An ensemble romcom pits a momma's boy, a commitment-phobe, an avid stud and a dreamy loser against a lineup of no less familiar female stereotypes. Everyone is aspirationally middle class and inhabits an improbably expensive-looking apartment in sunny LA. It may sound as though Think Like a Man is to be filed along with the likes of New Year's Eve, He's Not That Into You, Crazy Stupid Love and Valentine's Day. There is, however, one difference. Aside from a disconcerting dash of inverse tokenism, everybody is black.
So what, you may think. It's 2012. If the president's colour is irrelevant, surely race must have little bearing on the vicissitudes of the heart that beset today's upmarket urban Americans. In a film depicting such tribulations, the pigment of the protagonists should surely make no difference. Yet it does.
On the face of it, Think Like a Man respects the traditional romcom format. Males in thrall to erroneous attitudes are taught the value of the all-consuming relationships on which both women and Hollywood insist. Yet whereas Caucasian romcoms tend to be hymns to the sanctity of love, Think Like a Man is com rather than rom, with romance being treated as little more than the film's ultimate joke. A doctrinal prologue presents the purpose of marriage for men as the assertion of virility rather than the consecration of devotion.
Until the final reel, Eros is conspicuous by his absence. The guys seek only copulation without strings; the gals are calculatingly intent on entrapment into wedlock. The scenario is based on a real-life self-help guide that urges women to combat male rapacity with equally cynical manipulation of access to "the cookie". The book was aimed at female readers of all ethnicities; it was however written by a black standup and popularised by Oprah. In theory, the film subverts the book's brutal message; in practice, it's the worldview underpinning this message that its story ends up celebrating.
Insofar as that worldview defies the theology of the orthodox white romcom, Think Like a Man is in step with the norms of its kind. The semiologist Karen Bowdre of Indiana University has conducted one of the few studies of romantic comedies with black casts. She found that the normal "boy meets, loses and regains girl" formula is often readjusted.
Tropes like the cutesy initial meeting and subsequent romantic yearning are relatively unusual. The male lead is unlikely to win his woman through noble sacrifice or worthy behavioural change and thereby become a hero. Instead, he's likely to remain in the grip of foolishness and sexual excess even as he triumphs. Female leads aren't much moved emotionally by falling in love or allowed to idealise the process. Nor are they permitted to become too vulnerable.
Characters find it hard to take romance seriously, and attraction between men and women tends to be "immediately acted upon in a physical manner". Relationships rarely mature. Overall, raw comedy smothers any serious implications.
Black Hollywood producer Rodney Barnes doesn't see things very differently from the (black) lady prof. He considers that women in African-American romcoms are "painted as problematic and undesirable characters, only seeking helpmates to raise their child". All their male counterparts has to do "is be sexy with no intelligence or moral values. He simply has to take his shirt off, glisten, and wait for the end credits."
The reason for this kind of portrayal is open to dispute. Professor Bowdre believes that "the highly sexualised and comical meanings placed on African-American bodies in the context of the United States" inhibit film-makers from allowing black characters to engage properly with romance. For her, a racist ideology devised to justify slavery still casts its shadow over Hollywood. Others, however, see the films as accurately reflecting a less sentimental attitude to courtship that does indeed lie at the heart of the contemporary black experience.
In Britain, we've not had much opportunity to reflect on such questions. For apart from the odd star vehicle for the likes of Eddie Murphy, we don't get to see too many of America's black romcoms. That's because up till now they haven't delivered at the box office outside of their home market. In France, therefore, Think Like a Man isn't getting a theatrical release at all, in spite of its impressive cast and pedigree.
Richard Dyer, professor of film studies at King's, may have identified the reason for such resistance when he suggested that "being white is coterminous with the endless plenitude of human diversity", whereas blackness is perceived as a particular and limiting condition. Perhaps this attitude also explains why African-American romcoms haven't even been all that successful in the US itself, away from areas like Harlem, Oakland, New Orleans and South Central LA.
However, Think Like a Man has shaken things up. When the film was launched in America in April, it startled the industry by pulling in $33m on its first weekend; it knocked The Hunger Games off the top slot and earned back its production budget on its opening night. To do that, it had to attract mainstream filmgoers. If the film makes a similar splash in such overseas markets as it's being allowed to access, African-American romcoms might just possibly become the next medium-sized thing.
Conceivably, they could end up giving their white counterparts a run for their money. If so, the consequences could reach beyond the world of cinema. Some consider that the traditional romcom has done its bit to damage people's lives. The delusions it has fostered are considered to have chased out common sense and bred in its stead eventual disappointment and bitterness. If a robustly realistic counterweight is now on the way to our screens, perhaps it should be given an eager welcome.
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