Valentine’s Day is here. Because a trip to the movies to see the latest romantic comedy is not an accessible option for V-Day celebrants this February, people will likely be curling up on couches and scrolling through their favorite streaming services to revisit mood-setting movies. Classic romantic comedies like heteronormative titan When Harry Met Sally is certainly a fan favorite, and with good reason. While there is abundant Twitter debate about whether or not Billy Crystal is hot enough for Meg Ryan’s character (he isn’t), the film’s underlying thesis—that love is about appreciating another person’s particularities in addition to their shimmering surface qualities—is undoubtedly romantic.
When Harry Met Sally, 10 Things I Hate About You, 13 Going on 30 and Sleepless in Seattle are popular Valentine’s Day classics. But it is high time to normalize love stories between non-white characters in the popular canon of romantic films and rom-coms. This isn’t just because people of color have intriguing love stories of their own which deserve to have enthusiastic personality cults around them, but also because love stories that take place between members of salient identities hold a particular power. Capital-L Love can be even more powerful when it’s exchanged between people who’ve been socially conditioned to perceive themselves as inherently unworthy of it. In the spirit of interpersonal romantic love and self-love, here are five films that showcase people of color in love to watch this Valentine’s Day…and whenever you want, because rules aren’t real and romantic movies kick ass.
This romantic Bollywood classic also moonlights as a musical-sports film. It does it all. In Lagaan, Aamir Khan (my favorite Bollywood Khan followed by SRK, Saif Ali, then Salman) plays the farmer Bhuvan Latha. In 1893, Bhuvan leads members of his village in rural Champaner against Captain Russell (Paul Blackthorne) and his fellow scummy British army officers in a high-stakes game of cricket; by winning this match Bhuvan and his community members will be freed of their obligation to pay taxes on their crops for the following three years. However if they lose, taxes will be exorbitantly driven up. Yikes, is correct. While the film is a sports epic with twinges of post-colonial historical drama, at the heart of the film is a delicious love triangle between Bhuvan, beautiful Champaner local Gaury (Gracy Singh) and Elizabeth (Rachel Shelley), the sister of Captain Russell. Between you and me, Elizabeth and her well-intentioned white lady colonizer energy never stood a chance against Gaury’s wit and whims. The playful back-and-forth between Gaury and Bhuvan and the backdrop of their village’s fate result in some truly titillating slow-burn romance. I’m not being cutesy: This film boasts a mighty critique of imperialism and awesome sports sequences, but the central romance truly simmers over the film’s 3 hour and 45 minute runtime. Their love sings with the greatest resonance in “Radha Kaise Na Jale” and “O Rey Chori,” my favorite songs in this film’s superb soundtrack.
This Australian drama was the first film to ever be shot on the South Pacific island of Tanna. It follows the forbidden love story of Wawa (Marie Wawa) and Dain (Mungau Dain), two young ni-Vanuatu lovers who defy the cultural tradition, or kastom, of arranged marriage and strive to be together despite the disapproval of their feuding communities, the Imedin and the people of Kastom Road. Tanna’s location yields some stellar, sweeping landscape shots of lapping waves, dense brush and volcano crust, which environmentally reinforce the film’s thematic meditations on the intrinsicness of young love. Additionally, as Wawa and Dain simultaneously navigate the pressures of social obligation and the topography of the island, the longevity of their romance is called into question alongside the legacy of their culture. Selin (Marceline Rofit), Wawa’s younger sister, occupies an intriguing narrative and communal role as the young, curious observer. The audience’s secondhand observation of daily life through Selin’s explorative streak and Wawa’s efforts to assert her independence—while deterring the collapse of her community—builds family drama out around the dynamic film’s romantic core. Tanna’s is a dashing, fictionalized version of a true story that has permanently changed the actualization of kastom and romantic love in the lives of the Imedin and Kastom Road people. I highly recommend watching this with a box of tissues at hand.
Love Jones feels just as refreshing now as it did in 1997: It’s a romantic drama filled with realistic relationships and conversations, focused on a group of Black writers, artists and intellectuals. Nina (Nia Long), a photographer just out of a long relationship, meets Darius (Larenz Tate), a writer and spoken-word artist (oh hey, the ‘90s) who meets her at a show and pursues her—carefully but quite ardently—until they fall into on-again, off-again love. Aside from the naturalistic performances (from the two leads as well as their easygoing group of friends, including Isaiah Washington and Lisa Nicole Carson), the greatest delight of Love Jones is the way its soundtrack (which seamlessly blends Charlie Parker with Lauryn Hill with Coltrane with Maxwell) syncs with its Chicago scenery for a kind of hipper Woody Allen feel. The film opens on Chicago through Nina-the-photographer’s eyes, from black-and-white shots of the El and the skyline to close-ups of the faces of the city’s Black community. While Love Jones features Chicago movie staples like Buckingham Fountain and Union Station, it comes alive in its specifics—such as Nina and Darius’s meeting at the jazz/spoken word club Sanctuary (not real, but it feels it), and then their subsequent “first date”: Chicago-style stepping at the Blackstone Hotel. Carefully rendered, the City of Love Jones is truly multi-dimensional.—Maura McAndrew
Many superb romance films double as family dramas. Little Women, About Time and the underappreciated 2001 dramedy Tortilla Soup are prime examples of this fact. In María Ripoll’s Tortilla Soup, a remake of Ang Lee’s Eat Drink Man Woman, Héctor Elizondo (yes from The Princess Diaries) portrays Martin Naranjo, a Mexican-American widower who uses his passion for food to unify his three disparate daughters: The pious Leticia (Elizabeth Peña), careerist Carmen (Jacqueline Obradors) and sprightly Maribel (Tamara Mello). All four members of the family navigate the challenges of their personal neuroses and respective romances while attempting to maintain a semblance of normalcy around their dinner table. Aside from the care the film offers each daughter in her distinct romantic journey—Leticia, a schoolteacher, falls for the baseball coach her students assure her is sending the romantic poems she receives daily—Tortilla Soup’s strength partially lies in the way familial love reinforces the boldness each character has to receive and offer romantic love. Romantic love is not hierarchically positioned as more important than any other kind of love in this film. Rather, Tortilla Soup suggests that the ways people are witnessed, through the love of their chosen family, gives them the courage to demand mightier and more fulfilling love in all aspects of their lives. Watch out for this sisterly scene in which Leticia, Carmen and Maribel perform a playful Spanglish rendition of “Quizas, Quizas, Quizas” after discussing their sexcapades.
Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden, based on the novel Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, is a beautifully constructed erotic thriller. While the book sets the story in Victorian England, Park establishes the tale in 1930s Japanese-occupied Korea. Returning to Korea after making his English-language debut with Stoker, Park tells the story of Sook-hee (Tae Ri Kim), a petty thief and master pickpocket, who conspires with a man known as “The Count” (Jung-woo Ha), an accomplished con artist, to swindle the fortune of a wealthy Japanese Princess, Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim). Posing as the Princess’s handmaiden, Sook-hee moves into Hideko’s massive colonial estate, but after meeting Hideko’s strict and perverted uncle (Jin-woong Jo), who forces his niece to read erotic literature to a small group of wealthy men, Sook-hee’s feelings toward Hideko evolve. The two grow closer in unexpected ways, reaching an intense and at times jaw-dropping level of intimacy—and yet, all is not what it seems. Teeming with erotica, violence, double-crossing and perversion, The Handmaiden is a taut thriller underpinned by a message of love.—Joshua Wilmott
Adesola Thomas is a screenwriter and culture writer. She loves talking about Annette Benning’s performance in 20th Century Women and making lasagna. You can follow her on Twitter.