Around the United States, people of all backgrounds are protesting in support of Black Lives Matter. Yet not only are people of color treated differently in the real world, but the entertainment industry as well, for unless audiences are watching a “black” film, seldom do we see persons of color in significant leading roles. This is what led to the #OscarsSoWhite movement a few years ago, critiquing the Academy’s lack of diversity and how, when there are award-winning films with lead actors of color, it’s usually based around themes of racism.
This racial empathy gap extends from how the brain fires differently when dealing with people outside of one’s race. One University of Toronto study about racial empathy had various participants watch films with different races to gauge the participant’s emotional reaction to other people’s pain, linking those reactions to racial biases. The study revealed that mentally, “people were less likely to simulate the actions of other-race than same-race people. The Caucasian observers reacted to pain suffered by African people significantly less than to pain of Caucasian people.” Since the majority of Hollywood is white, the films made and produced represent white society while regulating non-white actors to stereotype roles. With few mainstream options, people of color have no choice but to watch what is currently in the theater to see a portion of representation.
This brings us to The Lovebirds, which was released on Netflix due to the coronavirus shutting down its theatrical debut. Starring Issa Rae and Kumail Nanjiani, the film shatters preconceived notions of what we expect when people of color are in the leading roles. Instead of perpetuating stereotypes, Jibran (Kumail Nanjiani) is a documentary filmmaker, and Leilani (Issa Rae) is in marketing. The film centers around the couple, currently in the midst of a breakup, trying to get to a dinner party and the misadventures that follow. Most romantic comedies operate under the same basic formula: boy meets girl, problem, sexual tension, happily ever after. Unlike Isn’t It Romantic; however, this movie cleverly challenges the romantic comedy genre.
Nanjiani and Rae are convincing as a couple, and their electric chemistry is consistent throughout the movie. In the beginning, we follow Jibran and Leilani when their relationship is first starting. The subtle nuances of their awkward back and forth getting to know each other, down to the affectionate looks they trade, make the couple’s relationship seem real. I enjoyed it when the film jumped four years into the future, as the dynamic of their relationship changed believably. In one such case, Leilani got date shoes for Jibran but didn’t tell him that’s what they were. The love they have for each other is still apparent, but instead of awkward moments of figuring each other out, their conversations involved fighting about stupid stuff like getting on The Amazing Race.
The Lovebirds shows how relationships progress from being all over each other, sitting comfortably in silence, and then eventually reaching a point where they want to break up during a car ride. Despite this, Jibran and Leilani stick together for the greater good of solving a mystery as who killed a cyclist (Nicholas X Parsons) they accidentally hit with their car. In doing so, the film reveals that there are still moments of love between the two; Jibran still looks at Leilani with love when they are changing at a pharmacy. When Jibran gets kicked by a horse and has trouble changing, Leilani helps rub pain ointment on him. They are still able to be in sync and attack in sync, something that eventually saves their lives and helps take down Moustache (Paul Sparks) with the cops’ assistance.
Waiting for another Lyft ride, Jibran and Leilani talk about their first date, where they both have a realization. An old couple sitting in silence that day during their date wasn’t because they had nothing to say, but because they were comfortable with each other and didn’t need to talk the entire time, a feeling they have yet to fully master. Another realization takes place at their friend Reya’s (Betsy Borrego) house, where Leilani learns that Reya doesn’t have a perfect relationship and fabricates her social media account to make her exes follow her out of jealousy. While Jibran talks to a man named Keith (Mahdi Cocci), he learns that Leilani brags about him all the time and doesn’t even try to flirt with him. In the end, their relationship circles back to the beginning, where Leilani accuses Jibran of having an “I want to kiss you” face, and Jibran accuses Leilani him of the same.
What adds to the ex-couple’s believability is that The Lovebirds doesn’t shy away from racial issues that people of color face. Sometimes the hints are innocuous, such as when Leilani and Jibran are loudly arguing about The Amazing Race, Leilani wants them to tone the argument down in fear that neighbors will hear them and call the cops. After Moustache kills Bicycle, a white couple discovers Jibran and Leilani standing in shock over his body and calls the police only to insist that the African-American woman and male person of color aren’t suspects. In a scene that seems too close to home right now, Jibran and Leilani roleplay what it would look like if they turned themselves in, with Leilani pretending to cover a body camera and saying she’ll beat Jibrans’ ass because he looks like a murderer with his beard and eyebrows. This leads to a heartbreaking line-“Do you think the police care about the truth? Do you think they’re gonna give us the benefit of the doubt?” that, given our knowledge of racial profiling, would likely mean they would suffer the consequences of profiling.
After leaving the pharmacy, the duo must wait for a police car to ride past them before they can get into their Lyft, worrying that the cops will arrest them. The vehicle rides by slowly, and the two cops look at the couple and drive away. Using humor, Leilani and Jibran say thank God they are just regular racists. In the end, when they learn the police know they aren’t the ones who killed Bicycle, Jibran tells the detective they had a good experience and asks for a comment card.
The Lovebirds keep the laughs coming, but underneath the surface, it says a lot about the world we live in today. The police have had a microscope on their activities dealing with people of color, and sadly, what Leilani was worried about is real to many, as the protests over George Floyd’s death have proven. Hollywood needs to do better at representing all people so, moving forward, let’s support movies that are actively trying to change the narrative for good. As moviegoers, we have the power to elicit change from the studios and diversifying both narratives and staff, rather than getting the occasional token film. There shouldn’t be white-cinema and black-cinema, there should just be good films.