I was an avid moviegoer when I was single and childless. Having well-rounded interests in cinematic storytelling, my tastes put me somewhere between art house goon and chick flick junkie. Movies about cross-cultural romance, of course, make my list of must-sees — but only for sheer entertainment purposes. With the exception of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” I generally don’t like stories that deliberately try to convey some sort of noble message about cross-cultural romance. They come across as bland, preachy and pandering somehow. To me, all a director has to do to make a quality film about interracial romance is to focus on the strengths, weaknesses and complexities of each character, and make the story about something bigger, not just the couple.
Two recent films “The Family that Preys” and “Lakeview Terrace” each embed the issue of interracial romance inside stories with bigger themes. I picked up and watched both last week, and here is what I think.
Tyler Perry wrote and directed “The Family that Preys”, a glossy, big-budget soap opera that follows the business and personal sagas of two interconnected Atlanta families — one white and one black — over four years. The interracial ‘romance’ is actually, in this case, a tawdry extramarital hookup between Andrea (Sanaa Lathan), a sneering iceberg and William (Cole Hauser), the lecherous mercenary in line to inherit his mother’s commercial real estate development firm. The story doesn’t explain why Andrea and William are attracted to each other in the first place, or how their four-year affair happened, during which they supposedly have a son together. Or why, given the boy’s mixed parentage, her husband remained clueless about her betrayal. Or why Chris, the Ultimate Good Black Man, loves her.
But here is my biggest problem with Tyler Perry’s movie: He chose to portray an interracial romance as a shady, slave-row romp by two despicable characters. He seems to visit extreme and harsh punishments on Andrea for being with a white man. If you’re familiar with Tyler Perry’s stage plays and feature films, you’ll notice that his plots are allegorical and he has a tendency toward preachy dialogue. His characters are either avatars of good or evil, stripped of the complexity or dynamism that comes from being human, making mistakes and still journeying on. Andrea is just another extreme character, at bat for The Baddies. Except for her beauty, there is nothing likeable about this woman. She sneers at her husband, mother and sister. She supposedly is Harvard educated but is naive enough to believe that good ol’ boy William is going to leave his blond trophy wife to marry her and set up a comfortable domestic life for her and their out-of-wedlock son. And she foolishly decides to conceal sugar daddy money from William in an account at the same bank where she keeps a joint account with her husband. Dumb, right? Is Perry trying to say that any black woman who allows a white man to romance her is nothing more than a sniping, delusional, trifling heifer, dumb as a box of rocks and who deserves to get back-slapped across a countertop and then reduced to living in a crappy apartment after her good black man dumps her?
Perhaps Perry was trying to convey a different message with this subplot. Maybe the Andrea-William story line was merely an allegory about the dangers of greed and reckless disregard for other people’s feelings. And true, not every interracial romance is carried on by good people with noble motives. Still, there is something about that plot that rubs me the wrong way. I saw “Preys” after watching “Madea’s Family Reunion”. That movie’s version of Cruella handed her young daughter over to her child rapist of a husband, and by the end of the movie, she got the makings of a touching reconciliation with the daughter that she allowed to be violated!! But a black woman in a consenting adult relationship with a white man? Smack down!!
This is a great ensemble cast, each of whom does a respectable job, despite the preposterous script and dead-on-arrival dialogue. Watch it especially for the interactions between Alfre Woodard, who plays Andrea’s straight-laced mom, and Charlotte Cartwright, played with irresistible zest by Cathy Bates. Actually, Bates and Woodard are the best things about this movie, but other than that, wait until it comes out on HBO.
** Major coincidence among Lathan, Taraji P. Henson and Woodard. Not only is Woodard’s husband white, but they all starred together in a much more merciful movie involving interracial romance, the romantic comedy “Something New”. Woodard cracked me up during the dinner scene when she became hysterical with joy at the prospect of her daughter (played by Lathan) marrying Blair Underwood’s character. (Now c’mon. Who would object to that?)
I’ll talk about “Lakeview Terrace” in my next post, because this one has run long enough.