Light romance clashes with heavy-handed messages in “Black Coffee,” a modest step up for Chicago-based DIY indie filmmaker Mark Harris. Working with established actors and filming in Los Angeles for the first time, Harris also received his first limited theatrical release with this third feature, thanks to specialty distrib One Village Entertainment. Still, this weakly brewed offering is better suited to the smallscreen and will feel more at home in inevitable cable TV and streaming-service play.
Talented house painter Robert (Darrin Dewitt Henson) loses his job and his girlfriend in the same day (and no, it’s not a coincidence). While saying goodbye to his ex — self-centered and demanding spendthrift Mita (Erica Hubbard) — turns out to be something of a relief, getting fired from the company his late father founded isn’t as easy to take. After making the humbling decision to deliver coffee for his fast-talking entrepreneur cousin Julian (Christian Keyes), Robert stumbles into a gig painting the new office of Morgan (Gabrielle Dennis), an attorney branching out on her own. There’s an immediate spark between Robert and Morgan, but her interest in pursuing a relationship is complicated by a wealthy ex (Lamman Rucker) determined to win her back.
The timidly plotted proceedings never veer from romantic-comedy formula. There’s a whole lot of talk and very little action here, and not just because the squeaky-clean pic wears its PG rating like a badge of honor. For a film so reliant on conversation, Harris’ dialogue is disappointingly clunky, heavy on bland banter and wearying exposition. Even worse is the explicit stating and restating of the movie’s dual interests in love and entrepreneurship.
Characters spend a lot of time insisting that Morgan is a successful attorney and that Julian’s pricey coffee is a word-of-mouth sensation, even though everything the audience actually sees suggests otherwise (Morgan never meets with a client and can barely make a decision on her own; Julian supposedly makes a tidy profit selling to a handful of customers from a folding table in front of his apartment). Harris’ messages of empowerment are welcome in a cinematic landscape still lacking in vibrant portrayals of black professional life, but they come off as lip service when “Black Coffee” doesn’t actually do anything to address that need.
The closest the pic comes to distinguishing itself from any number of sub-Tyler Perry “urban” programmers is in its relatively indifferent treatment of organized religion. Harris sets expectations for a typically reverent take with a goofy opening title card featuring the anonymous quote “The male and the female should be of one mind in doing the work of God.” But soon after meeting Morgan, Robert briefly mentions that he believes in God but doesn’t go to church and isn’t a “T.D. Jakes type of guy.” Surprisingly, nothing more is made of it for the rest of the film.
The cast generally struggles to elevate the one-note roles, especially Hubbard’s shrewish diva and Keyes’ insufferably narcissistic jokester, but Henson (a regular on Showtime’s “Soul Food” a decade ago) musters up enough leading man charm to carry the drama’s light weight load. Tech credits are adequate — an improvement over Harris’ previous shakier efforts — with a rote televisual style that could land the filmmaker smallscreen gigs.