No I’m not late to knowing about the film. Just late to writing about it. The Lovebirds, starring Issa Rae (Insecure; The Photograph) and Kumail Nanjiani (The Big Sick; Stuber) was released May 2020. As a
stalker fan of Issa (we on a first name basis), I had heard about it through one of her IG Lives. I remember being shocked and thinking, Whaaat? A “Black” and “South Asian” couple?? How are they going to do this? How gangsta!
Before you judge me. It’s not that I thought Black people and Indian people could not be together. Far from it. I have an inexplicable connection with Indian culture. Maybe it’s all the Bollywood movies I grew up on. I just remember learning from a close of friend of mine who happens to be be from New Delhi, that ….how do I say it less bluntly than she did. . .Indian people would prefer their child marry a White person before a Black person. Yes. That dampened my dreams of marrying Samir, whoever he was and wherever he might be. Sigh.
This common cultural belief is also displayed in popular films like Mississippi Masala or Bend it Like Beckham. More recently my boy Hasan called out
our the Indian community about the conversations they have about Black people. It was an unfiltered exposure of colorist ideology which perpetuate divides among people of color in the United States. So for me, this film was a visual and rhetorical weapon against cultural belief systems which demonize dark bodies and disjoin cultures which actual share similar ancestry. And I don’t even know if that was their intention.
No this story is not created by immigrants, but it features a second generation Senegalese-American and a Pakistani immigrant (possibly first generation). The film was written and directed by three White men. Arguably stories created by people of color are more likely to be as daring as this film. I know it’s just a comedy, but these roles could have easily been played by White B-rated actors. Furthermore, comedy can rhetorically address social issues in a more accepting way compared to other genres. Michael Showalter (director) Aaron, Abrams (story), and Brendan Gall (screenplay) managed to tell a love story featuring two marginalized individuals without further marginalizing them through simplistic tropes. They were human. They had their idiosyncrasies, Jabran (Nanjiani) was into documentary filmmaking, and Leiliani (Rae) was an adventurer. Like so many relationships, they didn’t get each other, but they wanted each other.
The setting of the film was about 48 hours of these two individuals’ lives. No time or little need to delve into their cultural distinctions or their backgrounds. However, just as omission speaks volumes in media representation, so does decisions about who is seen and how. While her name is Hawaiian, Lelaini is unashamedly black. Played by an actress who unapologetically roots for anyone Black, Rae’s improv signifies her blackness. She and Jabran are heading to a dinner party with her friends who are mostly Black. Her hair could be straight. It is in box braids. She articulates without reservation the implication of being brown and calling the police. Jabran could have easily been named Kartik–a typical Indian (read Hindu) name, but instead was given a common Muslim name. In subtle ways, these characters are more than caricatures. They are people.
In my research on whiteness in Black-context films, I have argued that people of color are the numeric majority or the centers of a story, it is probable that White majority characters will fall prey to stereotyping, especially in a comedy. I believe this is what we see here. The White characters in this film are villains, member of a secret society, or background characters. But no worries. Stereotyping of White majority people do not harm this group the way it has people of color for decades because of the diversity of portrayals of White people. When positive portrayals are limited for people of color, they are stigmatized by the negative representations. Nonetheless, there is value in the visual contrast in that it uplifts and humanizes people of color by offering a counternarrative to the typical dominant one.
Comedy is an acquired taste. Most may agree a movie compelled them emotionally or provoked them intellectually, but humor is subjective so people may be more critical. That said, The Lovebirds did not receive high ratings on imdb.com or Rottentomatoes. However, I enjoyed watching two brown people of different hues just be people who are trying to find their way back to each other. In a way, it works as a metaphor for all of US to connect with each other by trying to find our common ground. The Loverbirds is currently playing on Netflix.