Redefining the Narrative: a new era of RomCom?
Netflix has become renowned and even mocked for its relentless investment in original work.
This work has stretched across all genres garnering Netflix notoriety for being able to satisfy any screen craving. In need of a comedy horror? Romantic thriller? Spanish soap opera? You name it, they invested in it.
As encouraging as this may be for upcoming writers, and directors, the quality of the work must be considered. When Netflix provides so much variety in original work as well as a backlog of cinematic releases, it can be hard to stand out. In a market like “Romantic-Comedies” which is as saturated as it is clichè, in order to become memorable, you need to bring something new to the table.
Netflix’s approach seems to be diversity. The argument being, if you use a non-mainstream voice or story within a certain narrative, it becomes memorable because it is different. This is not a new concept. Regarding his intentional use of black actors as the stars of his horror films, Jordan Peele stated that with a white actor “[He’s] seen that movie”.
Nonetheless, different doesn’t always mean good. As a black woman, I automatically review the diversity ratio of any movie and arguably, the three biggest RomCom releases by Netflix this year: Isn’t it Romantic, Always Be My Maybe and Someone Great, appear to satiate this.
That said, do these movies bring anything new to the narrative and are they even good?
[In a general sense, I am wary of questioning whether the quality of any work is decreased by the addition of diversity but as it seems to be Netflix’s gateway to uniqueness, it has to be asked.]
Isn’t it Romantic?
Currently sitting at an okay 68% on Rotten Tomatoes, it seems like Rebel Wilson’s Natalie has performed well with viewers. This is despite the controversies that arose in the promotion of the film, as Rebel confidently asserted that she was the first plus-size woman to star in a RomCom (in complete disregard of actors such as Queen Latifah and Ricki Lake who have had their own RomCom successes). The premise itself seems quite bland: a woman hits her head and sees life as a musical, then discovers feelings for a previously platonic work friend; the script at times is too meta for its own good, constantly disparaging how unbelievable and fantastical RomCom scripts can be. BUT, for a Friday night in, it’s not the worst thing you could watch. All in all, it’s not very memorable and doesn’t add much to the zeitgeist except for blessing us with more Priyanka Chopra on screen.
Always Be My Maybe
An even bigger hit with audiences, at 92% on Rotten Tomatoes, Ali Wong’s Sasha and Randall Park’s Marcus steal hearts with a teenage-sweethearts-reuniting-as-adults love story. There are many reasons why this movie will be remembered (aside from the Keanu Reeves cameo). A key part is the film's focus on an Asian-American couple in a modern, smart and funny setting. It’d be difficult to pretend this film did not echo a shift in American cinema, especially at a time when a study by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism showed only 1% of Asian-Americans featured as lead roles in Hollywood. Overall, it wouldn’t surprise me if this film was talked about for a long time. Without Netflix, it’s a wonder whether a film like this would have had the chance to be made.
Finally, with an 82% approval on Rotten Tomatoes, Gina Rodriguez’s Jenny seems to have made someone feel great. A story about a music journalist dealing with a breakup from her longterm boyfriend as her ethnically diverse group of friends (complete with an awkward white woman) make their own romantic developments, is not that interesting. Despite the audience approval, the charm of this movie was severely downgraded to me by Gina’s previous responses to the black community.
As the story revolved around a music journalist, the movie heavily featured black artists and the film used many black actors. More disturbingly, Gina’s Jenny constantly used African-American Vernacular English (AAVE); so much so it felt like Gina herself was trying to separate herself from the role she’d come to be most associated with - Jane the Virgin. However, every “y’all” felt like an uncomfortable reminder of her current problematic public image and was difficult to escape. Aside from this, the film at times felt quite real. It featured a black queer woman, showed the romantic sacrifices sometimes required in advancing careers, and played out heartbreak in the social media era, creating a relatable story. More than that, it was a piece, where many people could feel seen, and that in any cinematic narrative is difficult to do.
With any production company, there will be hits and misses and even if Netflix’s’ intention in using diversity is tokenistic, just to get more views, it still proves a very important point. The same point Black Panther proved after grossing more than a $1 Billion Dollars, then being the first Marvel movie to win multiple Oscars. Diversity sells: in memory, in viewership and critical success.
Gone are the days where only women like Sandra Bullock or Julia Roberts and men like Hugh Grant dominate the narrative. A new era has begun.