During the first snowfall of the season, I walked into Harvard Square in my mittens and gloves and sat down in the quiet theater for an amazing double feature, the first and the most recent films by director Gina Prince-Bythewood: Love and Basketball (2000) and Beyond the Lights (2014). As an article about the series on Vanyaland points out, only 12.5% of film directors who released a feature film during 2013 and 2014 were people of color; just 1.6% were women of color. So it's pretty rare to get the chance to view two such films, back to back, and to get to marvel at the talent, beauty, and skill of some pretty amazing black women on display, not on tiny television but up on a large screen.
Even more of a treat was the feminism that played front and center right alongside of actresses Sanaa Lathan (Love & Basketball) and Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Lights), a feminism that played out not just in the romantic relationships at the heart of each film, but also in the larger family and social dynamics in which these two young women live.
The two neighboring families arrange for Quincy to take Monica to school (love those banana bicycle seats!), during which cocky Quincy asks Monica if she wants to be his girl. She agrees, they seal the deal with a kiss (5 seconds long, which Quincy counts off on his fingers), but when he insists that she has to ride behind him on his bike, their short-lived pre-teen romance descends into a punching, rolling wrestling match.
|icing each other's injuries|
But the ballplayer in each of them can't but respect the skill and determination of the other, and by the time their college plans are finalized (Quincy gets to announce at a press conference which of many schools that have been recruiting him he will choose; Monica waits and waits for a single letter offering her a place at a school with a women's basketball program), the two finally find their way romantically to the other.
Beyond the Lights ends with a similar scene: British pop star Noni Jean singing her solo heart out on a stadium stage, with new love Kaz standing in the wings, cheering her on. But Noni's journey to that triumphant moment is more emotionally fraught than was Monica's. The daughter of a black father who abandoned her white mother, Nona has been the means through which Macy Jean has tried to prove that she's not the nothing everyone said she was when she had a black child out of wedlock. Acting as her manager as well as her mom, Macy and Noni's record label have propelled the sweet-singing Noni into a sexualized pop sensation, pairing her in duets with a white working class British rapper (Kid Culprit) to worldwide acclaim. But on the very night she and Kid Culprit win a major award, she sits on the edge of her hotel balcony, daring herself to jump off.
In the aftermath of this debacle, Kaz "kidnaps" Noni away from all her handlers, and the two drive to Mexico with Kaz's dog. There, they rest, have sex, tour the local markets, and basically give themselves the freedom to act like two people falling in love. Two of the most poignant scenes occur during this "happy idyll": Noni cuts out the hair weaves that hide her naturally curly hair, as if she is cutting the chain-bedecked, sexually provocative black girl trying to evoke the look of a white girl strand by strand. And at a Karaoke bar, Noni sings an a capella version of Nina Simone's heartbreaking "Blackbird," a song we earlier saw the young Noni sing during her first talent show as a child.
But when Noni's impromptu song is caught on video and goes viral, will Noni be sucked right back into the maelstrom of pop stardom, a maelstrom that leaves no room for anyone, not even Noni herself, to be seen for who she really is? Or who she wants to be? Is Noni destined to live out Simone's anthem: "So why you wanna fly, blackbird / You ain't never gonna fly"?
I couldn't help but think of the definition of feminist romance that Aya de Leon, my fellow presenter at this past October's Boston Bookfair, created: "A feminist romance is one in which the male romantic lead decides to step away from the male privilege granted him by patriarchy and get behind the goals and beliefs of the woman he loves." I can't think of two other films which embody this principle more clearly than Love and Basketball and Beyond the Lights.
Love and Basketball Trailer:
Beyond the Lights trailer:
Love and Basketball
Beyond the Lights
press conference: LA Times
Noni and Kid Culprit: Collider.com
Concert: Huffington Post