Why is pain often at the centre for Black women in love in film?

The trope of Black women suffering in order to experience love is something we know all too well – and it’s a lesser-mentioned feature of the 2021 film, Judas and the Black Messiah. 

The six-time Oscar-nominated picture was a stirring take on the betrayal of the Black Panther Party’s Fred Hampton by FBI informant William (Bill) O’Neal. The film follows 21-year-old Hampton, played by Daniel Kaluuya, who strives to revolutionise 1960s Chicago while being investigated by the police. As part of a plea deal, O’Neal, played by Lakeith Stanfield, informs the police about the Black Panther’s plans – ultimately leading to Hampton’s assassination in 1969.

Judas and the Black Messiah has been praised for its original screenplay written by Will Berson and Shaka King who also directed the film. However, my applause goes out to Dominique Fishback who played Hampton’s partner, Deborah Johnson. Although Fishback’s character had less screen time compared to her male counterparts, her development from an outspoken and confident woman to a suffering partner was a familiar theme that I have come across many times in film. 

During a conversation led by actress Cynthia Erivo, as part of the film’s press junket, Fishback contrasted her character’s experience to Allie in The Notebook. In this film and many others of its kind, white leading women often experience temporary pain for love yet, Black women in similar roles aren’t given that same grace.

“Sometimes in these narratives of Black women, we always have to prove ourselves worthy of love,” said Fishback.

“It seems as though after jail or after you stand by a man through something serious and life changing do we ever get that love?”

This statement could not be more true of Fishback’s portrayal of Deborah Johnson. While the early stages of Johnson and Hampton’s relationship were presented as delicate and heart-warming, they were also very short-lived. As Fred Hampton’s revolution grew, he became a larger target for the FBI and was frequently imprisoned for petty crime. Deborah was ultimately alone for much of her pregnancy and then became a single mother after Hampton’s untimely death. 

Another recent film which played into the negative portrayal of a Black woman in love is the recently release Malcolm & Marie. The leads of the film were played by Zendaya and John David Washington who have a heated argument caused by Malcolm forgetting to include Marie in his speech after winning an award for his film. 

Malcom & Marie (Credit: Netflix)

What was most notable about the film for me was that although Marie was clearly angry with Malcolm, she stayed devoted as she cooked for him and listened to his endless self-praise.

While Malcolm said the adrenaline of winning the award led to him forgetting to thank her, I saw a toxic relationship where a Black man had repeatedly overlooked a Black woman’s support and this night was the final straw.

Of course, there are occasions where Black women are loved undeniably in film, however, they seem to be few and far between. In Spike Lee’s 1986 film She’s Gotta Have It, the lead role is a Black woman with three lovers, a thriving career and who owns her own apartment. Similarly, in the 2020 film The Photograph, I was almost surprised to see a dark-skinned Black woman being pursued for a full 90 minutes. 

The idea that Black women have to suffer before they find true love is a damaging concept. While Judas and the Black Messiah opened fresh wounds on the treatment of African-Americans by law enforcement, it was also a reminder that Black women are only allowed to hold on to happiness for a limited time in film. 

Similarly to Dominique Fishback, I would like to sees movies starring a Black woman who is loved out loud, for the full duration of the film. Many male directors and writers are culprits of using Black women’s pain to drive a story, yes Tyler Perry I’m talking to you. This narrative is tiring and in the words of Buzzfeed’s Bim Adewunmi: “When will Hollywood let Black women fall in love?” 

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