one of Hong Kong’s most celebrated filmmakers, and while I gravitate more towards the angstier selections of his oeuvre, I felt Chungking Express was the best choice contextually. The film is about so much: loneliness, longing, love. And it explores it through two subtly-crafted, vaguely-connected stories. The first is about a cop (Takeshi Kaneshiro, my literal boyfriend) who finds himself hopelessly drawn to a mysterious underworld drug dealer (Brigitte Lin in a delightful blonde wig). The second story follows another cop (played by my other boyfriend Tony Leung Chiu-wai) who frequents a cafe where a manic pixie waitress (Faye Wong!) works.
Cop 223 and Cop 663 are both reeling from their own painful breakups, and coping in their own quirky ways. One talks to the inanimate objects in his house, comforting them as if they, too, are mourning the loss of his ex-girlfriend. The other obsessively buys canned pineapple with the same expiration date as a reminder of his own ex. It’s weird, but it’s refreshing that the main characters are allowed to be weird, and none of it feels performative or reminiscent of the awkward “indie” romance we’re so used to today.
Love does weird things to people. So does loneliness. And people find ways to cope that might seem weird to others. But Wong Kar-Wai portrays it all with such a low-key empathy, a neutrality, as if saying “That’s how it is. That’s what life is.” And that’s why he’s the GOAT.
Mississippi Masala (1991)
Hollywood, I think, struggles with the concept of the interracial relationship. “Interracial” in colloquial terms has come to exclusively mean “black plus white,” or a white person paired with any person of color. It’s the first thing that pops into your head when you hear it, right?
Some critics seem to think that diversity doesn’t matter to audiences unless there's something in it for them, and that’s probably why a white perspective is always prioritized in romance. That’s also what makes a film like Mississippi Masala so rare, so surprising, and so refreshing. The romance at the heart of the story is interracial, but it’s between a South Asian woman and an African American man. What’s more, the multi-generational conflict smoldering around them only makes their romance more compelling.
Meena (Sarita Choudhury) and her family are Indians living in Uganda in the 70s. Meena was born there, as was her father, who has always considered himself African first. But when dictator Idi Amin takes power and orders the expulsion of all South Asians living in the country (which really happened, by the way), Meena’s charmed childhood is cut dramatically short. Eventually, the family settles in Mississippi, and that’s when Meena meets Demetrius (ahem, Denzel Washington).
The deep south was (and still can be) deeply segregated, both in the 90s when MM was filmed, and in the era the film takes place. And while the white perspective is rarely consulted, the influence of their supremacy is clearly felt. You can feel the colorism within the Indian community in Mississippi. You can feel the class disparities between members of the black community, the heavy, lingering hand of the Jim Crow era. And, much like the tension in Uganda, you can feel the simmering resentment that the latter has for the former, and vice versa.
But there are always connections shared by marginalized groups: the sense of duty and sacrifice that Meena and Demetrius both feel, just in different ways. Both want to honor their fathers. Both feel trapped in the traditions and prejudices of their respective families, and both know they need to defy it all if they want to find happiness in each other.
Director Mira Nair conveys all this with a gentle, objective hand. She knows, probably firsthand, that it’s difficult to escape hate no matter where you are. But through Mississippi Masala she shows us how to learn from the mistakes of those who came before you, to choose love, to choose yourself — however difficult it is.
Lovers Rock (2020)
In 2020, Steve McQueen released a film anthology called Small Axe. Each of the five films is a period piece. Some are based on the lives of British civil rights revolutionaries, members of the African and Caribbean diaspora whose stories have often been overlooked. Lovers Rock, the second film in the collection, is the only fictional installment. It’s bookended by two of the more difficult installments (Mangrove and Red, White and Blue), and serves as a sort of interlude, a break from the perpetual protest.
Lover’s Rock is simply about a house party. This particular type of party is known best among West Indian immigrants who came of age in the 80s. Aunties would spend all afternoon cooking: curry, peas and rice, etc. Cousins would lug in their complicated sound systems and hone their DJing skills. And once the sun set, they’d dance with friends, neighbors and people off the street.
Lover’s Rock features more than just one kind of love. There’s romance, there’s “boy meets girl” a hundred times over — but the heart of the film is the love within the black community, the philial, compulsive love for someone you would call “brother” or “sister” whether they’re family or not.
Loving your black brothers and sisters almost isn’t a choice, not when it seems the whole world is against you. There will be fights. You won’t get along with everyone Monday to Friday. But on Saturday night, on the dance floor, within the four walls of a house you’ve never been to, you’re not just brothers and sisters. You’re one body, a collective organism swaying and singing along to the DJ’s picks. When the music stops, you’ll keep singing, long past midnight. It will feel like church in a way. You will feel closer to God than you will on Sunday morning.
By the end of the night, the dance floor will devolve (or maybe transcend) into a mosh pit. All the lovers will have gone, leaving room for the men who quietly held the wall the whole night long. Once the right song comes on, they will not be quiet. They will flood the dance floor like wild animals. They will rage behind those four walls. They will let out a lifetime’s worth of frustration for being made to feel less than human. They will forget the abuse they suffer Monday to Friday. And you’ll watch them, and through watching them, you will too.
Check out the rest of Lyvie’s romance picks on Blossom's Letterboxd Page.