Photo: The Big Sick

Nobody’s turning to romantic comedies for an exploration of progressive ideals or experiments with the cinematic form. Rather, rom-coms tend to serve as a symbol of any given generation’s sentimental ideals while also exuding a normality in terms of both personality and desire to encourage self-identification among its audience. In other words, they cast a wide net. That so many forthcoming rom-coms center around interracial relationships is an affirming thing, as it shows an effort on Hollywood’s part to tell love stories about diverse characters without their relationships having to hinge on racial issues.

We’ve been seeing this phenomenon unfold on TV for a while now. Shows like Master Of None, The Mindy Project, and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend have all had their fair share. Now, in a new piece for The Guardian, writer Ellen E. Jones details about how we’re seeing this trend manifest on film, using festival favorites like The Big Sick and The Incredible Jessica James as her premiere examples.

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Before touching on those, Jones tracks the course of how interracial relationships have been portrayed in the history of Hollywood. The Hays Code, which forbade miscegenation, certainly threw a wrench in things. But in 1967, Stanley Kramer’s Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner tackled the topic with humor and grace. The films that sprung up in its wake, however—movies like Mississippi Masala and Jungle Fever, among others—leaned more on drama than comedy, using interracial relationships as a means to touch on larger racial issues. It wasn’t until the mid-’00s that the rom-com genre fully began to embrace diversity among its core couples.

For these films, pairing characters of different ethnicities isn’t so much an attempt to tackle issues as one of several ways of signaling that what we have here isn’t your usual, run-of-the-mill rom-com. They nod visually to the screwball truism that opposites attract, while simultaneously asking if these two sensitive, creative souls really are that dissimilar, just because their skin colours come in different sections of a Pantone swatch. Certainly the Kumails, Emilys, Jessicas and Boones of this world have a lot more in common with each other than they do with their tonally matched families back home. In the tradition of Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, the real cultural clash of the interracial rom-com is not between races, but between generations.

That last point is an especially resonant one. In our modern cultural climate, race is as much an issue as ever, but, as we see in these films, the conflicts are typically foisted upon the couple by a generation that was more or less reared in an era where these kinds of relationships were mostly ignored in life and in media. The good news is that movies like these mean that’s changing.

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