Hollywood’s portrayal of Black romance is in critical condition. It's been decades since audiences have seen moments as endearing as Darius running through Union Station for Nina in Love Jones, or Dre interrupting a Hot 97 interview to ask his long-time best friend Sidney to go steady in Brown Sugar. New Black love stories not only feel like they’re being produced at a glacial pace in comparison to their 90s heyday, but they rarely exist separately from tragedy.
These days, films seldom explore chemistry and romance between Black characters without a trauma porn plot. In Queen & Slim, a first date turns into a whirlwind romance because of a trigger-happy cop. Malcolm & Marie provided the depth The Photograph’s generational love story was missing—but Zendaya and John David Washington’s toxic bickering about sobriety distracted some viewers. Not even Barry Jenkins’ artful eye in If Beale Street Could Talk could make a wrongful conviction feel romantic.
Last week, Netflix gave us another option, Really Love, a film as culturally rich as its predecessors but without the drama contemporary films heavily rely on. Isaiah, a struggling painter, and Stevie, a promising law student, fall in love in D.C. on the cusp of their careers, and for anyone who grew up in the city or spent time living there, Really Love feels deeply personal: Viewers aren’t just falling in love with Isaiah and Stevie, played tenderly by Kofi Siriboe and Yootha Wong-Loi-Sing, but with D.C. as its backdrop. The place seems real, and so do their problems, but part of the film’s allure is that it feels like Isaiah and Stevie’s romance exists in a vacuum, with only their egos to prevent them from loving each other.
On this first level, the film pays homage to the community that gave D.C. the nickname “Chocolate City.” It opens with a montage of two versions of the city, juxtaposing the prestige often associated with the Washington Monument and Capitol Building against landmarks that mean more to Black residents, like the Shaw neighborhood’s Chuck Brown Way or the MetroPCS store that blares go-go music on the corner of Georgia Ave and 7th Street (if you know, you know). Isaiah and his best friend met at ex-mayor Marion Barry’s summer camp; Stevie and her best friend met at Howard University. Together, they enjoy a night out where they run into local artist GoldLink before watching a live go-go performance—all of the city’s cultural identifiers are in one place. In the background, though, there are signs for construction sites and new townhomes, a common sight in the city with the most extreme gentrification in the country, according to one recent study.
These are subtle cues director Angel Kristi Williams uses to convey the tension we see in Really Love between the working and upper class, including between lovers. It’s there from the first words we hear between Isaiah and Stevie when they meet: “Black people are both extraordinary and normal, at the same time,” Stevie says. And it's central to Isaiah’s own art within the film, in his portraits of Black men with their emotions embedded in a rich impasto. Really Love shows Blackness as both grandiose but also full of humility.
That sort of yin and yang dynamic is what makes Isaiah and Stevie’s connection feel so deep: They realize they are not only attracted to each other because they’re attractive people, but because they each offer what the other is seeking. Isaiah could benefit from Stevie’s ambition and the stability law school provides, and Stevie’s life could use more freedom and spontaneity. When the two finally come up for air from all that artistic, passionate sex they’re having, we see Isaiah’s insecurities loud and clear. He wants to be able to take care of her financially, but doesn’t feel like he can stack up. “I ain’t got people with money to fall back on,” he says. The wealth gap that Isaiah and Stevie embody is emblematic of Really Love’s overarching theme, but expressing it so personally is also somewhat of a catch-22.
From the start, it isn’t difficult to predict that the film’s conflict will revolve around their upbringings and career trajectories. Unfortunately, Really Love conflates important issues, like gentrification and classism, succeeding in explicitly calling those systems out without clearly showing how they affect us as individuals. It’s hard to meet Black Washingtonians who have lived in the city for years without hearing a story about them or someone they know being displaced, but in the countless family and friends we meet in Really Love, everyone is relatively unscathed. With Isaiah’s art showcasing everyday Black people, and particularly Black men, Really Love doesn’t interrogate how Isaiah feels once he “arrives” in this prestigious art world. Is he conflicted? Does he feel like a sellout? Meanwhile, Stevie is used as a scapegoat for how Howard students are perceived in the city. Not all alum come from money (I should know, it’s my alma mater) and a lot of us can empathize with Isaiah’s upbringing better than we can to hers.
Still, Really Love is a beautiful portrayal of Black intimacy—one that causes you to pause and consider the ways in which our love stories have not been considered as ubiquitous as other iconic couples like Jack and Rose. Rarely are Black characters written with the intent of loving tenderly, but Really Love does just that with a gentleness in their interactions: long eye contact, forgiving touches, noses buried in natural hair. What it lacks in its general storytelling, it makes up for in a romance that feels custom-made for this couple. “Folks make you feel like art’s supposed to be some lofty shit,” Isaiah says at one point. “Black people create shit out of nothing every day. If that ain’t art, then I don’t know what is.” Sometimes, love is art, too.
Kristin Corry is a Senior Staff Writer for VICE.