‘JASON’S LYRIC’ AND BLACK LOVE ON-SCREEN

[I wrote this piece a couple months ago for an old friend of mine and the very well-known website he works for. Even though I got paid for it, it never got published. Long story short, he gave me the go-ahead to publish it here. — CDL]

Once upon a time, the sight of an African-American couple locked in a loving, intimate, sexual embrace freaked people out.

It’s sounds crazy, but it did memorably happen once 25 years ago, when the movie Jason’s Lyric hit theaters. Any person who’s seen the film will tell you it’s a standard-issue “‘hood movie” straight from the ’90s, where ‘hood movies were at its prime. But this film is a more romantic look at inner-city life. A young, pre-Will Smith Jada Pinkett stars as Lyric, the beautiful sista who wins the heart of Allen Payne’s sensitive, young working man Jason. Despite finding a gal who makes him strive for the finer things in life, dude is unfortunately having a hard time breaking away from his ‘hood ties, especially since he feels he has to keep an eye on his volatile, ex-con brother (Bokeem Woodbine).

Before the movie came out, the filmmakers got into a heated back-and-forth with the Motion Picture Association of America, whose ratings board declared the movie needed some cuts in order to get an R rating. But it wasn’t the predictable bits of ‘hood violence that the board had a problem with. It was the love scenes between Pinkett and Payne’s characters, specifically a scene where they’re both butt-bald-nekkid in a very colorful field, slowly but erotically getting it on as the sun shines on their smooth, attractive, light-skinned bodies.

Payne and Pinkett in ‘Jason’s Lyric’

Apparently, this was too much for the ratings board, who not only wanted the love scenes out, but wanted a change in the movie’s theatrical poster, which featured Payne and Pinkett in a semi-nude embrace. Naturally, the people behind the movie were livid. Not only did director Doug McHenry feel this was the board once again showing its proclivity of violence over sex, but he also said the decision was straight-up racist. “I’m not calling any one individual a racist,” Mr. McHenry, who is African-American, told the New York Times back then. “What I’m saying is the process leaves a pattern of discriminatory results.” He later did a 60-second radio ad that aired in urban markets and had him expressing his displeasure over the movie’s treatment by the board. “In this country you can kill 50,000 people in a film, but you can’t have a tasteful, romantic love scene,” he said in the ad. “If you have two Black people making love, somehow, that’s steamier than other people.”

In the quarter-century since Lyric’s run-in with the MPAA, Black love stories have continued to be something of a rarity onscreen. Oh yeah, Black folk will get for-us-by-us comedies with romantic themes — like the just-released What Men Want, a female-driven remake of What Women Want with Taraji P. Henson in the Mel Gibson role — but, as far as genuine, straightforward love stories between African-Americans, they often seem few and far between.

There are African-American filmmakers working to turn that around. After all, Moonlight director Barry Jenkins recently dropped another riveting, Oscar-nominated romantic drama, If Beale Street Could Talk, based on the James Baldwin novel. But we shouldn’t forget about filmmakers like Gina Prince-Bythewood, who directed the 2000 film Love & Basketball, with Sanaa Lathan and Omar Epps as aspiring b-ball players who are smitten with each other. Unfortunately, she didn’t make another romantic film until Beyond the Lights in 2014, starring Guga Mbatha-Raw as a pop star who falls for a police officer (Nate Parker — yeah, I know).

Mbatha-Raw and Parker in “Beyond the Lights”

Much like with the trouble she went through to get Basketball made, Prince-Bythewood had to deal with similar strife before Lights finally got greenlit. “Every studio turned this film down twice,” Prince-Bythewood told RogerEbert.com in 2014. “I was told that it ‘felt too small’ or asked if I’d consider casting the male lead white? It was just a matter of them not seeing. Not connecting. It just wasn’t what they wanted to put out in the world. It’s disheartening, trust me, to sit in a room as a Black female to hear that your story is not worthy of production. And I would hear that over and over and over.”

Even though Lights became a modest success at the box office, a critical darling and even had a song nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song, it’s still a battle for actors and filmmakers to properly portray Black love on-screen. “We don’t really get to do The Fault in Our Stars,” Tika Sumpter told Vogue in 2016 when she was promoting Southside with You, a Sundance fave about Barack and Michelle Obama’s first date. (Along with being a producer on the movie, Sumpter played Michelle, of course.) “It was important to me to really help make this film and be a part of it because I know we don’t get these moments all the time. I think [this movie] is a universal story of two people, who are Black, that anybody can relate to.”

Diahann Carroll and James Earl Jones in ‘Claudine’

There have been many good-to-great romantic films made by Africans-Americans and starring African-Americans throughout the years, and we’re not just talking about contemporary cult faves like Love Jones or Brown Sugar. A couple of years ago, the Museum of Modern Art had a film program called “Black Intimacy” — a series of films (which I wrote about) that showed relationships of African-Americans, whether they were familial, platonic and, yes, romantic — and they screened such underappreciated romantic films of yesteryear like Nothing But a Man, Claudine and A Warm December, directed by and starring Sidney Poitier

Adeze Wilford, who curated the series, says that while Black love stories will always get made every now and then, pale-skinned folk (especially those who runs movie studios) are gonna have to get used to the fact that people of color fall in love too — and they would like to see that represented on the big screen. “I think part of that is that whiteness is considered the de facto normalcy in this country,” says Wilford. “And so, a lot of the time, even with, like, Crazy Rich Asians and Black Panther — when that movie came out, so many people were surprised by the reception — we’ve always shown that representation has always been something that people have been drawn to. Of course, you want to see yourself reflected in stories, even if they are, like, fantastical things that, you know, are superhero movies or if it’s more intimate storytelling.

“And, you know, it is unfortunate that there is a perception that white audiences wouldn’t respond to [these] films, but I think that gets perpetuated all the time,” she adds. “And, then, people believe that white audiences wouldn’t watch films with protagonists of color, and it’s been shown over and over again that that’s not true. So, it’s definitely a physical thing, that this perception exists in the world. A body of work is made, it gets disproven and, still, the perception exists. So, that’s a larger cultural question we could wax on about for a while.”