From silent films to “Malcom & Marie”: History of Black love in movies

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Courtesy of Netflix

“Malcom & Marie” official release poster

Stephanie Ramirez, reporter

Sam Levinson’s new romantic drama, “Malcolm & Marie,” explores the intensity and fragility of a couple’s most intimate moments and how a revelation of secrets can tear or strengthen the connection between two very different yet similar individuals.

Starring John David Washington and Zendaya as the lead characters, the film transports viewers into a world of raw emotions; dialogues that describe their insecurities and a deep meaning of what the words “I love you” truly transcribes when one says it to the other. The pain and the unspoken words linger in the air until a battle ensues between a broken couple. The intensity is strong and Washington’s and Zendaya’s battle with words leaves a mark among those who witness it.

The film was released on Netflix earlier this month. It is a film where Black love, in all its complexity, is laid out on screen.

“Malcolm & Marie” is one of the few films that includes two Black leads in a depiction of love and heartbreak. It is a poetic story that is rarely given to actors of color. Black actors taking a leading role in a feature film is not unusual today, but the rate of those films being produced is not as high as we expected.

According to the latest Social Science’s Hollywood Diversity report from the University of California, Los Angeles in 2019, 3 out of 10 lead actors in film are people of color. The report also says that the goal to have a more diverse cast in Hollywood films is growing but at a much slower rate. The group that has been underrepresented the most are women.

“This finding is likely related to the fact that decisions about which film projects will be greenlighted, and which stories will be told, are still overwhelmingly made by [white] men,” the report continues.

The first film that featured a Black couple in an intimate moment was in the 1898 silent film, “Something Good-Negro Kiss.” It’s a 29-second film that starred Saint Suttle and Gertie Brown. They are both seen embracing, holding hands, kissing, while smiling and laughing. It’s innocent and short but this was eventually added to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 2018.

After the intimate debut of Suttle’s and Brown’s interaction in the film, audiences wouldn’t be able to see another African American couple showing their passion on the big screen until years later. African American studios like the William Foster Studio and The Lincoln Motion Picture Company were rising and turning heads with their work. Many of their acclaimed works were stories that were rebutting the racist rhetoric that was being produced by white men, like D.W Griffith who directed the infamous 1915 film, “The Birth of a Nation.”

Blackface and the stereotypes of African Americans became the norm and to this day, this trend has yet to subside.

These racist outcomes would continue throughout the early and mid-1900s and the next time we see a love story that has two Black leads that were intimate and not for just a 29-second stint is the 1975 romance/melodrama film, “Mahogany,” which starred Diana Ross and Billy Dee Williams.

By the 1990s, audiences were introduced to multiple Black love stories that starred well-known actors, such as Eddie Murphy, Jada Pinkett-Smith, Angela Bassett, Loretta Divine and many more.

One of the biggest changes when it came to Black love stories in cinema was the release of Barry Jenkins’ 2016 film, “Moonlight,” which features the love story of two African American men. This film was largely praised for its emotional journey of self-identity and sexuality through the lens of an African American man throughout three different stages of his life. It was also nominated for multiple categories during the 89th Academy Awards in 2017 and won Best Picture of the Year.

The importance of Black love stories is not because of awards but for representation. It has been shown through history and data that a more diverse storytelling is starting to take hold in Hollywood, but not at the same speed as stories that feature a prominent white couple. This will need to change and what we hope that when it does happen, it will be made for good storytelling.

“Malcolm & Marie” is available on Netflix.