For black actors on the big screen, love is a many-splendored, but rarely rendered, thing.
That was the upshot of "Kiss and Tell," Darryl Pitts' new documentary about the history of black romance as told by Hollywood, screened recently at Loyola Marymount University. The screening was a fundraiser staged by the Century City Alumnae chapter of Delta Sigma Theta for a mentoring project that the sorority runs in Uganda for young women. The love theme, an appropriate precursor to Valentine's Day, was advertised nicely by some sorority sisters and guests who came decked out in pink and red; before the main event, the organization showed a short film about the project, called Amagezi Gemaanyi, that featured a series of testimonies from Ugandan girls whose educational ambitions are being nurtured by black professional women on this side of the Atlantic who know a thing or two about struggle and following your passion. It was heartwarming indeed.
"Kiss and Tell," absorbing as it was, turned out to be more troubling than heartwarming. That should come as no surprise to anyone who follows black films even casually; true romance is the mainstay story of Hollywood, the core of many a comedy, drama, animated, even experimental movie. But romance is not a story black actors are called upon to tell very often. The reasons why are complex, but one fundamental reason is that black characters historically have been comic relief, sidekicks, slaves, streetwise hustlers--pretty much everything but leading men or women whose primary job in a movie is to fall in or out of love and build relationships.
Another reason is that the black characters who do show up in movies tend to be too busy managing the details of daily black life--getting a job and otherwise keeping body and soul together--to frankly have much time for love. In some ways this mirrors reality. But that begs the question of why black films are so singularly obligated to depict black "reality" (a troublesome idea, but that's another blog) when fiction is really the point in the best and most enduring American movies. Romance is a form of idealism, and idealism is the magic that's missing in too many modern, so-called urban films that, however "real," feel depressingly grounded.
But in highlighting movies and moments of the last fifty years or so, "Kiss and Tell" was a wonderful reminder of what is possible. I'd frankly forgotten about the quest for love that fueled films like "Sounder," "Claudine," "She's Gotta Have It," even "Lady Sings the Blues." What those films made everybody in the audience remember is that difficult circumstances for black folk come and go, and they even stay. But love is forever. Now that's keeping it real.
Journalist and op-ed columnist Erin Aubry Kaplan's first-person accounts of politics and identity in Los Angeles, with an eye towards the city's African American community, appear every Thursday at 2 p.m. on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.