With Valentine's Day approaching, the season of love is upon us. But who gets to be loved—fiercely, boldly, wildly—on screen has too often been limited to certain kinds of women. The messages of these on-screen images seep into our consciousness and reinforce what other elements of society teach us about who is worthy of love and tenderness and care—and who is not. It is a rarity that a range of Black women gets to receive this kind of love in film and on TV. It's rarer still that the stereotyped Difficult Black Woman ever receives on-screen love unless and until she “softens" up; it's the reward for being “easier" for others to handle, more agreeable and more in line with the status quo.
If you, like me, are a Black woman who's ever been stamped with the “difficult" label, you'll understand how triggering this trope and conversations around these on-screen presentations can be. And you'll also be extremely grateful for Ava DuVernay's latest TV masterpiece, the romance anthology Cherish the Day.
The new OWN series, which has a two-night premiere on February 11 and 12, centers on a young couple, Gently James and Evan Fisher, played by the excellent Xosha Roquemore (The Mindy Project) and Alano Miller (Underground) in their first leading roles. Each of the eight episodes focuses on a single day in their lives as they fall in love over a five-year period. We get to know Gently in the same place that her soon-to-be love does: at her local library where she's pleading with the librarian to forgive the outrageous overdue fines of the living legend she works for, Miss Luma (played by the regal Cicely Tyson). The librarian is determined not to remove the fines, but, after all Miss Luma has done for the community and the culture, Gently will not take “no" for an answer.
She's holding up a line of people who just want to check out their books and be on their way, including rich tech entrepreneur Evan Fischer. He offers to pay the fines because of his admiration for Miss Luma and obvious attraction to Gently. He's handsome, he's kind, and his approach could solve her problem instantly. An “easier" woman would accept. An “easier" woman would've given up after the librarian's first “no," or after she saw the growing line behind her. She is not an easier woman; she stands on her principles and gets the librarian to waive the fines “because it's the right thing to do." Gently solves her own problem in her own time. And Evan falls in love with her as a result.
She's not rude to the librarian, she's direct about what she needs. Her tender-heartedness is on full display during her passionate advocacy for her aging boss. Gently doesn't see herself as “difficult," and therefore neither does Evan. And that's because DuVernay doesn't see her that way.
“I challenge the notion that she's difficult," DuVernay says in an interview with Shadow And Act just before the December holidays begin. “'Difficult's a big word, Brooke! Defend 'difficult,'" she laughs and I try to explain this:
Evan Fisher is a financially secure Black man from a prominent family who drives a Tesla and happens also to be a lovely human being, inside and out; if you're a hetero Black woman who's into that sort of thing, you're supposed to do everything you can to lock that down. Not Gently. She's not easily impressed; not in a rush to be in a relationship; doesn't value wealth as a personality trait and consistently rejects Evan's efforts to throw money at her problems; she makes herself happy and travels the world alone; and *mild spoiler alert* if you piss her off and try to control her, she'll leave you stranded in Carson.
“A woman who has a center and some assertiveness and also be this [skin] color, I think sometimes that combo equals 'difficult,'" Roquemore says, in the same interview, of not only Gently's personality but of Roquemore as a dark-skinned Black woman embodying that personality.
"But, it's kind of cool to like turn that [trope] on its head through this show and just show what really makes her tick," Roquemore says. "I can see someone from the outside saying 'Oh my god, she's so difficult.' But when you get to know her, you're like, 'No, she's not, she's a sweetheart.' So I'm just glad people will get to see the inside of one of these supposed 'difficult' women," she laughs.
And that's exactly what Cherish the Day accomplishes as a series. DuVernay created this free-spirited, charming, self-possessed woman and named her Gently. It's not mutually exclusive; it's powerfully subversive. And it doesn't end there.
In the white supremacist context which informs and too often dictates Black life in America, it is inherently subversive to show Black people loving and in love. It's particularly subversive to have a leading lady being loved who is darker in complexion than her leading man. Roquemore and Miller's talent have long since demanded leading roles, and their chemistry and gorgeous faces make it easy to root for their characters' love story—all of which certainly led the decision to cast these two stars. Still, it's a romantic on-screen pairing (alongside Gabrielle Union's iconic body of romantic dramas and comedies on TV and film as well as Issa Rae's work in the last few years) that stands out because of how typical it is to see Black heterosexual couples on screen with a woman who has a much lighter complexion than her Black love interest. In everyday life, it wouldn't be remarkable; in Hollywood, it is extraordinarily so.
And yet, the goal for Cherish the Day was not to be political.
“No, it's just a love story!" DuVernay insists in response to whether Cherish the Day has an inherently political message of Black love as a form of resistance to white supremacy. “And it was really a challenge for myself because I wanted to do something that was free from the politics and was just inside of our love, as opposed to our love in juxtaposition to the outer world. I've explored that a lot and I will continue to do it but I was really just interested in playing with the form of storytelling that will allow us to get into the small moments of Black love and the ways that we experience them, minute and magnificent."
Though there is a scene in the pilot where the characters discuss Trump (though not by name) and the impact of climate change, the focus of their love isn't political. “They don't go to a march, they don't sign no petitions, they do none of that," DuVernay laughs, along with her stars Roquemore and Miller. "They just love each other and fall in love with each other, and that is complex enough."
It is the blueprint famously articulated by Toni Morrison, to document in fiction the specific, beautiful interiority of Black life, free of the white gaze. DuVernay's depoliticization of Black love mirrors what she's doing with the Difficult Black Woman trope: she's just ignoring it. Of course, there is a white supremacist context that informs how Black women are viewed, treated and policed by other people; and yes, white supremacy can inform how we view ourselves and each other and what we deem beautiful and not beautiful and who we love and who we don't. But in the world of Gently James and Evan Fisher, it's just not the center of their story. They aren't consumed by it. Like most Black people, they're not thinking about white supremacy all day, they're just living and being, through their own lens, in a context that they've created for themselves. For a Black artist, that is a powerfully liberating place from which to write and create.
When you create from that place, you don't have to actively seek to subvert a Difficult Black Woman trope, or colorism, or the pedestal of Black love if the context that creates these tropes and patterns of behavior isn't being centered. Unburdened by the weight of being symbols or standard-bearers of “representation," these characters DuVernay's created and Roquemore and Miller have breathed life into, are free of external projections, free to just love and be loved. It's a catching kind of freedom, one that extends to the audience, making space for us to move from a reactionary center towards a context, an identity and a love we define for ourselves.
Cherish the Day's two-night premiere airs on Tuesday, February 11 and Wednesday, February 12 on OWN.
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