Last year, when Andy Samberg was interviewed by The New York Times and was asked about the ten things he enjoyed the most, one of the things on his list was the film Portrait of a Lady on Fire. As Samberg described it: “…I feel like it’s a good movie for men to understand, energetically, how when they show up it can really change things. You get lulled into this amazing space of there being no men for a long time in the movie, then a random guy shows up. He’s a nothing character; he’s there to do an errand. He’s not being a jerk or being weird. But him just sitting there eating some slop, you’re like: ‘Ugh, what’s this guy doing here? Get him out of here. He’s ruining the vibe.'”
Really Love, which is set in Washington, D.C., elicits that very same feeling. It immerses the audience into parts of D.C. where Black artists, musicians, coffee shop owners, art gallerists, their families, and their friends are frequently in one another’s company, whether for work or for play. So whenever a white actor with a speaking role suddenly appears onscreen, and it happens at least twice in the film, one can’t help but feel caught off-guard and ask, “What is this person even doing here?”
Isaiah (Kofi Siriboe) is a painter who is struggling to make an impact in the art scene, and hopefully, get a solo show that will highlight his work and be the start of a successful career. During one art show for his friend/mentor Yusef (Michael Ealy), he crosses paths with Stevie (Yootha Wong-Loi-Sing), a student at Georgetown Law who is wrestling with whether this is the career she really wants, and if the law is something that will allow her to make a difference. The two of them start dating, and it doesn’t take long for Isaiah and Stevie to fall hard for each other. But their separate ambitions, and their growing inability to see eye-to-eye about them, threaten to derail their romance, with Stevie feeling torn as to whether she should accept a job offer from a high-end law firm in Chicago, and Isaiah constantly pushing himself to improve the quality of his paintings in order to win over a gallerist (Uzo Aduba) and convince her to grant him a solo show. They soon have to decide whether to do everything possible to make their relationship work, or to accept that they are only in each other’s lives for a season and nothing more.
Really Love (which was directed and co-written by Angel Kristi Williams, not only brings the kind of heat in its love scenes that is rarely present in recent romantic comedies — or romantic dramas, or most other films of any genre (hence the frequent Twitter topic as to whether sex scenes are really necessary in movies) — it also shows deep bonds of brotherhood and sisterhood between the numerous Black characters. Whether it’s Isaiah and Yusef, or Isaiah and his club owner/best friend Nick (Mack Wilds), or Stevie, her cousin (Naturi Naughton), and her friend (Jade Eshete), as they open up to one another about their struggles, we get to see the kind of platonic physical affection between Black men that has been (and continues to be) frowned upon. It also tackles the hurdles that Black artists of all kinds must overcome when pursuing a career in the arts, such as parents seeing that pursuit as just a hobby and watching other artists of lesser quality (particularly those who are white) achieve greater success at a faster rate — which is reminiscent of Chris Rock’s joke of how Black people have to fly so they can get something that white people can just walk to. Or as many a Black parent has told their kids: “You have to be twice as good to get half of what they have.”
When it comes to discussions on social media about Black film, one particular phrase that is often used and applied is “trauma porn,” and how it seems as if too many Black films and television shows (such as Them or Antebellum or See You Yesterday or even Barry Jenkins’ recent adaptation of The Underground Railroad) rely on Black characters having pain and death inflicted on them in order for audiences to be entertained. Colorism, another frequent topic on social media, is part of how “trauma porn” is discussed, and it has been pointed out how dark-skinned Black actors are rarely ever seen onscreen unless the film or television show they’re appearing in involves slavery and/or racism, with said characters having to experience physical and/or emotional suffering. Really Love has gained attention for being the antithesis of that, for showing dark-skinned Black characters experiencing love and passion and joy without having their lives and their happiness being threatened by outside forces. It follows in the tradition of other Black romantic comedies and romantic dramas like Love Jones (which is a clear influence on Really Love), Hav Plenty, Brown Sugar, The Wood, The Best Man, Beyond The Lights (despite the leading man turning out to be a rapist and a f-ckboy), and Love & Basketball.
As understandable as it is for Black moviegoers to want more variety and levity in their entertainment, there has also been some pushback against the complaints about Black entertainment having too much “trauma porn,” how that term could be too easily applied to any content that makes the viewer uncomfortable for any reason, and how seeing drama and conflict in your entertainment is really not a bad thing because it makes your entertainment even better.
Whatever your feelings might be on this particular matter, if you’re looking for a well-made romantic drama with lots of attractive people living their lives and doing their thing, Really Love deserves your time and your attention.