A List of Groundbreaking Interracial Romance Films
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Today, interracial romances are commonly depicted on the small and big screen, alike. But that wasn’t always the case. As recently as the 1960s, cinema featuring interracial love stories faced boycotts and banning in parts of the U.S. Despite such opposition, filmmakers persisted in developing storylines with interracial couples. Often, these movies used the trials and tribulations of racially mixed lovers as a platform to challenge racial constructs and racism generally. How well do you know your interracial romance films? Can you name a dozen movies about this subject? More than a dozen movies appear on this list.
“West Side Story” (1961)
This musical, which reworks Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” chronicles two New York City street gangs—the Caucasian Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks, who function as the Montagues and the Capulets, respectively. Riff (Russ Tamblyn) heads the Jets, and Bernardo (George Chakiris), the Sharks. When Bernardo’s sister, Maria (Natalie Wood), meets Riff’s best friend, Tony (Richard Beymer), at a dance, the two begin a secret romance. When the Jets and the Sharks launch a full-on turf war, however, Maria urges Tony to stop the violence. After he tries to intervene, tragedy follows, one that threatens to tear Tony and Maria apart. Can their love survive? “West Side Story” won 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
“Island in the Sun” (1957)
One of the first Hollywood productions to explore interracial romance—“Island in the Sun”—takes place on the fictional Caribbean island of Santa Marta. Harry Belafonte plays David Boyeur, a Black activist who threatens Santa Marta’s white rulers. At a party, David attracts the attention of the white Mavis Norman (Joan Fontaine). Simultaneously, Margot Seaton (Dorothy Dandridge), a Black clerk, enchants a white governor’s aide (John Justin). Each couple meets a different fate, one likely influenced by the times. For the 1950s, however, this film broke much ground. In this same decade, Emmett Till was lynched for allegedly flirting with a white woman. The 2004 film “Haven” is another film set in the islands featuring interracial romance.
“Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” (1967)
Whereas “Island in the Sun” used melodrama to explore the topic of interracial romance, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” functioned as an intellectual exercise of sorts about the topic. The values of white liberal couple Matt and Christina Drayton, played by Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, are put to the test when their daughter, Joey, returns from vacation engaged to a Black doctor, John Prentice (Sidney Poitier). While the Draytons wrestle with whether to give their blessing to the couple, their relationship with their Black maid is also explored. Are the Draytons as liberal as they seem? The phrase the “personal is political” certainly applies to this film, which inspired the less than stellar remake “Guess Who” in 2005.
“The Landlord” (1970)
Beau Bridges stars as Elgar Enders, a young, privileged white man who sets out to buy a Brooklyn tenement and turn it into a luxurious home for himself. But Elgar has a change of heart when he gets to know the building’s diverse array of tenants. Rather than evict the residents and revamp the building, Elgar begins making improvements to it. Before long, he falls in love with an art student who’s racially mixed Black and white. His parents are stunned by the news. But they’re not Elgar’s only problem. He discovers that he’s gotten a married tenant in his building pregnant. Now, he has to face her husband, a Black radical, take responsibility for the child, and try to save his relationship with the woman he truly loves.
“La Bamba” (1987)
This biopic about the untimely demise of Latino rock ‘n’ roll pioneer Ritchie Valens centers mostly on music. But a muse of Valens, played in the film by Lou Diamond Phillips, was a young Caucasian woman named Donna Ludwig (Danielle von Zernick). Valens’ love for Ludwig led him to pen the hit song “Donna.” Sadly, Ludwig’s father objected to his daughter’s romantic involvement with a Mexican-American man. Despite this, the couple, who met in 1957, remained together for more than two years. In 1959, a plane Valens traveled in, along with Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper, crashed during a snowstorm. Other biopics that feature interracial romance include “Mr. and Mrs. Loving,” “Dragon: the Bruce Lee Story” “Malcolm X” and “The Great White Hope.”
“Jungle Fever” (1991)
Its provocative title hints that director Spike Lee aimed to court controversy in this film about a married Harlem architect named Flipper (Wesley Snipes) who meets Angie, an Italian-American secretary (Anabella Sciorra), at work and has an affair with her. Already married to a very fair-skinned Black woman (Lonette McKee), Flipper may be drawn to Angie because he, a very dark man, has issues with skin color, otherwise known as a “color complex.” Throughout the film, Flipper’s loved ones question his motives for romancing Angie, leading him to as well. But Angie believes she has no ulterior motives for her affair with Flipper. Meanwhile, Angie faces disapproval in the Italian-American community for her relationship with a Black man.
“Mississippi Masala” (1991)
When Meena (Sarita Choudhury), a young Indian woman settles with her parents in the American South, she meets Demetrius (Denzel Washington), a handsome Black man. Initially, Demetrius uses Meena to make an ex-girlfriend jealous but soon develops feelings for her. While Demetrius introduces Meena to his family, who finds her exotic and are surprised she grew up in Uganda, Meena romances Demetrius secretly. But when the two go on a getaway and are spotted by friends of Meena’s family, conflict ensues. Meena must right things with Demetrius, and her family must deal with the hurt they felt after being cast out of Uganda. “The Namesake” and “Bend it Like Beckham” are other films depicting heterosexual interracial romance involving Indians.
“Joy Luck Club” (1993)
“The Joy Luck Club” tackles family, Chinese immigrants and interracial love. In college, Rose Hsu (Rosalind Chao) dates white student Ted Jordan (Andrew McCarthy). Ted’s mother objects, but when he overhears her telling Rose this, he takes a stand and marries Rose. On a lighter note in the film, when Waverly Jong (Tamlyn Tomita) brings her white lover to a Chinese family dinner, his poor manners and cluelessness about Chinese customs and etiquette embarrass her. Waverly’s mom opposes the romance, but Waverly, who previously married a Chinese man to please her, rebels. The two square off in a beauty salon before reaching an understanding. “Snow Falling on Cedars” is another film depicting a romance between a white man and an Asian woman.
“Café Au Lait” (1993)
This French film, directed by and starring Mathieu Kassovitz, features a mixed-race Martinique woman named Lola (Julie Mauduech) who discovers that she’s pregnant. The only question now is who’s the father—Felix (Kassovitz), her working-class, white Jewish boyfriend or Jamal (Hubert Koundé), her privileged African Muslim mate? Incredibly, both men, enamored by her beauty, charm, and strength, decide to stick with Lola during her pregnancy. The trio shares an apartment together, with the two men butting heads on issues of race and class, all the while testing Lola’s patience. When Lola gives birth at the film’s end, the baby’s color and parentage is seemingly insignificant, as the threesome has formed an unbreakable bond.
“The Watermelon Woman” (1996)
This feature chronicles a young Philadelphia lesbian named Cheryl (Cheyl Dunye) in the midst of researching a film project about a bygone Black performer known as the Watermelon Woman. Cheryl suspects the entertainer romanced a white female director named Martha Page. Art imitates life, as Cheryl begins dating a white woman named Diana. The interracial relationship displeases Cheryl’s friend, Tamara. Other films featuring gay interracial romance include “Chutney Popcorn,” about an Indian-American lesbian surrogate mother and her white girlfriend; “The Wedding Banquet,” about a closeted Chinese man involved with a white American man; and “Brother to Brother,” a Harlem Renaissance drama featuring a young Black man and his white male lover.
“Fools Rush In” (1997)
Three months after having a one-night-stand with Alex Whitman (Matthew Perry), Isabel Fuentes (Salma Hayek) discovers that she’s pregnant. Alex and Isabel decide to marry but not without some cultural collisions. Whitman is a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP), and Isabel is Mexican-American and Catholic. Neither feels at home in the other’s family. Alex’s father cracks a joke about Isabel being a housekeeper, and Isabel’s belligerent father goes after Alex with a baseball bat during one scene. Can Alex and Isabel’s shaky bond survive these tensions? Set mostly on the Arizona-Nevada border, the film is reportedly based, in part, on the real-life romance and marriage of Anna Maria Davis and Douglas Draizin, who produced “Fools Rush In.”
“Liberty Heights” (1999)
Set in the 1950s and based partly on writer-director Barry Levinson’s life, “Liberty Heights” follows Ben Kurtzman (Ben Foster), a Jewish-American teen from suburban Baltimore. When Ben’s school district racially integrates, he’s instantly drawn to a Black girl named Sylvia (Rebekah Johnson). In addition to their mutual attraction, the two share similar musical tastes, but Sylvia’s father forbids her to associate with a white boy. This doesn’t faze Sylvia or dampen her romance with Ben. But when the two of them attend a James Brown concert, they’re (in a complex plot twist) kidnapped. If you like “Liberty Heights,” you might also like teen interracial romance films “A Bronx Tale,” “Flirting,” “Save the Last Dance,” “O” and “ZebraHead.”
“Something New” (2006)
Tired of her business with no pleasure lifestyle, Los Angeles career woman Kenya McQueen (Sanaa Lathan) decides to take a risk in love and go on a blind date with landscaping architect Brian Kelly (Simon Baker). When she meets Brian and discovers that he’s white, she’s taken aback. Still, she does need some landscaping work done on her home and hires Brian to get it done. The two soon begin a fling, but not without some reservations on Kenya’s part. She wonders what friends and family will think, which causes tension with the unconventional Brian. To boot, the stresses from her accounting firm, where she’s set to make partner, take their toll on her relationship. All in all, “Something New” is a rom-com with an interracial twist.