Bolu Babalola Breaks Down The Best (And Worst) Black Couples In Pop Culture History

Photo: Courtesy of Folaju Oyegbesan.
Bolu Babalola knows a thing or two about meet-cutes. She’s Twitter’s resident “romcomoisseur,” New Girl stan and general expert of love onscreen and in literature. If you’re a Black woman who’s seen When Harry Met Sally more times than you can count, can recite every word of Love & Basketball, and you’ve got a Twitter account, you probably follow the British-Nigerian author. Yes, I’m just describing myself. After years of watching Babalola’s follower count rise (Bolu hive is now almost 94K strong) thanks to her whip-smart takes, that time she went viral with her fake ex-boyfriend Michael B. Jordan, and her hilarious live tweets (Love Island would be a lesser show without her), she’s become an Internet friend in my head. So, when we do “meet” virtually, it’s like catching up during act three instead of bumping into each other in a book store on page one. 
Before I get too familiar too quickly though, I ask Babalola if she gets annoyed when people think they know her based on a few tweets. “I think when you're a public figure, especially a Black person, or a Black woman, a lot of people project onto you and want you to be a certain way. And it's like, you only see one side of me,” she tells R29 Unbothered over Zoom from London. But there are the exceptions. “With [fellow] Black women writers, I feel like we forge bonds really easily online and they're legit, valid bonds. I met some of my best friends through Twitter. So, it's good to meet you, but it's not the first time meeting you.” 
There’s nothing cute about logging into Zoom or swiping right. So, in our 2021 reality when meet-cutes have basically been rendered obsolete, and friendships are forged online, it’s refreshing that Babalola has given us Love in Color, a mystical reimagining of ancient folk tales (and a few originals) that rely heavily on chemistry and connectivity — in person and in colour. Most of the collection of swoon-worthy short stories are adapted from African and Asian folklore, with a feminist twist. She takes tales like Ghana's "The Princess's Wedding, China's "The Cowherd and the Weaver Girl” and Lesotho's "How Khosi Chose a Wife," and gives us heroines who know their worth and refuse to subscribe to patriarchal norms. There’s no better person to flip rom-com tropes on their head than someone who knows them best. This is the romance collection we’ve been waiting for. 
Here, Babalola talks more about Love In Color, how her pivot to screenwriting is going to change romance onscreen, and lends her signature candour to a very serious examination of our favourite Black pop culture couples (and Bennifer of course). 
R29 Unbothered: I'm going to take a cue from Sydney Shaw from Brown Sugar for my first question. She asks, “When was the first time you fell in love with hip hop?” So I'm going to ask you, when was the first time you fell in love with romance?
Bolu Babalola: “It's very similar to Brown Sugar because also that's one of my favourite movies. I've always been drawn to romance. When I was a kid, I used to sneak books off my mom's bookshelf and they were always romances. I was a voracious reader so I read everything — Goosebumps books, The Series of Unfortunate Events, Roald Dahl — but the ones that gave me the most joy and what I was most drawn to was Meg Cabot books [The Princess Diaries] and Louise Rennison, she wrote the Angus, Thongs books.
Then when I was a teenager, I discovered rom-coms like When Harry Met Sally, I think I watched that when I was 12. And then when I was 13, I saw Brown Sugar, and I was like, ‘It's like a Black version of When Harry Met Sally!’ I fell in love with the sensuality, the want, the humour, with how it explored romance. And growing up with my parents, they're not cutesy lovey-dovey, but they are best friends. I grew up surrounded by that which I was very blessed to have. But I can't remember [falling in love with romance] being a conscious decision.”

So often we're told as career women, as women who are ambitious, that we have to mitigate that ambition to make space for romance... I wanted to say that we can have it both ways.

bolu babalola
It does just feel like it's always been there. I also had an Auntie who was always reading erotica and I would steal her books, sneak them into a closet and read. 
BB: “I hid mine under the bed. Like it was porn [laughs].” 
Exactly! Thank you for Love In Color. It's everything that anyone who loves romance could want, but it's also retelling all these beautiful mythical tales in ways that we haven't heard them told before, and without so many of the tropes that we're used to. Which tropes did you actively want to avoid? 
BB: “The one that's so obvious because I was dealing with fairytales and folktales is the Damsel in Distress. That was something that I actively wanted to avoid in all [of the stories] generally, but also in specific ones. For instance, Siya. She literally was a virgin Damsel in Distress in the original tale, and Maadi was an army general that had to save her from being sacrificed, like a snake god. I wanted to actively usurp all of that, so she's the army general and he's the second in her command, and it wasn't a case of her being sacrificed. I also wanted to equalize the playing field as well because in a lot of their original stories, obviously because they were really patriarchal and there was a clear power imbalance.
With Tiara for instance, her story speaks to one of the tropes I was fighting against because she didn't give up anything for him. She got to eat her cake and have it too, and so often we're told as career women, as women who are ambitious, that we have to mitigate that ambition to make space for romance. Tiara's like, "Listen, I love you. But also I love myself and my career, so we have to break up." And it was painful, but it was something that she had to decide for herself, and I wanted to say that we can have it both ways. Tiara is an idealized version of that, but I wanted there to be a reality where we don't need to diminish ourselves to make space for romance. Romance will come our way if it's right for us, or it will return to us if it's right for us as long as we stick to who we are. We don't need to diminish ourselves to make space with somebody else.
There were so many times I just let out a breath and swooned at the descriptions of love in these stories. With Yaa and Kofi, you write “they were each other’s natural wonders.” GIRL! I’m also Ghanian so I love that story. Then there’s, “Osun was used to being looked at, but, from this moment, she would become used to being seen.” I'm sure this is embarrassing, me reading your words back to you.
BB: I have to numb it otherwise I would not get through any interviews, so it's fine, but also thank you so much [laughs]. 
You’re welcome. Is there a way you described love in one of these stories that you feel best describes your personal outlook on love? 
BB: That's a really great question. I think all of them are distillations of an aspect of how I see romance and love. I think the one that really explores the dynamic that is most similar to what I enjoy, is Orin's story. Because in Orin's story, it's just fun. They're playing together, they bounce off of each other. They have the same sense of humour. It's not a cutesy, love at first sight thing. They're both a bit mischievous and can roast each other a little bit, but there's a clear admiration there and there's a clear chemistry there. That's obviously a foundation for friendship. I think that speaks to my outlook. Love is amazing, and it can be sweeping and swoon-y and everything, but at the base of it, I really want to be able to have a good time with you when we're alone, and you can be my homie where I can just look at you from across the room and we can clock something and laugh at it at the same time.
You have transitioned into screenwriting and I’m so excited to watch your work. What do you think is lacking on screen in the romance genre that you're hoping that your future work is going to bring?
BB: More joy, more hope, more genuine connection. I really want to see why these people like each other. I want to know why they click, how they challenge each other as well. Because it's easy for people to get on and have that banter, but how do they make each other better people and bring their essences out of each other? Also, obviously, more Black couples, especially Black women. Just couples with Black women period. We don't see that often. And I think it’s really insidious and it's deliberate when we don't see Black women getting to be soft, getting to be loved on. I really want people to know that when they're watching or reading something that was created by me, they know they're going to come away from it feeling good. Black women deserve to feel good. We deserve to feel good when there's darkness in the world. If I can contribute to people being able to see the world with some light, it would be an honour.
Now, we're going to break down some of the most famous, beloved and sometimes controversial Black couples in pop culture. The first one is Darius and Nina from Love Jones. What’s the best thing about them? 
BB: It's the sexual chemistry. They're really into each other. For me, their chemistry carries the film. I love to see a couple where you're like, "Oh, it's crackling between them." I love the scene where I think they're sleeping on separate floors and they're both just stressed in the same house. They can't take it. I love that because it's so fun for women to explore desire, especially Black women. We’re either hyper-sexualized or de-sexualized, so I love it when I see women fully enjoying their sexuality.

I personally cannot imagine — as an African woman, as a Nigerian woman — breaking a sweat to win a man's heart.

Max and Kyle from Living Single. Would they still be together? 
BB: I love Max and Kyle. Don't get me wrong, I know their relationship was largely dysfunctional, but when it worked, it worked. They bounce off of each other, their minds sharpen each other. They're just twin souls. I think that they might get married and divorced, and then come back together. I truly think they are each other's One. It would be rocky at some points, but they wouldn't be able to resist each other.
This is a controversial one. Monica and Quincy from Love & Basketball.
BB: I personally cannot imagine — as an African woman, as a Nigerian woman — breaking a sweat to win a man's heart. I can't conceptualize it. I can't get my head around it, so that's the issue that I have with that scenario first of all. I just thought he was kind of a dick and I didn't like him.
Are they still together? 
BB: I love that we're speaking like they're a real couple [laughs]. While I hope this is not the case, but I think that his comfort levels with her success would fluctuate. I think he would need to do the work with being okay with her power and her success. At the end of the film, he's courtside, supporting her, blah, blah. But the bigger someone gets, the more you can be a bit frustrated, a bit jealous, so I think it would depend on his internal growth as a man. Whether he is in therapy or not.
Syd and Dre from Brown Sugar.
BB: Absolutely. One hundred percent. They are still together because they're friends and they have fun together. Syd and Dre are one of my favourite couples and also because Sanaa Lathan and Taye Diggs obviously have this great chemistry whenever they're on screen together. Yeah, they would a hundred percent be together. They have the foundation.
Issa and Lawrence from Insecure. This is more about your general thoughts on this couple since we know they are not together. 
BB: This question is so triggering for me because the other day I remembered that Lawrence got another woman pregnant, and I literally was having a breakdown over it. I just bought into the idea of them again. They had a good relationship until it wasn't. The break was definitely necessary. Should they be together? I really don't know at this point. I really don't know. I think that it's possible to love somebody and generally have a connection with them, and for them to still not be right for you. That being said, that episode in the last season where the whole episode was their date was one of the most beautiful,  most romantic things I've ever seen. But I don't know. It depends on whether Issa's ready to be a stepmother or not [laughs]. 
You just said “Issa” and “stepmother” in the same sentence so now I’m triggered. 
BB: It gave me a stomach ache, really,
Finally, Beth and Randall from This Is Us. I won’t even ask if they will stay together because that’s blasphemy. I love them too much. 
BB: They're my favourite couple. They're possibly one of my favourite couples of all time on TV. They're just perfect. I want to be Beth. I want to be the kind of wife Beth is, and I want to marry a Randall.
OK, time for the non-Black lightning round. Give me your quick thoughts on the following couples: Jonah and Amy from Superstore. 
BB: I'll be positive first. I like their banter. But I think Amy is so mean to Jonah. Jonah is so sweet, and I know it's meant to be endearing but I don't find it endearing. Be nice to this nice white man, Amy. He's so good to you and you're just kind of horrible for no reason. I know you think it is cute, but it's not that cute. I have a lot to say to Amy. I'm not her biggest fan, honestly, which I think is refreshing. 
Kimmy and Michael from My Best Friend's Wedding.
BB: First of all, they're already broken up in my mind. I don't like anything about their relationship. She's young for him. She dropped out of college for him. He's with her because she's easier to manage than Jules. It's not a challenge. 
My faves, Peter Kavinsky and Lara Jean Covey from To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before. 
BB: One hundred percent are going to get married. I love everything about them. I love that they are different people and give space for each other to be different people. And I also love the fact that Peter knows that Lara Jean is not this sweet, innocent girl. She moves a bit mad sometimes, right? She's a bit chaotic. And Peter knows that it doesn't come from a malicious place, so even when he's hurt, he's like, "She didn't do it on purpose," and then checks if she's okay first before being like, "Babe, I didn't like that." I really liked the patience and grace in their relationship.
Your faves, Nick and Jess from New Girl. 
BB: I love everything about them but their friendship most of all. Because even when they weren't together, they were so supportive of each other. What I loved about them was they would always give each other space to be with other people. The only time that Nick really encroached is when he kissed Jess, obviously. And that was a whole buildup towards that because he literally ran away from her. He nearly killed himself in the process of trying not to kiss her. I feel like they really earned their relationship. They go to different people but they realize that they are each other’s person.
And finally, because I know the streets are dying to know your thoughts: Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck, aka Bennifer round two! 
BB: I have been talking about it in my group chats for like two days straight. I'm literally obsessed. Because first of all, I've been seeing Gen Z kids on my timeline saying, ‘I don't really get the big deal.’ They're not interested. And I'm like, you don't understand, okay! Bennifer was one of the first celebrity couple portmanteaus ever. They are pop culture gold. The “Jenny From The Block” video was a cultural reset. And I think Jennifer Lopez is a very smart woman. I think it's really fascinating how A-Rod allegedly did what he did, they broke up and what is the best way to get back at an ex? It's to get with an ex who's also famous, also powerful and he was probably worried about the entirety of your relationship. I think it's beautiful. I think it's artful. I think it's delicious. I think it's what we need as a culture.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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