It’s that time of the year again when Black History Month and Valentine’s Day always lead us to focus on Black Love. Each February, I see tons of emails and posts about celebrating Black love, quotes from historical Black figures on love, and ways to show the loved ones in your life how much you care. As a Black, couple and family therapist, I’m here for it. I enjoy witnessing and celebrating all spectrums of Black Love. What I appreciate is that instead of focusing on love solely in the romantic sense, lately there has been more appreciation for self-love, and friendship love as well in the form of “Galentine’s Day” celebrations. Within the past few days, I’ve also heard a few people I know mention that they re-read All About Love: New Visions by bell hooks each February as well. This reiterates that February symbolizes the importance of prioritizing love and paying homage to our Black ancestors. I’m usually not the type of person that re-reads books, and I always thought that Communion by bell hooks was the girl that deserved all the hype. But in an effort to plan some content, I started going over my highlights from All About Love, and I was reminded that bell hooks was dropping some gems. The very first highlight I made was, “Our confusion about what we mean when we use the word ‘love’ is the source of our difficulty in loving. If our society had a commonly held understanding of the meaning of love, the act of loving would not be so mystifying.” This led me to ponder how our society portrays love, specifically Black love.
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In a previous article that I wrote, “Love is Patient…and Other Ideas Sold to Black Women About Relationships,” I discussed two of the messages we are often taught: to be patient and to be the ride or die. To be fair, I don’t think these messages are only sold to Black women; women receive them in general. But I do believe they are more normalized in Black culture. Think of your favorite Black Love movie classics. Which characters and love stories come to mind? Odds are, the movies depict some sort of struggle-love– some message that Black women have to endure or stick it through to end up happily ever after. But what if we could look at these films through a different lens that provides a reframe of the women characters, one that shows their power?
Love & Basketball
For me, my all-time favorite Black love classic is “Love and Basketball.” I know, I know, it’s a controversial one. People see Monica as the one down bad, playing this man for his heart in the middle of the night two weeks before his wedding, which is fair and accurate. But I wonder if there’s another perspective that hasn’t been discussed. Because when I watch Love and Basketball, yes, I see the typical girl next door/high school to college pipeline love story. But what I also see are two young adults who are trying so hard not to repeat the behaviors they saw their parents make. Was Quincy a jerk to Monica once he found out about his dad? Absolutely. And at the same time, I imagine finding out that the person you idolize and look up to as a man has been lying to you and your family for most of your life is a crushing blow to your ideals and sense of self. And to be a freshman in college at the time? I don’t know many people who would have handled that well, let alone an 18-year-old. How he chose to end the relationship was immature and petty, and so are many of the endings of other college relationships. When it comes to Monica, she witnessed her mom be a housewife and do whatever her dad needed without any complaints. She mentioned seeing her mom never speak up for herself, and that’s what embarrassed her. So when her mom tells her that she always admired the fight in her and that Quincy deserved better, I think Monica decided not to follow in her mom’s footsteps and fight for what she wanted. She went back to the basics, using what she knew she was good at and what first brought them together, basketball. Plus, the last scene shows her with the man and the baby, and she’s the one with a professional basketball career. So it seems like sis wins in the end to me.
Another childhood love story classic is Brown Sugar. This movie is typically a crowd favorite. There’s not much controversy around it, it’s fairly predictable, and there’s a happy ending without too much drama. What I appreciate about this movie is Sidney’s ability to use her words to express her love for Dre in such a subtle way. Throughout the movie when she’s describing how she first fell in love with Hip-Hop and how it has grown over the years, she’s talking about Dre simultaneously the whole time. Their love story shows us the power of friendship and knowing your person well. Sidney and Dre saw each other in ways their previous partners didn’t. Reese saw Dre’s passion as a “record label thing” or hobby. Sidney saw it as him walking in his purpose, and she invested in him. Kelby never read any of Sidney’s articles except the one about him. Dre read every single thing she ever wrote to feel closer to her when she was away. Could they have figured out their love for each other earlier before committing to other people? Sure. But sometimes, it’s hard for people to see what’s happening between them, even if everyone else around them can. And when Sidney did realize, she wrote it in her book; “my feelings have never been more clear, and I know they will never go away.” And when Dre realized this, he called up the radio station to set the record straight and make his feelings known. Brown Sugar reminds us that sometimes the one that’s for you has been there all along. And it doesn’t have to feel like struggle-love. It feels natural and organic, sometimes so pure you don’t even notice at first.
The Best Man
The Best Man is a classic that has so many love stories in one. You see the love between friends, partners, and love for God. The story does touch on the pattern of struggle-love we’ve been discussing. Robin stays with Harper despite him not being ready to commit or even say I love you too. But what I do admire about Robin is once she’s in town for the wedding and gets an understanding of what has been happening, she is ready to leave him without any more explanation because she understands that even if Harper didn’t physically do the act of cheating, he had the intention to. And when she does decide to stay for the wedding, she states it not being for Harper but owing it to herself to meet Jordan. Mia stays with Lance through his series of cheating all throughout college. But the curveball of Mia intentionally choosing to sleep with Lance’s best friend? Not sure I would have recommended that when she could have just left the relationship instead of trying to get revenge. But now that I think about it, Lance would have never found out about them if Harper hadn’t written his book. Years had passed, and Mia never told Lance or threw it in his face. This leads me to believe that it wasn’t so much about revenge for her but more about her finding a way to make peace with his indiscretions by knowing she had one of her own. Maybe it made her feel more balanced in the relationship. I’m not sure. I still don’t agree with her behavior, but I do think it made her feel as though she took her power back. And at the end of the movie, they both get the “happily ever after” with the wedding and proposal. Well, if you watched the Best Man Holiday or The Best Man: Final Chapters, maybe it’s not that much of a happily ever after, but I’m just focusing on the classic. And when it comes to what one, maybe the takeaway message about love should be more about deciphering what you have the capacity to handle and the importance of forgiveness to make love work.
Surprisingly, Love Jones is my least favorite movie out of all these classics. I remember first watching it and thinking there was just so much back and forth, and their relationship could have been so simple, but they each decided to make it harder than they needed it to be. This movie reminded me of the “right person, wrong time” love story we hear. It’s not necessarily a struggle-love in the sense of having to be a ride-or-die, but it can be a struggle to be on the same page at the same time. It can be a struggle for the relationship to feel secure and consistent. This movie also irritated me when I was younger because they were both so focused on trying to play it cool instead of being honest with each other and themselves. Nina talking to her girl, says, “this is nothing serious, this is no love thing.” Darius says, “this ain’t no love thing, we just kickin’ it.” But now I recognize that what they experienced is actually quite common and boils down to a lack of communication about their feelings. As I watch this movie now, I think what we can all stand to learn from it is the importance of being vulnerable with those we love—saying what’s really going on in our inner worlds and not expecting them to be mind readers—addressing problems in the moment, instead of trying to be nonchalant. And when we are able to recognize we are in love, be willing to put ourselves out there, like Nina does at the end of the movie when she bares her soul doing spoken word hoping Darius is there to hear it.
I’m sure there are plenty of other Black love films I could write about, but these are the top ones that come to mind for me. In an effort to reimagine struggle love, I will leave you with one of my other fave gems from All About Love where bell hooks states: “all too often women believe it is a sign of commitment, an expression of love, to endure unkindness or cruelty, to forgive and forget. In actuality, when we love rightly we know that the healthy, loving response to cruelty and abuse is putting ourselves out of harm’s way.”