Why It's So Important Hollywood Is (Finally!) Normalizing Interracial Love

There's a scene in the new movie Ingrid Goes West where the quirky title character, played by Aubrey Plaza, asks her Batman-obsessed landlord (O'Shea Jackson Jr.) on a date. As they sit across from each other at a luau-themed restaurant, it seems likely — expected, really — that at some point in the scene, the pair's different races will be discussed. Ingrid will make a corny joke in an attempt to be "down," or Dan will mention something about his history with white girls. But then, something surprising happens: Race never comes up. At all, throughout the entire movie. And it's a relief.
While that fact feels notable, perhaps it shouldn't be all that surprising. In the past year, more movies and TV shows have been featuring interracial couples without focusing on their race — or even acknowledging their skin color at all. There's Ingrid Goes West's Ingrid and Dan; in the upcoming indie film Patti Cake$, Patti’s (Danielle Macdonald) love interest just so happens to be a Black death metal fan (played by Mamoudou Athie). Jessica Williams’ title character in The Incredible Jessica James dates men of different races, including one portrayed by Chris O'Dowd, and Peter (Tom Holland) had his eyes on the bi-racial Liz (Laura Harrier) in this summer’s Spider-Man: Homecoming. There's also Offred (Elisabeth Moss) and Luke (O. T. Fagbenle) in The Handmaid's Tale, Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter) and Luke Cage (Mike Colter) in Jessica Jones, and Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and Michonne (Danai Gurira) on The Walking Dead. This spring's Everything Everything starred Amandla Stenberg opposite Nick Robinson, and audiences were pleasantly surprised when the Beauty And The Beast live-action remake revealed that the human forms of each inanimate couple was mixed-race.
Each project is very different, but they share one thing in common: Depicting interracial love as something that simply exists — an everyday occurrence that is normal, not something that constantly needs to be debated, discussed, or fixated upon whenever it happens on screen. It’s only taken about a century, but Hollywood is finally beginning to not just feature, but normalize love of all kinds. And in a society whose culture often reflects its entertainment, that's incredibly important.
"You see a lot of movies with the same types of character, and one thing [director] Matt Spicer and I had talked about early on was wanting these characters to feel like real people in the world," says Plaza, who stars in and produced Ingrid Goes West. "O'Shea and I saw each other at an event, and there was just something intriguing about him as a person. It was just an idea, until I later found out that he was actually obsessed with Batman in real life. There was a very cosmic kind of thing that happened with him, which shows that sometimes the unexpected casting choice is the greatest."
Spicer adds: "It's just more real. In a weird way, the [entertainment] industry is still catching up to the real world. But Ingrid and Dan just reflect reality in 2017."
Photo: Courtesy of Netflix.
Chris O'Dowd and Jessica Williams in Netflix's The Incredible Jessica James.
It's about time. In 2015, 17 percent (that’s about one in six) of American newlyweds married someone of a different ethnicity or race, according to this year’s Pew Center report. Back in 1967 — the same year interracial marriage was deemed legal by the Supreme Court after the Loving v. Virginia case, the story told in last year’s Loving — that number was at just 3 percent. 1967 was also the year that Sidney Portier starred as the Black boyfriend meeting Katharine Hepburn’s white family in the Oscar-winning Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, which hit theaters exactly six months after the Supreme Court ruling. It was the first movie of its kind after the abandonment of Hollywood’s Hays Code, a production code instated in 1930 to prohibit “sex relationships between the white and black races.”

"The issue with the phrase 'diversity in Hollywood' is that it points to these occurrences on screen as something different or special."

— Russell Boast, Vice President of the Casting Society of America
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner. In the decades since, however, there have been surprisingly few films featuring main characters in cross-cultural relationships. And when they did happen, the colors of their skin were central story lines: There was 1975’s Mandingo, Hairspray in 1988, Spike Lee’s controversial Jungle Fever in 1991, and Whitney Houston opposite Kevin Costner in The Bodyguard (1992). More arrived in the early aughts, like 2001’s Save The Last Dance, the 2005 Dinner remake Guess Who, with Ashton Kutcher as the white significant other to Zoe Saldana, 2006’s Something New about a Black woman (Sanaa Lathan) dating a white man (Simon Baker), and Lance Gross and America Ferrera were a secretly engaged duo in Our Family Wedding in 2010. On TV, couples like these appeared in the occasional storylines on shows, like Tom and Helen in The Jeffersons, and later soap operas and '90s hits like Ally McBeal, The West Wing, and ER. In all of the above, however, opposite skin colors were a focal point. Extraordinary, not expected.
"The issue with the phrase 'diversity in Hollywood' is that it points to these occurrences on screen as something different or special," says Russell Boast, Vice President of the Casting Society of America. "There's been a kind of glamorization of diversity, where creators think that having it means it has to be a plot point. But sometimes that can have the opposite effect, making it feel not normal. An episode of a TV show should just feature a person in a wheelchair, not be all about how they got to be in a wheelchair. And sometimes, we just want to watch two people be in love."
America is far behind other cultures in this regard, particularly British TV, where interracial relationships have taken center stage without much fanfare for years. (See: Love Island, Lovesick, even Love Actually...clearly, the Brits like their entertainment with love in it.) It's likely this is partly because of some major historical differences: London’s culture doesn’t deal with the same ramifications of American slavery, and integrated marriage was never illegal there; in fact, mixed-race couples were fairly common as far back as the 1930s, and these days, mixed folks are one of the fastest growing ethnic groups there.
In the United States, meanwhile, it's taken until the 2010s to begin to see anything somewhat comparable, a wide variety of entertainment with protagonists and love stories of all shades who aren't constantly talking about it. Shondaland’s Grey’s Anatomy was an early game-changer in 2005, and later Scandal’s Fitz (Tony Goldwyn) and Olivia (Kerry Washington) and many characters on How To Get Away With Murder. 2010's Parenthood brought us Jasmine (Joy Bryant) and Crosby (Dax Shepard), and teen TV was also pretty ahead of the game with the likes of Glee, Teen Wolf, and Pretty Little Liars, as well as superhero shows like Supergirl and The Flash. Now, seeing an unconventional pairing in dramas for all ages is actually becoming almost — almost! — conventional, in everything from NBC's hit This Is Us to Netflix's 13 Reasons Why.
"There's a lot of talk and think pieces about who has the right to tell what story," says Jim Strouse, the writer and director behind Jessica James. "But if I don't want to assume that any of my characters are a certain race, that means I have to have the freedom, as a white man, to write about or for a Black character or person of color. I just have an extremely important responsibility to do it respectfully and carefully. Otherwise I'll end up with a show like Seinfeld, where you love watching it, but then you're like, where the hell are all of the other kinds of people in New York?"
Photo: Courtesy of Hulu.
O. T. Fagbenle and Elisabeth Moss in Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale.
Boast agrees that if we want to see more portrayals like these, the change has to begin behind the camera. Specifically, in casting.
"There are a few things that need to happen: First, more diverse casting directors, because I believe the more diverse people we have filling these roles, the more of a difference we'll see on screen," says Boast. "Second, we need color-blind casting. As casting directors, there's a lot of pressure to get bankable names to attract audiences, which traditionally has meant two A-List white actors. But we're finally starting to shift toward taking chances on lesser-known names, which gives us more room to shy away from what a traditional romance or storyline looks like. And Hollywood has no choice but to accept that it's working: Just look at Get Out and This Is Us."
Of course, off-screen there are plenty of politics, opinions, and obstacles that come along with being in an interracial relationship, so it's only natural that entertainment still depicts these challenges. The romantic comedy The Big Sick centers on a man (Kumail Nanjiani) choosing between a white girlfriend (Zoe Kazan) and his family’s hopes for an arranged Pakistani marriage; the box office topping horror movie Get Out satirically tackled Black men’s worst fears about dating white women. And Rachel Lindsay, the first Black Bachelorette, often found herself addressing race on her season of the franchise. These plot points are necessary, too, Strouse adds.
"Sometimes, it's important to not avoid race,” he says. “The reality is we’re not in a post-racial world yet, so we do need stories that address those problems head on. But it's also important to have lighthearted entertainment that’s fun and whimsical. Just like we need beautiful projects like Moonlight or Detroit, there should be a place for seeing Chris O'Dowd and Jessica Williams have a good time without debating over their race."
It's refreshing to see pop-culture begin to normalize these stories instead of ostracize, and it looks like things are getting even better. This fall, Julia Roberts’ daughter in the guaranteed-to-be-a-tearjerker Wonder will date a Black student. Next year, David Oyelowo will play opposite Charlize Theron in Gringo, and the Overboard remake will replace Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell with Anna Faris and Eugenio Derbez. In Ava Duvernay's Disney adaptation of A Wrinkle In Time, Meg, played by Storm Reid, is the bi-racial daughter of parents played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Chris Pine.
"It's everyone's duty in this industry to step up to the plate, and we're slowly getting there," says Boast. "But we're not there yet. The day we no longer have to have diversity and inclusion committees and articles is the day we've achieved the dream."

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