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‘The Perfect Guy’ and the drawbacks of colorblind moviemaking

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Originally published in The Washington Post, by Stacia L. Brown

Last weekend, Screen Gems’ suspense-thriller “The Perfect Guy” won the box office with a gross of nearly $26 million. It was the fifth consecutive weekend that a film starring black actors took the No. 1 slot. (Hip-hop biopic “Straight Outta Compton” and Christian-themed drama “War Room” won the previous weekends with openings of $60 million and $11 million, respectively.) This has resulted in several trend pieces about “black films” being hot right now, an assertion that seems to surface whenever more than one film with black stars has a notable run of critical or commercial acclaim. “Straight Outta Compton,” “War Room” and “The Perfect Guy” have little in common besides the race of the actors in lead roles.

And no one involved with “The Perfect Guy” wants the film’s black cast to be its distinguishing characteristic. It’s the story of a woman who, upon breaking up with her boyfriend, begins dating a man who eventually stalks her. Nothing about the narrative is specific to race — and that was intentional.

When I spoke with “The Perfect Guy” director David M. Rosenthal by phone, he told me that Screen Gems president Clint Culpepper “didn’t want to make a quote-unquote African American film; he wanted to make a film. He wanted to make a film that registered with a particular audience [and also] reached all audiences. It shouldn’t make a difference.” Rosenthal said that when James Lopez, former senior vice president at Screen Gems, brought him on to direct the project, they discussed taking an upscale approach to the thriller. “They wanted to make this a classy thriller,” said Rosenthal. “They wanted to elevate the genre. That was one of the first things we talked about going in. I remember James saying his audience doesn’t get enough of those films.”

It’s interesting that “classy” and “upscale” also translated to racially nondescript. The film does feature gorgeous landscapes, a state-of-the art home interior, and luxury and vintage cars. The characters have the kinds of impressive-sounding job titles that indicate how easily they can afford to dine in the swanky restaurants they frequent.

But “The Perfect Guy” also goes so far out of its way not to distinguish its characters as black that it forgets to give them any real personality at all. Leah (Sanaa Lathan), Dave (Morris Chestnut) and Carter (Michael Ealy) are two-dimensional templates whose logic is hard to follow and whose backstories are sparse. They don’t even get the clever one-liners or villain’s death-postponing, true-motive-revealing monologue that all thriller fans — regardless of race — have come to anticipate as genre traits.

Rosenthal is white, and for “The Perfect Guy,” he teamed up with a young black producer, Tommy Oliver. I asked Rosenthal whether he felt that multiracial partnerships like this one would help to address Hollywood’s long-discussed, behind-the-camera diversity issues. He was optimistic: “When we all come together because we like each other and we happen to be not of the same color or religion or whatever […] that allows us to have a wider, more diverse, more compassionate and empathetic worldview. Whenever that can happen, that’s going to be expansive in the kind of work we’re going to see coming out of Hollywood.”

When I spoke with Oliver, he echoed Rosenthal’s sentiments about representation making an impact on the process. “Having a position at the table, having your voice be in the mix will change the conversation. It will change the way people think about things. It will change the level of sensitivity, and it’ll move things forward.”

But what will “forward” look like? When I asked Oliver how he would define an “African American or urban film,” Oliver said that it’s a film “in which the characters being black has something to do with the story being told.”

He explained, “With this movie, these characters could’ve been anything and the story would’ve been the same. I think that was the idea. It doesn’t always have to be something where it’s black first.” But that doesn’t mean race didn’t come into play in marketing. “Michael, Sanaa, and Morris have a certain audience. Even if [race] in the film doesn’t matter, their built-in audience does,” Oliver said. “The three stars were black, so it’s positioned as a black film, even though it’s not a black movie.”

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In an interview with BuzzFeed, Lathan, who served as a producer, explained that she wants to make work that isn’t categorized by race: “If it’s a good movie, it’s a good movie, regardless of our color. We’re brown, but we’re just making movies. We don’t have to comment on our race.” In the same interview, Ealy, who also served as a producer on the film, made similar distinctions between “black films” and films that don’t center race. “If you see a movie where black people are living life and they’re not mentioning their blackness, they’re not mentioning what it is to be black, and they’re not talking about what is black and beautiful, then it’s kind of just a movie with some black people in it,” he told BuzzFeed.

There’s no better descriptor for “The Perfect Guy” than “kind of just a movie with some black people in it.” And that doesn’t work in its favor. We’re told Leah (Lathan) is a political lobbyist, but she isn’t given any characteristics that would suggest why she pursued that career or why it’s important to her. Her on-again-off-again boyfriend Dave (Chestnut) has a job that requires him to take road trips to deliver “presentations” to “clients”; that could be any gig. We’re never told. Carter, the stalker, is an IT specialist (which just means he has high-tech surveillance skills. The better to stalk her with, my dear).

It’s probably unreasonable to expect an actor to perform “blackness” — whatever that would mean within the context of a film, be it a main character wearing a natural hairstyle, friends performing a dance routine to New Edition or lead characters using culturally specific diction or idiom — in every role. And there’s a case to be made for “normalizing” black actors by letting them play characters with the exact same, generic challenges that white actors get to portray all the time. “The Perfect Guy” follows in a long list of stalker movies such as “The Crush,” “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle,” “Sleeping With the Enemy,” “Enough” and “Obsessed.” None of those films were saddled with race-based analysis — even when, in at least in the cases of “Enough” and “Obsessed,” which starred actors of color, they could’ve been.

Under Rosenthal’s and Oliver’s leadership, “The Perfect Guy” accomplished what it set out to do: make a thriller with upscale characters whose race was inconsequential to the storytelling. But they’ve fallen into the trap that awaits storytellers who try to appeal to everyone: Their characters lack the specificity that would make them relatable to anyone.

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