In Kasi Lemmons’ latest film, “The Caveman’s Valentine,” Samuel L. Jackson plays a homeless man who lives in a New York City park and suffers from schizophrenia –hardly the image of the romantic lead. And yet, halfway through the course of the murder-mystery, Jackson’s Romulus has an erotic one-night-stand with Moira, a white artist played by Ann Magnuson.
For anyone who has seen the film at its Sundance premiere or subsequent screenings, the irony could not have been lost. Here was Jackson, who had openly complained to the press last summer that his role as super-detective and “sex machine” John Shaft in director John Singleton’s re-make lacked even one love scene, now finally getting his onscreen lovemaking debut as a homeless guy and opposite a white actor.
As far as Jackson was concerned, says Lemmons, who burst into view in 1997 with her indie hit, “Eve’s Bayou,” “he was just excited to have his first love scene, after being in the movies for over 10 years. I had never thought that Sam had gotten his due as an actor who could play love scenes, who could be romantic and sexy. One of the things he likes about me is that I see him as a sexy person.”
Which raises the question: Does it take an African-American female director to see the romantic allure in an African-American male lead, and, by extension, has the lack of such roles for Jackson and a whole generation of his peers among black, Latino and Asian actors been the result of entrenched Hollywood attitudes — attitudes that could hardly contrast more with those of a filmmaker like Lemmons?
Certainly, until the 1960s, Hollywood was resistant to casting actors of color in predominantly romantic roles, with a few exceptions. Director Gregory Nava observes that in the silent era, the Latin lover was a hot concept in the hands of superstars like Rudolph Valentino and Ramon Navarro.
“As much as African-Americans were hardly visible in Hollywood movies,” says critic Stanley Crouch, “Asians had as difficult a time, but with some interesting exceptions. You have white actors dressed up as Asians in a film like ‘The Good Earth,’ for example, but in the series of Charlie Chan movies, Chan’s younger, urbane son was very contemporary and shown to have romantic relationships — in other words, living the life of Asian-Americans who were watching it in the movie theater.”
Still, it was symbolic that Hattie McDaniel, the first African-American actor to win an Oscar (for “Gone With the Wind”), did so playing a plantation servant. Another quarter-century passed Sidney Poitier — the next black Oscar winner after McDaniel — broke the romantic color barrier in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.”
A generation and more later, there remains a paucity of such roles for the Jacksons, Denzel Washingtons, Benjamin Bratts, and even the Chow Yun-Fats (when he works in Hollywood).
“There’s a resistance to love stories about Latinos, African-Americans and Asian-Americans in the industry,” says Nava, whose films “Mi Familia” and “Selena” certainly buck that resistance. “At the same time, it’s harder to get intelligent movies made about serious relationships period, regardless of skin color. That’s just the way it is. That’s on the business side, where I know I have to be especially clever and work harder to get these movies made.
“On the artistic side, however, there’s no difference. Everybody has a culture, everybody has an ethnicity, and everybody falls in love. I reject the term ethnic with my films at all, because that automatically tags the film as about ‘The Other,’ when my entire intent as an artist is to make universal stories on screen. We have no more dramatic example of how a love story in a non-Anglo culture can touch all audiences than right now with ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.’ And that’s with subtitles.”
Significantly, Nava noticed that when his breakthrough film, “El Norte,” wasn’t sold as a “Latino film, I proved to be durable in the marketplace, screening at the same Gotham cinema for over a year. Yet, ‘Mi Familia’ was sold right off as an ethnic film, and, of course, it played to a mainly Latino audience and was never given a chance to cross over.”
In the same way, Lemmons notes that “Eve’s Bayou,” which maintained a market profile as a filmmaker’s film with strong critical support and not as an African-American drama, made the ideal crossover with a 50% non-black audience.
Crouch argues that there’s no agenda in the Hollywood exec suites to automatically reject love stories among non-white characters: “If it makes $100 million, they don’t care. If the movie involves a cross-racial love affair, and it makes money, then that’s what counts. On the creative side, I don’t know if sufficiently well-written scripts have appeared. Who’s writing the high romance for Denzel Washington or Angela Bassett?”
Some respond, like filmmaker Gina Prince-Bythewood (“Love and Basketball,” “Disappearing Acts”) that “they’re out there, being written, and we also don’t know how many quality love stories are sitting around on executive desks and shelves not getting made. Truthfully, it seems that cable (outlets like HBO and Showtime are) more willing to take more chances producing stories that depict different kinds of relationships. One major studio told me that ‘Love and Basketball,”‘ a decades-spanning love story between two competitive male and female basketball players, “was ‘too narrow.’ But I wrote it precisely because I didn’t see black love stories out there.”
As “The Caveman’s Valentine” hints, though, things may be trending toward the theme that Love Is a Multi-Colored Thing: In “The Truth About Charlie,” Thandie Newton and Mark Wahlberg are about to reprise the roles played, respectively, by Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant in “Charade,” while young audiences have flocked to see love bloom in the inner-city between Julia Stiles and Sean Patrick Thomas in “Save the Last Dance.”
The latter, notes Prince-Bythewood, may reflect that “teens and younger audiences are a lot more accepting of interracial romance than older crowds. At a panel I was on with (New York Times film critic) Elvis Mitchell, he said that these kids have grown up with multi-racial images on Nickleodeon and ‘Sesame Street.’ The race stuff is a non-issue for them.”
A deeper trend exists, says critic and author B. Ruby Rich, that Hollywood hasn’t remotely tapped into: “The really interesting looks at love across the races have generally been in gay-themed films, from ‘My Beautiful Laundrette’ to ‘The Crying Game’ to independent films like Cheryl Dunye’s ‘The Watermelon Woman.’ And the strongest film ever about the drama of cross-racial love was, in my view, ‘Ali: Fear Eats the Soul,’ by (the late German filmmaker) Rainer Werner Fassbinder. You have to look abroad, and to gay and lesbian filmmakers, I think, for the most notable looks at love.”