IN 2018, comedic actor Rebel Wilson received swift backlash when she claimed her starring role in Isn’t It Romantic made her the first plus-size actor to lead a studio romantic comedy. Though Wilson was mistaken—fat Black women had come before her—she was merely hewing to the conventional wisdom of the film industry at large: Romantic comedies are white. The genre’s most notable auteurs are white women, including Nora Ephron and Nancy Meyers, who pull their aesthetics from their own lives. Their work has so rigidly defined rom-coms that any film that lacks these elements isn’t considered a part of the canon. Romantic comedies have long been a proving ground for young ingenues: Drew Barrymore, Sandra Bullock, Anne Hathaway, Katherine Heigl, Kate Hudson, Julia Roberts, and many others have used these films as vehicles either to transition from television work to the big screen or to make their film debuts before moving into more “serious,” Oscar-worthy fare.
As journalist Kyle Buchanan wrote for Vulture in 2017, “For years, this was a genre that [c]ould mint superstars.” This is partly a function of the stories themselves: Romantic comedies nearly always involve a plucky, beautiful, thin young woman whom we meet when she is down on her luck. As she picks herself up, she meets the man—always a man—of her dreams. And as that man falls in love with her pluckiness, beauty, and thinness, so too does the audience. When the film is over, those artificially generated feelings of warmth transfer from the fictional character onto the actor herself. So it should come as no surprise that the genre’s perpetual whiteness locked Black actors and other actors of color out of the career pipeline afforded to their white peers. Actors like Regina Hall, Sanaa Lathan, Paula Patton, and Gabrielle Union have all led their fair share of rom-coms, but none have benefitted from the prestige bump that usually accompanies those roles. Instead, throughout the ’90s and 2000s, Black romantic comedies didn’t receive the same wide distribution or critical coverage, relegating them to the dreaded Hollywood ghetto of “urban films.”
“I feel like studios have been making rom-coms with Black people in them for years, they just don’t market them as rom-coms, they just market them as Black films,” critic Soraya McDonald told Longreads in 2018. Despite these challenges, Black audiences have long ached to see their romances onscreen and have continually flocked to theaters to support them. As Soraya Roberts wrote in the aforementioned Longreads essay: “[T]he golden age of the modern rom-com was as Black as it was white. When Harry Met Sally… (1989) promoted the genre’s mainstream rebirth, and in parallel, a Black industry exploded….Nora Ephron and Nancy Meyers became Gina Prince-Bythewood and Malcolm D. Lee. Meg Ryan and Julia Roberts became Sanaa Lathan and Queen Latifah.” As Black rom-coms entered the mainstream, they built a more inclusive canon than their white predecessors. As the midbudget film has all but disappeared in the industry, the rom-com genre in particular has suffered, experiencing a precipitous drop in production since the early 2010s.
Studios don’t want to spend money on films that aren’t tentpole action fare or awards-baiting Oscar dramas, so bold Black rom-coms were replaced with paint-by-numbers ensemble vehicles like Think Like a Man (2012) and its 2014 sequel, Think Like a Man Too. As writer Hunter Harris wrote for Vulture in 2017, “In the modern romantic comedy, two single Black people rarely just meet. Instead, one group of Black friends meets another group of Black friends, and somewhere in there Kevin Hart shows up to make a few jokes.” But despite the rote nature of these films, the numbers don’t lie—audiences were still clamoring to see Black romance onscreen. The Best Man Holiday grossed $72 million worldwide after it premiered in 2013, making more than $30 million through opening weekend. As audiences have noticed this void, they have also become more vocal about wanting a rom-com resurgence. In this way, it makes sense that Wilson claimed the title of first plus-size rom-com lead for herself. Why not position herself as the person providing the very thing her audience is craving? But when it comes to plus-size romantic leads, Queen Latifah has long occupied the space usually reserved for thin, white women. Starring in films like Bringing Down the House (2003), Beauty Shop (2005), Last Holiday (2006), and Just Wright (2010), Latifah has repeatedly demonstrated that plus-size Black women can and do find love onscreen.
The Romantic Comedy as Aspirational Image
It’s a running joke that white women in romantic comedies are all writers, journalists, or magazine editors. In Never Been Kissed (1999), Josie Geller (Drew Barrymore) is a copyeditor turned investigative reporter; in Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001) and its sequels, the titular character (Renée Zellweger) is a journalist turned television producer; and in How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days (2003), Andie Anderson (Kate Hudson) is an advice columnist who’s itching for meatier stories. As a shorthand, ambition works well—these are all women who are doing fine but still ache for more. Audiences, specifically women, can easily identify with the characters, if not because their own lives mirror the character’s then because they want them to. This aspirational element is often lacking for Black women characters in romantic comedies. The mainstream (read: white) tropes of rom-coms often don’t translate when the characters are Black. Instead, they morph to align with stereotypes about working- and middle-class Black people. While white women are wealthy, single, and unattached, Black women are single mothers living paycheck to paycheck. While white women are coded as ambitious but still soft and romantic—Rachel McAdams in Morning Glory (2010)—Black women are coded as hard and unfeeling because they’re ambitious (Gabrielle Union in 2003’s Deliver Us from Eva and 2007’s Daddy’s Little Girls). As a result, the implicit assumption is that Black women must be tamed to be worthy of love.
Similarly, white women are largely allowed the freedom to leave partners who harm or disrespect them. In fact, doing so is usually the action that proves they’re ready for their one true love (Sandra Bullock in 1995’s While You Were Sleeping). But for Black women, forgiving the men they love for their intrusive, offensive, or presumptuous behavior is the price they must pay to be chosen by a man—forever humbling themselves at the altar of heterosexuality (Halle Berry in 1992’s Boomerang). Fat women of any race rarely fare any better. Instead they’re forced into their own specific but additionally limiting roles—either the comic relief, where the prospect of a sincere romance is presented as laughable (Rebel Wilson in 2012’s Pitch Perfect), or the hypersexual maneater with many unseen partners (Jill Scott in 2013’s Baggage Claim). For every way in which a woman deviates from the white, thin, and beautiful Hollywood standard, she’s required to pay penance to the movie gods for the possibility of her love. With all these representational barriers, the fact that Queen Latifah has starred in several studio rom-coms is nothing short of a coup.
The feminist rapper’s screen career soared to new heights on Living Single, a Fox sitcom that aired from 1993 until 1998. The show revolved around four characters, including Khadijah James (Latifah), the editor and publisher of an independent music magazine. Erika Alexander, Kim Coles, and Kim Fields rounded out the main cast of single Black women in New York working through the foibles of romantic and professional life together. Khadijah stands out as an early example of a plus-size Black woman both professionally focused and actively dating. It’s a notable creative choice on the part of the show given that even now, plus-size characters must often choose between their love lives and their careers. But Khadijah’s size was never presented as an obstacle to her dating life, and in fact, Living Single often made a point of casting the most desirable Black men of the era as her dates and boyfriends. Morris Chestnut, Grant Hill, Bumper Robinson, Isaiah Washington, and Cress Williams all made appearances on the show as partners for Khadijah, vying for her attention and romantic affection.
Though not all of the men were right for her, they were all presented as being attracted to her for her ambition, beauty, drive, and personality. They saw her for the person she was and chose her because of it. As writer Lauren Porter noted in a 2018 piece for Essence, “However long or short their connections were, the men in [Khadijah’s] life weren’t unhealthy or toxic, and they didn’t see dating her as a means of fulfilling some sort of fetish.” Living Single presented Queen Latifah as a big girl being loved out loud without complications, planting the early seeds for her to step into the role of a romantic film lead. After all, if so many men could see and love her in all her glory, then why wouldn’t everyone else? Queen Latifah’s cross-demographic appeal made her the natural fit for big studio rom-coms that could escape the doldrums of a “Black film.”
Queen Latifah’s oeuvre demonstrates that satisfying Black rom-coms for fat women are possible, even if Hollywood is resistant to making them.
Living Single and Ready to Mingle
Latifah starred in a string of rom-coms before being cast as the lead in Just Wright, a special film that honestly details the difficulties of dating as a plus-size Black woman without ever pathologizing fatness as a reason for romantic failure. Latifah’s Leslie Wright is a physical therapist who is roped into the world of professional basketball after a chance encounter with New Jersey Nets player Scott McKnight (Common). In her midthirties and under pressure from her mother to get married, Leslie is acutely aware of how men see her: With her easy banter, big appetite, and love of sports, Leslie is the “cool girl” men are supposed to seek, but her fatness takes her out of contention for romantic consideration. In an early scene, Leslie goes on a date with a handsome man who appears to enjoy her company. Their conversation is easy and smooth, and they learn they have a lot in common. By all indications, it’s a successful date. But when Leslie tries to plan a second date, her date hedges, insisting she’s “good people” but he just isn’t ready for anything serious. Apparently, when you’re fat, a second date is too serious.
It doesn’t help that Leslie’s godsister, Morgan (Paula Patton), embodies everything Leslie thinks she lacks. Tall, slender, and beautiful with a taste for designer clothing, Morgan oozes desire and unattainability. During Scott’s birthday party, Leslie visibly wilts when he immediately turns his attention to Morgan. Their whirlwind romance and quick engagement only reinforces Leslie’s belief that men will never consider her a viable romantic prospect. But when Scott suffers what could be a career-ending injury, Morgan abandons him, leaving Leslie to pick up the broken pieces of his heart and body. It is then that the sparks begin to fly between the two leads. Now living in residence so she can provide 24-7 care for his injury, Leslie and Scott spend weeks together training, exercising, and getting to know each other away from the prying eyes of public perception. Scott is obviously falling for Leslie, but he repeatedly stops himself from initiating anything romantic between them. It’s no wonder then that Leslie feels overlooked because she’s fat. She’s confident in her skills as a physical therapist and the sparkling charm of her personality, but her self-confidence wanes without the reinforcement of an interested romantic partner.
Just Wright doesn’t shy away from representing the self-esteem issues that can crop up when fat Black women enter the dating market. Leslie is so comfortable in her role as a caretaker that it takes her a while to realize she’s allowed to put herself first. The true triumph of Just Wright is that after spending so much time in Leslie’s company, Scott is able to see that his brief reconciliation with Morgan is the wrong choice. And in the end, Leslie gets her big love, without ever having to change anything about herself. At no point is Leslie required to suffer, lose weight, or change herself in any way. Instead, she holds fast to her guns, letting Scott realize what he’s been missing all on his own. When it comes down to it, the struggle of the Black romantic comedy is the same as all other forms of Black art—to be recognized as legitimate. As culture writer Clover Hope noted in a 2018 piece for Jezebel, “It is really frustrating when rom-coms with Black leads are left out of both canon and conversation, and at the base level, memory, even as so many obscure rom-coms starring white people are hyped over the jewel-like movies The Best Man or The Wood.” Queen Latifah’s oeuvre demonstrates that satisfying Black rom-coms for fat women are possible, even if Hollywood is resistant to making them. And while she stands out from the crowd because of her star power and her legacy, there is a long list of Black romantic films that both paved the way for hers to exist and were created as a result of her own pioneering spirit.