As a Black millennial, a journalist who writes about dating and relationships, and a cinephile, I recently realized I had failed. For most of my life, I'd heard film critics, Black Gen Xers, and fellow young millennials on Twitter and Instagram rave about the classic Black rom-coms of the '90s and 2000s. But I'd never actually taken the time to watch them.
If you're unfamiliar with the genre, I'm talking about the films that center Black love stories. These campy, sweet watches — like Deliver Us From Eva, The Bodyguard, and Poetic Justice — have been heralded by Black media institutions like Essence and Oprah Magazine as the best Black romantic comedies of all time. They helped define how young Black audiences (from Gen Xers to millennials, and even Gen Zers) think about dating, love, marriage, autonomy, and sexuality. They also helped launch the careers of Black icons like Nia Long, Morris Chestnut, Queen Latifah, Taye Diggs, Angela Bassett, Regina Hall, and Gabrielle Union. And they cemented the legacies of the greats, like Whitney Houston, Tupac Shakur, and Janet Jackson.
Considering the impact these films made on Black culture and their influence on Black love, I watched nine of the most popular to see if they stood the test of time. Specifically, I wanted to know how they reinforced or challenged negative stereotypes about Black folks, and I was curious about whether or not their messaging surrounding Black love was still relevant today. Here's what I found.
1. 'Love Jones' (1997)
Love Jones portrays the on-again, off-again relationship between Nina, a reserved photographer (Nia Long), and Darius, a charismatic poet (Larenz Tate). As an oat-milk-drinking, Instagram-obsessed Black millennial, this hipster romance appealed to me. But the movie gave into the cliché of dogged, passionate pursuit and furthered the trend of romantic comedies normalizing stalker behavior — an extremely harmful, dangerous trope.
After Nina politely curves Darius at their first meeting, Darius takes advantage of their chance encounter at a record shop and asks her out again. Nina declines. So Darius copies Nina's address from a check written to the store, and shows up to her place uninvited. After Nina answers the door and reluctantly lets him in, Darius explicitly tells her he's going to keep asking her out until she says yes.
More specifically, it's troubling that toxic masculine traits, like entitlement and disregard for boundaries, are categorized as "romantic fervor" by those who don't see how problematic this behavior is. Add on the extra layer of Love Jones being about Black people and the "stalking is love" media trope feels more insidious. Darius' persistence toward Nina feels scary and inappropriate, but more importantly, it upholds the stereotype of Black men being aggressive.
This stereotype is a holdover from when white Europeans and Americans sought to justify colonization, slavery, and eugenics by viewing Black men as "savages." So yes, the storytelling in Love Jones is totally Tumblr-worthy. But the harmful, aggressive portrayal of a Black man? Not so cute.
2. 'Love & Basketball' (2000)
Love & Basketball chronicles the life of Monica (Sanaa Lathan), a girl dead-set on her dreams of becoming a professional basketball player. It's a joy to watch Monica fall in love with the sport, and with her childhood sweetheart Quincy (Omar Epps). In one iconic moment, she plays against Quincy in a one-on-one match for his heart. But the best part of this movie is that Monica isn't just a one-dimensional "tomboy" character. She's also super in touch with her emotions.
The fact that Monica holds masculine traits (like her strong will, athleticism, and outspokenness) while remaining sensitive pushes back on the "strong Black woman" stereotype, which strips Black women of their emotional depth and insinuates they don't need nurturing and protection, regardless of their personalities.
To this day, Black girls still feel cultural pressure to put the comfort of their families above their own and adhere to gender norms — two things Monica refuses to do. She's a masculine, straight Black woman who's comfortable in her skin, and confident she can find true love and professional achievement her own way. The way this movie holds space for sporty Black girls and reminds them there's more than one way to be a successful Black woman is invaluable.
3. 'The Bodyguard' (1992)
The Bodyguard depicts a whirlwind time in the life of pop star Rachel (OG hottie Whitney Houston). In light of a homicidal stalker making threats on her life, she hires Frank Farmer, a white bodyguard (Kevin Costner). Yes, Rachel is a "fiery" Black woman, but she's saved from the "Sapphire" stereotype — the one that labels Black women as "rude, loud, malicious, stubborn, and overbearing," also known as the "angry Black woman stereotype" — because she is charming, charismatic, and unafraid to honor her boundaries.
She's the kind of woman who doesn't have to work to make people fall in love with her — something that's revolutionary in a world that's still telling Black women they're unworthy of representation, fair wages, accessible healthcare, and love.
The fact that Rachel and Frank fall in love underscores this even more. Because of white supremacist power structures, many people of color can struggle with their self-image when dating, especially if they're open to dating white people. It never feels like Rachel is chasing Frank or proximity to whiteness, which is a subtle, powerful way to honor love in all its forms.
4. 'Why Did I Get Married' (2007)
I can see why Why Did I Get Married was revolutionary for 2007, but the character arcs could go a lot further in 2021. Starring Tyler Perry, Janet Jackson, and Jill Scott, the film follows a group of friends on a couples' retreat, all dealing with their own romantic and sexual struggles. It wonderfully tackles misogynoir, infidelity, and work-life balance.
Sheila's fatphobia storyline, however, could have given viewers more. Her husband, Mike, is brutally fatphobic toward her and ultimately, she decides to leave him for dashing Sheriff Troy. And while Sheila's new beau isn't cruel like her ex, he still encourages her to exercise. This character arc sends a harmful message that fat women will only find happiness once they lose weight. It's especially problematic toward fat Black women, whose bodies have been demonized under Eurocentric beauty standards.
While toxic, Sheila's plotline left a lasting impression. A quick scroll through Twitter is evidence Black women are still talking about how the scene where Mike body-shames Sheila as she dons lingerie for him left an indelible mark on them. And this snow-day tweet from Feb. 15 referencing Sheila's arduous drive up the mountain went viral. If nothing else, Why Did I Get Married taught Black millennials about the kind of men they'd never want to date.
5. 'Deliver Us From Eva' (2003)
Deliver Us From Eva is about three brothers-in-law who scheme to get Eva (Gabrielle Union) into a relationship because they don't want their wives to take Eva's sage, big- sisterly advice. Enter Ray (LL Cool J), who is hired by the brothers-in-law to be Eva's perfect fake boyfriend. I don't even think Deliver Us From Eva would be believable if it wasn't hinging on the the well-documented "angry Black woman" stereotype.
Even though the plot is toxic, it's executed in a satirical way. And as is the case with satire, there's a little bit of truth beneath the humor. Black women who stand up for themselves, are confident about their intelligence, and proud of their professional accomplishments are labelled arrogant, stuck-up, or "b*tchy" — even when they have hearts of gold.
Ultimately, Deliver Us From Eva is a clear reminder to all the Black women who are unduly labeled high-maintenance or difficult to love: There's a person out there who will genuinely worship the ground you walk on.
6. 'Poetic Justice' (1993)
Poetic Justice felt like the most timeless rom-com on the list. It follows friends Justice (Janet Jackson) and Iesha (Regina King) as they go on a rowdy double-date road trip. The fashion and lingo are super '90s (although Justice's mom jeans and scoop-neck tops are still chic), but the way the women approach their sex and dating lives feels very modern. They're comfortable in their sexuality and aren't afraid to set boundaries, even if it means they're categorized as "angry." Justice and Iesha have a distinctly third-wave feminist mindset. (In fact, Justice and Lucky, played by Tupac Shakur, have a heated conversation where he calls Justice a "feminist" as an insult.)
Poetic Justice is also a delight to watch because, like Love Jones, the film depicts Black artsy types. But there's a depth to the story that makes it feel much more culturally aware. With the historical context of the 1990s race riots in Los Angeles, it's no surprise that gang violence, police brutality, and racial tension between Black and Latinx men are woven throughout this movie. A story about strange bedfellows falling in love during politically volatile times for people of color is particularly resonant in 2021.
7. 'How Stella Got Her Groove Back' (1998)
Based on the Terry McMillan novel, How Stella Got Her Groove Back follows single mother Stella (Angela Bassett), a jaded stockbroker who takes an impromptu trip to Jamaica with her bestie Delilah (Whoopi Goldberg). There, she falls in love with Winston (Taye Diggs), an ambitious, cheeky 20-year-old.
The 20-year age gap is a pain point between the couple, their friends, and their family. But this vacation fling that blossoms into an improbable romance is healing for both parties. There's great care taken in the way Stella and Winston are presented as ardent, intelligent, and unapologetically ambitious people — the antithesis of common negative stereotypes about the Black diaspora.
In every part where there's room for an overwhelmingly negative trope to play out, there's just wholesomeness and heart instead. This film showcases Black love thoroughly and beautifully.
8. 'The Best Man' (1999)
The Best Man brought a radically different flavor to the rom-com genre by exploring male platonic intimacy. It follows up-and-coming writer Harper (Taye Diggs) who is slated to be the best man at a friend's wedding. All hell starts to break loose when Harper's friends realize his hot new novel is loosely based on their college days together — and hints at Harper having slept with the bride.
Our characters include a jock who's deeply philosophical, a rogue who actually has a heart of gold, a "chill" friend who's learning to stand up for himself, and a nerdy friend who turns out to be the ultimate ladies man because of his sensitive appeal. The film also boasts a cast of familiar favorites. We get Nia Long and Sanaa Lathan again, along with classic '90s Black heartthrobs Morris Chestnut, Terrence Howard, and Regina Hall. This A-list cast tells a nuanced story that makes you question everything you know about who Black folks are "supposed" to be.
This movie speaks volumes about human nature from the way the characters condone or condemn cheating, struggle with possessive partners and uncommitted ones, and discuss sex worker politics in light of the bachelor party. The story delivers so many thoughtful messages about the intersection of gender, faith, and bodily autonomy for Black people, it's a must-watch.
9. 'Waiting To Exhale' (1995)
Based on another Terry McMillan novel, Waiting to Exhale follows friends Savannah (Whitney Houston), Bernadine (Angela Bassett), Robin (Lela Rochon), and Gloria (Loretta Devine) as they each go through dating troubles. Robin is striking out on her own, tired of being "the other woman." Gloria grapples with being a single mom to a teenager, an ex-husband who is coming to terms with his queerness, and a hot new neighbor.
Meanwhile, Savannah struggles with a loveless marriage, and Bernadine's husband leaves her for his white secretary. You want to root for all the women, but the way Bernadine's character arc explores respectability politics makes her storyline the most interesting. By definition, respectability politics are the belief that conforming to "prescribed mainstream standards of appearance and behavior" will protect you from prejudice and systemic injustice as a marginalized person.
You watch Bernie burn in anguish, but not just because she's been cheated on and broken up with. She's devastated because she and her husband worked so hard to make their Blackness palatable in social settings and at work. So his romantic and sexual pursuit of a white woman feels like sociopolitical betrayal. This movie is definitely not one to miss if you want to watch something equally gut-wrenching and heartwarming.
Going into this experiment, I knew these movies would be filled with snappy one-liners, ridiculous gags, and over-top-romantic gestures. But I learned, for better or for worse, why they've remained cinematic touchstones for the Black community in regards to sex, dating, and culturally-specific humor. Watching the films, I can see why the nostalgia lingers. The fly style, baby-making R&B soundtrack, quippy one-liners, and drama of it all make them the most comforting and fun to watch. And while I wish there had been more LGBTQ+ representation beyond the occasional flamboyant hairdresser, I did feel seen by the multiplicity and depth of Black femme personalities.
I may not have agreed thematically with every single movie, but film is meant to both validate people's lived experiences and start dialogues with its viewers. And like or lump it, these nine films did just that.