Many romantic comedies follow the standard formula for pairing a couple, fine for a light-hearted romp or a feel-good movie. However, romance films that find particular ways to establish their connections bring the excitement of feeling that one-of-a-kind love. When a movie presents a relationship through a lens that makes it unique, it becomes wholly rewarding.
Adding the Black experience and Black ways to love can make the whole endeavor even more worthwhile, as the industry so often focuses on aspects other than love when it comes to Black romance. Whether through the appreciation of music, poetry, or sports, or the exploration of identity, history, or revolutionary acts, when love blossoms in unique ways, it connects its lovers through an even greater bond.
And rarer yet, stories that explore the ideas of new love and the one true love might dazzle as the most romantic of all.
Love & Basketball (2000)
Love & Basketball, directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, remains a quintessential romance film among the Black community. The film stars Sanaa Lathan and Omar Epps as Monica and Quincy, neighbors since childhood who share a competitive streak for playing basketball. As they grow, their relationship rollercoasters, but their connection to each other through the sport remains essential.
The sportsmanship between Quincy and Monica allows the film to showcase gender dynamics that are different from usual, with basketball as the conduit. Monica’s interest in the sport doesn’t rob her of her womanhood and doesn’t pigeonhole her into stereotypes; instead, it builds her character positively. Likewise, Quincy must come to terms with toxicly masculine traits to make room for a loving relationship.
Love Jones (1997)
In director Theodore Witcher's film Love Jones, Larenz Tate and Nia Long’s characters, Darius and Nina, bond over poetry. The art of the spoken word often goes hand in hand with both romance and Black culture. Here, it creates a conjunction of all of the above, setting a rhythmic tone and smooth atmosphere for lovers to fall in love.
Though not a quick passing fling, the film presents a passionate relationship that’s right for the time, even if it doesn’t last forever. Tate and Long’s talent and chemistry burst on the screen, even among an ensemble of great supporting performances, making Love Jones one of the most appreciated Black romance movies.
Lovers Rock (2020)
Director Steve McQueen’s Lovers Rock, the second entry into his Small Axe film series telling the stories of West Indian immigrants living in London, takes place over one enchanting night. The film revolves around a house party encompassing a bubble of the Black community, filled with joyous expression and the venting of rambunctious energy away from other societal pressures, inspired by the reggae music genre known as lovers rock.
When Martha, played by Amarah-Jae St. Auburn, meets Franklyn, played by Michael Ward, the seemingly ordinary evening tingles with new love. McQueen creates an atmosphere thick with possibilities, capturing the warm, euphoric excitement that comes with a fresh romance and lingering in moments of bliss you never want to end.
Though still in the early stages of his hopefully long career, director Barry Jenkins has already mastered the idea of connection. His films Medicine for Melancholy and If Beale Street Could Talk, based on the romantic James Baldwin novel, both explore the importance and weight of connection. However, Jenkins' Moonlight, starring Trevante Rhodes and André Holland, traverses connection in a humbling yet intimate way.
Rhodes’ character Chiron’s stoicism and isolation create a narrow world for him, making it hard for him to connect to others. His admission to Holland’s character Kevin that he’s never been touched by another makes Kevin his one true love, all or nothing. The actors especially carry their diner scene with excellence, ripe with subtle flirtation and romantic tension as they each await the right glance and another touch.
The Photograph (2020)
During his research into the lives of individuals affected by Hurricane Katrina, Michael, a journalist played by Lakeith Stanfield, discovers a photograph that leads him to meet Mae, a curator played by Issa Rae. The film also shares the story of Mae’s mother, Christina, the subject and photographer of the photograph, played by Chanté Adams, and a romance she once had with a man named Isaac, played by Y’lan Noel.
In The Photograph, director Stella Meghie explores generational cycles with care and a sweet touch. Christina’s complicated relationship with Isaac in the past compares and contrasts with decisions made by Mae in the present, showing how personal history informs us all, whether we realize it yet or not. Michael and Mae’s knowledge of time gone by allows them to connect and understand one another on a deeper level.
Jason’s Lyric (1994)
Director Doug McHenry’s film Jason’s Lyric stars Allen Payne as Jason, a man riddled with a tragic childhood who now feels responsible for caring for his brother, recently released from jail. When Jason meets Lyric, played by Jada Pinkett, his world turns upside down, forcing him to revisit his trauma and figure out how to move on. Jason and Lyric’s quest for something more, to escape the conventional path society has planned for them, brings them closer together.
They find that escape in each other. Quintessential Black rom-com best friend actress Lisa Nicole Carson, who also appears in Love Jones, appears here as Lyric’s co-worker, Marti, spouting romantic quotes and words of wisdom throughout the film. She defines the couple’s relationship as quiet in a world full of thunder, perfectly encapsulating the film.
Hailing from Kenya, Rafiki, directed by Wanuri Kahiu, presents a revolutionary love between two young women in Nairobi, the capital city. The relationship between Kena and Ziki quickly becomes contentious, with homosexuality illegal in Kenya. As the two grow closer, they fear public displays of affection, with friction developing among friends and their fathers, who compete against each other as political candidates in a local election.
Through it all, the intimate moments between the two lovers, played with great charm by Samantha Mugatsia and Sheila Munyiva, display a tender and colorful connection. While the women don’t declare a political movement, their declaration of love for each other remains a revolutionary act for themselves that stands the test of time, space, and a landscape set against them.
Sylvie’s Love (2020)
Sometimes, love blossoms in a seemingly wrong place or time. Sylvie’s Love stars Tessa Thompson and Nnamdi Asomugha as Sylvie and Robert, who immediately connect despite their circumstances. Those circumstances aren’t the stereotypical hindrances Black characters often face in films. Instead, both are relatively successful and comfortable, living in the smooth stylings of the 1950s New York City jazz scene as envisioned by director Eugene Ash.
The beautiful tension between Sylvie and her love comes from the two not wanting to destroy each other’s personal momentum and potential. The deep consideration for the other that usually comes with a revelation of awareness in the final act of romance films washes throughout this one. The classically toned romance becomes a graceful experience where the idea of Black struggle steps aside for Black romance.
She’s Gotta Have It (1986)
Director Spike Lee’s feature directorial debut, She's Gotta Have It, follows artist Nola Darling, played by Tracy Camilla Johns, as she dates three men and weighs the pros and cons of her predicaments. The film flips the switch on typical gender roles within the dating scene, where women must stay chaste while men add numbers to their conquests.
Lee’s satirical use of caricature works well here, showing each love interest as a wholly different connection. These interactions give Nola the polyamorous arc of discovering where she really finds joy: romantic and sexual liberation, not tied down to any one partner. Though dated in some regards, the film inspired the Netflix show of the same name, which updates Nola’s story.
Stud Life (2012)
Director Campbell X’s film, Stud Life, examines navigating the dating scene as a stud, a Black lesbian woman taking on a more traditionally masculine role. The movie stars T’Nia Miller, whose talent shines through even this early in her career, as JJ, a wedding photographer who meets Elle, a prostitute played by Robyn Kerr.
As the story traverses the stud lifestyle, sexual freedom, and the dynamic friendships of lesbian women and gay men within the queer community, the newfound linkage of JJ and Elle stays the driving force. Authentic depictions of Black butch love remain a rarity on screen, so a low-budget independent movie like Stud Life presents its heart fully and with such pride.
Nappily Ever After (2018)
Nappily Ever After, a title play on the fairytale sentiment of living happily ever after, stars Sanaa Lathan as Violet, a woman who has learned from her mother the importance of staying presentable. This includes keeping her hair long and straightened instead of natural and nappy, but Violet ends up with a shaved head and a new start after a series of hair accidents.
Violet’s new hair journey becomes a conduit for self-love and self-expression. It gives her the emotional freedom to let go of the structure she has built around herself and pursue a more honest, loving relationship with Will, a man she meets, played by Lyriq Bent. Lathan’s performance carries the film, directed by Haifaa al-Mansour.
In Passing, Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga star as two light-skinned Black women who explore ideas of posing as white in the 1920s to better their societal experiences. Negga’s character, Clare, has married a white man who believes her also to be white. When she runs into Tessa’s Irene, an old childhood friend, the two connect again, causing Clare’s desire to return to the Black community she once left.
The film presents a complex relationship between two married women, with themes of colorism and repression. While a romantic relationship hovers in the story’s subtext, even in the original novel by Nella Larsen that inspired the film, the women’s longing for each other remains evident.
Directed by Rebecca Hall, Passing highlights wants not fully expressed that endure nonetheless in the interior.
Poetic Justice (1993)
Janet Jackson and Tupac Shakur light up the screen as hood lovers in Poetic Justice, a film by John Singleton. The film takes place in South Central, Los Angeles, like Singleton’s previous endeavor, Boyz n the Hood, and stars Jackson as Justice, a young woman getting over the recent fatal shooting of her boyfriend. Though not ready to date again, she meets Lucky, a young man who instantly falls for her.
While the film includes the tropes of drugs and violence in its setting, the characters rise above them, portraying an urban love connection that authentically balances the raunchy and the romantic and gives them agency in their story. Both Jackson and Shakur give performances you can’t watch without smiling, showing the comfort and truth needed for their characters. As if the movie needed anything more, the great poet Maya Angelou’s writings take shape as Justice’s romantic thoughts and words recited throughout the film.
Loving tells the story of Mildred and Richard Loving, the real-life individuals behind the U.S. Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia, which made state-level laws prohibiting interracial marriage unconstitutional. Directed by Jeff Nichols, the film shares historic difficulties presented to the couple as their case escalates from rural Virginia to Washington, D.C.
While Richard seems a simple man, the film shows Mildred as more aware of the depth of the situation, an inescapable truth for Black people in America, no matter their proximity to whiteness. The film stars Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton as the Lovings, who both give great performances as relatively quiet people whose love sees them through no matter what.
Horror genre trappings often include love stories as an afterthought of character connection. Director Mati Diop’s tragic ghost story set in Senegal makes the connection integral. Starring unknown actors Mame Bineta Sane as Ada and Ibrahima Traore’ as her lover Souleiman, the film expresses dire sentiments around classism, immigration, and oppression.
As Souleiman and his coworkers cross the Atlantic Ocean searching for better work, Ada and others back home begin to experience hauntings. Ada’s fear of the unknown eventually makes way for ease and growth as she begins to understand the situation.
Atlantics gives a spellbinding love that extends beyond the temporal and the corporal, hitting unapologetically like a force of nature.
Dirty Computer (2018)
The visual companion to Janelle Monáe’s album of the same name, Dirty Computer showcases the singer’s music through an afrofuturistic story of love and liberty. Monáe stars as Jane 57821, who desires individuality against a homophobic totalitarian sci-fi dystopia. The film, called an “emotion picture” in its marketing, features direction by Andrew Donoho, Chuck Lightning, and various music video directors in world-building collaborations with Monáe.
During her exploration in search of happiness, Jane 57821 interacts with Zen, played by Tessa Thompson, and Ché played by Jayson Aaron, who become lovers as the musical film showcases joyous moments without inhibitions. Monáe’s own self-exploration through her work makes the future the present, where gender, race, sexuality, and revolution stand hand in hand, and love conquers all.