Nothing new about Something New

Focus Features
Sanaa Hamri/United States 2006

This essay gives away the plot and surprise twists.

The first of many inside jokes in the Something New happens when Kenya McQueen (Sanaa Lathan), a successful black woman, is sent on a blind date by her recently-engaged white co-worker. After initial hesitation, Kenya finally agrees to meet her date at Starbucks – only to discover that her potential IBM (Ideal Black Man) is a laid-back, non-professional white guy. Because the movie was marketed as an interracial rom-com, the audience already knows what Kenya is surprised to discover. However, apart from building comic suspense, this scene works on a deeper level by subverting the experiences of single blacks and people of color who participate in predominately white environments. Within communities of color, the common tendency of well-meaning white acquaintances and co-workers to declare two people of color “perfect” for no other for no other reason than they are a) both single, and more importantly, b) the same race, is joked about widely. The assumption being that their shared racial identity obliterates other differences in class, education, lifestyles and religion. With this scene the film not only winks to its black audience, it also signals that the following narrative will take conventional knowledge about race relations and “flip the script”. But to whose advantage and for what purpose?

The film’s plot is standard romantic-comedy fare with a PC racial twist. Kenya is an uptight and upwardly mobile CPA. Her steadfastly sensible attire and tightly wound weave are the familiar signifiers of a woman who is all work and no play. Despite being entrenched in a white professional sphere, Kenya is bound to her community through her name and her three girlfriends whose personalities predictably embody certain classes and levels of education. Kenya’s family is black high society. Her father is a successful doctor whose income provided the means for her and her brother to get post-graduate degrees (business school and law school respectively). Her mother Joyce (Alfre Woodard) believes in the “Politics of Respectability”, a civil-rights era concept that emphasized the importance of blacks acting with self-restraint, self denial and strictly within the parameters of “respectable” behavior circumscribed by whites. Kenya has internalized her mother’s beliefs on everything from acceptable colors to paint your house (pale, neutral colors only), to what qualities to look for in a mate (black, tall, good teeth, no kids, no dogs, and so on).

The white negro

On their brief blind date, Kenya is aloof and has the “attitude” often attributed to black women. She first tries to end the date by saying that there are no empty tables but he quickly finds one in the center of the room. Kenya realizes that she will have to pass by several tables with people of color to reach the empty table. As she passes a black employee, she asks “How’s the man treating you” and tells another stranger “Girl, you’re wearing those dreads.” When they finally sit down, her date Brian (Simon Baker) calls her out, “Making sure everybody knows you’re down?” The fact that Kenya is already concerned about what her community will think when they see her in the company of a white man speaks to the way that racial integration creates an uncomfortable duality in people of color. Among those who have infiltrated the highest levels of white society, they feel pressured to act and speak one way in white company and another within their own communities. Brian notices her racial performance but lacks the experiential background to understand its necessity. Kenya ends the date but soon reconnects with Brian at a party and hires him to renovate her fallow, empty backyard – the symbolism of which should be obvious.

Yet although he is white, Brian must possess enough of the aesthetic and historical markers of stereotypical blackness, to convince the audience that by choosing him Kenya is not “selling out” but being true to herself – including her racialized self. Accordingly Brian has his own business but makes his living through menial labor and working the land. He has a penchant for Afro/Latin world beat music. He is free-spirited, and enjoys the sensual pleasures of Norman Mailer’s romanticized white Negro. Something New repeatedly affirms the notion that blackness is found in emotive traits such as sensuality, passion, and vitality. When Kenya attends a stylized African dance performance with black dancers grinding against each other to tribal drum rhythms, the camera cross cuts between Kenya’s face and the dancers bodies. Her eyes widen, her lips part and she clutches herself as if experiencing a sexual awakening. The next day she finally accepts a date with Brian which ends in a steamy sex scene and the beginning of their relationship. Notably, Brian also asks Kenya to remove her hair weave so he can see her “natural” hair. The importance of hair in the black community cannot be overstated hair texture is either good (straight, silky, long) or bad (kinky, short, frizzy) depending on how much it resembles Caucasian hair. Although post-weave Kenya’s “natural” hair isn’t natural at all, it still appears chemically straightened then curled with a curling iron, the filmmakers have demonstrated that Brian’s sensibilities are in tune with black culture. By the time Mark (Blair Underwood), a handsome, professional IBM enters the picture, the audience knows – from Kenya’s example – that his success in the predominately white field of law indicates his alienation from his racial community and his “essentially” sensual nature. Immediately he is precluded from having true passion and chemistry with the now changed Kenya.

Let Go and Let Flow

Much of Something New is a response to the famous 2000 statistic that 42.4 percent of black women have never been married – double the highest percentage for women of any race. For successful, educated black women the prospects are even more bleak. However, Hollywood films have a long history of suggesting that women of color, especially liberated women, must go outside their race to find a suitable partner – including Real Women Have Curves, Bend it Like Beckham, Monster’s Ball and Made in America. Which is precisely why the premise of Something New – that interracial relationships between women of color and white men is somehow still taboo seems outdated in a cinematic landscape that is obsessed with exploring and fetishizing these arrangements. Also interesting is the massive disconnect between the preferred woman of color/white man configuration represented in films and the reality of census reports which show that, anywhere between 70 to 78 percent of black/white interracial relationships are comprised of black men and white women. When black men and white women couples are portrayed, its confined to Julia Stiles films or stories about dysfunctional families and their rebellious, self-destructive or sexually curious daughters (Traffic, Pieces of April, Thirteen, Cruel Intentions).

Kenya’s friend Cheryl (Wendy Raquel Robinson) plans to beat the above statistic by following the advice of an Afrocentric relationship guru, whose book Let Go and Let Flow advises black women to let go of their checklists and expectations and open themselves up to different men and situations. This idea emboldens Kenya to pursue her relationship with Brian despite the naysayers in her friends and family who give him a hard time. Like the recent film Guess Who which updates and inverts the story of the classic Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Something New concentrates on the “racism” of the blacks. In a postmodern cultural landscape where formally adversarial positions such as misogyny vs. feminism, progressive vs. reactionary, fascism vs. democracy are stripped of power and historical context, and can be presented as merely alternative ways of thinking – racism and “reverse racism” can be addressed as equally serious problems. In fact, the Let Go and Let Flow soon becomes more than just good dating advice, it becomes the motto of the entire film – a sentimental plea along the lines of “can’t we all just get along” aimed towards the black community’s closed-mindedness. For this to be plausible, all of the white characters in Something New are necessarily either blissfully color-blind and enlightened or easily dismissed as crass racists. Brian’s family and friends are conveniently absent in the film, so the filmmaker never has to interrogate the reality of existing white prejudice against interracial relationships. Thus the burden of change rests on blacks – and black women in particular – who could presumably find happiness if only they opened themselves up to finding mates outside of their race. Given that, with the exception of Halle Berry and Beyoncé (both regularly described as having pan-ethnic features), the prevailing ideal of feminine beauty is embodied in European features and body types, it is questionable whether most white men would express the same amount of interest in pursuing an interracial relationship.

Something New does make an half-hearted gesture to discuss racism and white privilege in the workplace through a subplot with Kenya’s client who repeatedly second guesses her judgment. At home, attempts to discuss the “Black Tax” which refers to the fact that blacks often must work twice as long and twice as hard as whites to succeed, elude Brian who questions her assertion that race is a barrier considering that she is about to make partner and makes more money than him. Kenya points out that she is reminded of her race everyday whereas he only remembers his whiteness in a room full of people of color and that she needs to be able to vent about an issue that effects her everyday. However, this speech is undermined by the fact that, as a character, the sole purpose of Kenya’s hyper-supportive white boss is to be as a foil to the racist client as and allow white spectators, who think of themselves as colorblind and progressive, to identify with him.

Although Mark can empathize with Kenya’s experience of the Black Tax, he is only interested in her as his own image of the Ideal Black Female. Significantly, the possibility of their having a relationship ends when he sees an old picture of her with a weave and asks her to “grow” her hair out again. In the end Kenya and Brian reunite and marry with his family silently embracing her in the wedding stills as the credits roll. Despite Something New’s charming performances and good intentions, the film makes a mistake by overemphasizing black prejudice while avoiding a real discussion of existing white racism – or worse yet, equalizing the two discourses. The fact that the film was written, produced and directed by black women proves that even people of color can essentialize the complex socio-historical category of “blackness” into a series of aesthetic and emotional characteristics that anyone can opt into.

© 2006 Robyn Citizen. All rights reserved.

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