The one thing all romantic comedies have in common? They celebrate the two things everyone wants in life—rom and com, of course. To honor that, we’re devoting a whole week to the genre. More on the rom-coms we love, past and present, here.
The ‘90s and early ‘00s was a golden era for Black romantic comedies. There were films that came before this time, of course—notably Sidney Poitier’s 1967 classic Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner— and even after, like Think Like a Man and Best Man Holiday. But seeing modern Black romance on screen reached a highpoint when films like Love Jones (1997), Brown Sugar (2002), Love & Basketball (2000), How Stella Got Her Groove Back (1998), Deliver Us From Eva (2003), and Two Can Play That Game (2001) all came out within a few years of each other.
“Romantic comedies were a staple at that time,” Gary Hardwick, director of Deliver Us From Eva and The Brothers, tells Glamour. “Every spring, you knew there would be one or two or three around Valentine’s Day and then through the summer. For a long time, they were making hundreds of millions of dollars so it was a thriving market.”
As for the uptick in Black rom-coms specifically, Hardwick credits the uptick to the changes in educational patterns of Black men and women as well as the growth in the family. “You had a lot of black people going to college, myself included, because of the struggles of their parents and grandparents, and then those people want to tell different stories, more sophisticated stories, stories that are not necessarily linked to the struggles of our past.” In short, movie goers wanted to see how the Black working and middle class were doing, how they were thriving, and how they were dealing with love.
“What I am at a loss to explain is why did it stop?” Hardwick adds. “Because we haven’t stopped our progression. We haven’t stopped our growth.”
Like most things in life, Hollywood trends go through cycles. Malcolm D. Lee, director of The Best Man films, theorizes that the Black rom-com peak was followed by the rise of Tyler Perry and his many dramas. “He had a dedicated audience that kept coming out,” Lee explains. Another factor at play: Black filmmakers, himself included, wanted to tell other stories (Lee went on to direct the hit 2017 film Girl’s Trip). Hardwick adds that for a long time—and even now—studios were only interested in superhero films. “These days, if you’re not wearing tights and flying with a hammer, you can’t get a movie made,” he explains.
So when the interest shifts and fewer people are making rom-coms, the fallout is that much worse for minorities. As Hardwick puts it, “Everyone suffers a little bit by comparison, but unfortunately our people tend to suffer more because there’s less product made for us in the first place. What seems like a minor ailment to the business seems like a catastrophic ailment to us. If they made 10 comedies years ago, now they’re only making five. They might have made two of those as black comedies, and now there are none.”
Times are starting to change. Romantic comedies are experiencing a revival (on streaming platforms, at least). But while new rom-coms starring actors of color are being released—Crazy Rich Asians, Someone Great, and Always Be My Maybe among them—there’s a noticeable lack of Black leads in the mix. “I feel like the business in general wants to serve a ‘minority’ audience because there’s a lot of money there, but it doesn’t necessarily want to serve all of us at the same time,” Hardwick says. “There’s a little bit of the ‘been there, done that’ in the minds of people [when it comes to Black rom coms], as if we know everything now that we need to know about Black people in love, which is not true.”
Hardwick says when he was first approached to direct Deliver Us From Eva, it was written for a white cast “and, you could say, a white audience.” The studio wanted it to appeal to a Black audience, Hardwick says, but not out of any desire for progress. “They’re like, ‘Oh, you know, if we were doing this movie the way we intended we would need Cameron Diaz, and she would probably cost us x-amount of dollars,” Hardwick explains. “So the movie would maybe cost seventeen, 25 million. Our movie cost six million bucks, and I actually brought it under budget for 5.5.” It’s upsetting, but Hardwick says that’s just the way the business worked at the time.
Which brings us to today: To get a rom-com starring a Black lead made, it almost always needs a big name attached. “To give them reason to try to sell it to their bosses,” Hardwick explains. “Before, back in the ’00s when I made them, they were just hungry for that particular subgenre.” There’s another lost when studios only seek big names: discovery. “A lot of actors who are stars now were broke to the public in those Black romantic comedies. That’s maybe the sad part of this—our actors are finding it hard to advance from being unknowns to being kind of known to being well known. There was a clear path to that before.”
Hardwick isn’t giving up. He says he has a couple of romantic comedies in mind that he wants to get made and adds that producers from India are hoping to make a Bollywood version of Deliver Us From Eva. (“We opened our movie with a musical number, and the producers told me that’s why they thought of it,” he says.) To Hardwick, the world needs these movies now more than ever. “Laughter releases endorphins and all these other things that make you feel good. If you look at what audiences love and what our country needs, it’s a basic staple of entertainment diversion,” he says.
This rings doubly true for the Black community. “For African-Americans in particular, because there’s so much other stuff in the media and in society that tends to be negative, it’s just that much more heavy for us when we don’t have these movies and when we don’t have that positive reinforcement,” he says. “We can’t get all of our entertainment and artistic self esteem from slave movies and civil rights movies. They tend to tell a different kind of story, and one that is not as germane to modern life as a romantic comedy.”
Jasmine Guillory, author of popular romance books like Royal Holiday, agrees. “Especially in the age of Trump, it’s so life affirming for me to write, read about, and watch romances that center Black characters,” she says. It’s surprising—and speaks to the broader decline of Black rom-coms—that Guillory’s books haven’t been adapted for film yet. “Being a Black woman brings me so much joy, every single day, and I want to share that joy with the world. I love it when Black people are able to celebrate our joy and our families and our love. Life in America attacks Black people on all fronts, and now more than ever is when we need rom-coms for and by us.”
The beauty of rom-coms and entertainment in general is, for the most part, there’s a universal appeal. Hardwick points to the popularity of Game of Thrones as an example. “People who you thought never picked up a fantasy book in their life were sitting at bars with strangers rooting for that show at the end,” he says. “Something like that can bring us together. It’s a very powerful medium that we work in and I don’t take it very lightly.”
He continues: “The movie-going experience isn’t as fun as it used to be, and I think part of the problem is we don’t have as many comedies as we used to have. Everybody loves to laugh, and everybody understands romance and relationships and how we strive to get along and how we struggle to make lives for ourselves.”
Hopefully the Hollywood trends will swing back toward rom-coms someday soon. “I think [studios] are leaving quite a bit of money on the table, and it would be nice if they took it off the table and gave me some of it,” Hardwick says, laughing. “That would be great.”
Taylor Bryant is a freelance writer and editor. Follow her on Instagram @taylahgram.