Over the past few days, Rebel Wilson has dug herself a deep hole of inaccuracy and defensiveness, after making a comment about being the “first-ever plus-sized girl to be the star of a romantic comedy”—referring to her meta rom-com Isn’t It Romantic? (out in January). This was an obvious wrongheaded, revealing statement, the type that compels people to come to the defense with facts that shouldn’t have to be stated. As many pointed out, Wilson must have completely forgotten or never known about Queen Latifah’s 2006 rom-com Last Holiday co-starring LL Cool J, or her 2010 rom-com Just Wright, with Common, or Mo’Nique’s Phat Girlz (2006).
In response to a tweet about her error, Wilson wrote back, “Hey girl! Yeah I of course know of these movies but it was questionable as to whether: 1. Technically those actresses were plus size when filming those movies or 2. Technically those films are catorgorized [sic]/billed as a studio rom-com with a sole lead. So there’s a slight grey area.” (Both of those questions are answerable if you think about it or look it up. And it’s questionable whether she really knew about the movies.)
Mo’Nique, being Mo’Nique, was not going to let such a comment slide without a classy correction. On Saturday, she jumped in with a response on Twitter: “Hey my sweet sister. Let’s please not allow this business to erase our talent with giving grey areas and technicalities. Take a moment and know the history. DON’T BE A PART OF ERASING IT. I wish you the best.”
The insistence on technicalities is the real tragedy. Wilson could have easily apologized for her statement while acknowledging her blind spot with a simple: “Damn, I forgot those black romcoms existed and that’s my bad, and also Hollywood’s.” (When you’re making a public comment about being a pioneer in a certain area, there’s an easy way to check if you’re the first to do anything.) Instead, she did the opposite: engaged deeper and even went on a blocking spree against critics.
It’s a dense move, but it simultaneously says a lot about the romantic comedy universe and how much movies like Latifah’s Just Wright—a run-of-the-mill rom-com featuring two major actors (and even has a traditional cheesy title that plays off the lead character’s last name)—aren’t in mainstream conversations about rom-coms, among the trillions of mediocre rom-coms that people choose to spotlight and memorialize. There’s a treasure trove of black rom-coms (some bad, some classic, and many of them starring Taye Diggs) that should spring to mind when the genre is discussed: Love Jones, Poetic Justice, How Stella Got Her Groove Back (which celebrated its 20th anniversary), Boomerang, The Best Man, Brown Sugar, About Last Night, and Think Like a Man, to name a few.
The current rom-com resurgence—Isn’t It Romantic? is just the latest in the genre’s new push, led by Netflix’s slate of rom-coms like Set It Up and the disarmingly precious To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before—along with Wilson, highlights a traditional dead spot. In 2014, The Root pointed out Vulture’s scarcity of films starring black actors on its list of the 25 best romantic comedies since When Harry Met Sally. There were also zero on Vanity Fair’s roundup of the best 25 romantic comedies, published in August 2018. And a cursory Google search for “best romcoms” (see screenshot above) reveals a glaring deficiency.
The responses to Wilson’s comment mean to simply call attention to this gap, and the point that it really is frustrating when rom-coms with black leads are left out of both canon and conversation, and at the base level, memory, even as so many obscure rom-coms starring white people are hyped over the jewel-like movies The Best Man or The Wood. Do yourself a favor and watch one or all of them.