The Black love interest: Black casting through racebending

Feb. 15, 2023, 9:53 p.m.

This review contains spoilers for “Bridgerton,” “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” “You” and “Normal People.”

Black actors have seen representation gains on screen since the start of the pandemic. While it is too soon to know if increased diversity is more than a temporary trend, one storytelling trope that is likely here to stay is that of the Black love interest. In this storyline, Black actors are used as short-term love interests on ensemble shows featuring all-white casts.

In the contemporary media climate, screen adaptations of books have allowed creators to engage in racebending — the practice of depicting canonically white characters as people of color. While it has been both popular and controversial, it warrants closer inspection when the story revolves around the protagonist’s romantic life.

The Black love interest goes from a casting decision to a trope when the inclusion of such a character gestures to wider issues with race and racism, yet the storytelling fails to make these topics explicit. One of the most popular series that features racebending is Netflix’s adaptation of “Bridgerton.” Based on Julia Quinn’s best-selling romance novels, the Shondaland production is set in a Regency Britain where people of color are in the upper echelons of society and the peerage system. So far, the series has paired off Daphne (Phoebe Dynevor) and Anthony Bridgerton (Jonathan Bailey) with non-white love interests.

In season one, Daphne’s relationship with Simon (Regé-Jean Page), the Duke of Hastings, follows the fake dating trope: pretending to date leads to the characters developing real feelings for each other. Despite this being an alternative universe, elements of history such as colonialism, racism and enslavement are still referenced. There are hints that Black people have a fragile acceptance in this society, as evidenced by flashbacks of Simon’s verbally abusive father stressing the importance of being extraordinary to maintain their peerage.

Out of his fears that an heir will suffer the same pressure to represent Black excellence, Simon tells Daphne that he cannot have children. This deception becomes a major plot point in the latter half of the season. Simon’s maleness and his Blackness put him in a precarious position after Daphne devises a plan to force him into revealing the truth. Instead of grappling with the implications of her actions, the couple gets a happily-ever-after; the audience never sees how Simon comes to terms with parenting his child and avoids the same mistakes his father made with him.

Unlike in “Bridgerton,” though, the Black love interest typically does not end up with the protagonist. The adaptation of Jenny Han’s “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” trilogy, for instance, casts Black actors in the roles of two of Lara Jean’s five crushes. Whereas Lucas (Trezzo Mahoro) gently lets Lara Jean (Lana Condor) down by informing her that he is gay, John Ambrose (Jordan Fisher) appears to be a viable contender for Lara Jean’s heart in the second film.

Despite Lara Jean and John Ambrose’s common interests and romantic chemistry, the film comes to a close with Lara Jean’s realization that she wants to be with Peter Kavinsky (Noah Centineo). While this choice stays true to Han’s books, Fisher’s portrayal is wasted because he is the perfect man for Lara Jean(!), and yet he ends up alone.

Seemingly due to Netflix’s continued commitment to hiring Black creators, the streaming service’s content features many examples of the Black love interest trope. In season three of Caroline Kepnes’s hit series “You,” actress Tati Gabrielle plays Marienne, the newest object of the protagonist’s (deeply unhealthy and typically fatal) obsession.

While giving Joe (Penn Badgley) a Black love interest may avoid retelling stories of the missing white woman syndrome, the viewer has extra reason to worry that if Marienne gets involved with Joe, there is virtually no chance she will escape unharmed. There is no missing Black woman syndrome, in part because when Black women go missing, the news fails to devote similar attention to their plight compared to their white counterparts.

Hulu’s take on Sally Rooney’s “Normal People” similarly has a Black love interest problem. Early episodes establish that Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell (Paul Mescal) are star-crossed lovers who will continually collide and fail to connect during young adulthood due to their different social classes. Because they can’t seem to stay out of each other’s orbit, their coupling with other partners is disastrous.

In Rooney’s book, Marianne becomes involved with Lukas (Lancelot Ncube), a Scandinavian photographer, while studying abroad in Sweden. The BDSM elements of their relationship take on a darker valence in the TV series, partly because Lukas is portrayed by a Black actor. The viewer is left to wonder why Lukas would eagerly begin to engage in sexual sadism. A failure to explore Lukas’s motivation activates the hypersexual black male trope.

The showrunners are aware that the difference in social power between Marianne and Lukas could portend danger for Lukas. This is evident during the climactic scene before Marianne leaves Lukas. Whereas in the book, Marianne threatens to call the police when he violates the rules of their sexual relationship, on screen Marianne simply leaves the encounter in tears and abandons their relationship.

On one hand, it is difficult to critique the inclusion of Black characters as love interests because ultimately, it does lead to Black actors getting more work. The problem with this form of representation is that when the love interest is not a suitable option for the protagonist’s heart, these portrayals maintain the desirability hierarchy that places a premium on whiteness. The trope allows showrunners to signal to liberal white viewers that people of color hold white people at the center of their psychological universe. Non-Black characters get to appear politically progressive even if they end up with a white partner. 

Above all, this trope robs audiences of storytelling that centers two people of color falling in love with each other. The continual inclusion of Black love interests pretends to address complaints about casts not being diverse, without giving viewers high-quality representation. In “Bridgerton,” “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” “You,” “Normal People” and more, the storytelling fails to go beyond visual representation to grapple with deeper themes about how Black characters experience the world.

Although more people are finding love outside of their race, dating and marriage are still deeply political. Popular culture shapes our view of what is possible. What would the world look like if creators decided to tell complex love stories beyond this trope?

Editor’s Note: This article is a review and includes subjective thoughts, opinions and critiques.

Blyss Cleveland is an Arts & Life staff writer and Screen columnist for vol. 265. She roots for Mike the entire movie when watching "The Philadelphia Story."

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