Every sister has a film she considers a black cult classic. Whether a family drama, a soapy Tyler Perry flick, or an oft-rerun-on-cable romantic comedy, there’s always that film that we’ve seen 100 times and can recite from opening to end credits. But when it comes to matters of the heart, sometimes our favorite flicks fail us. In epic proportions. Let’s revisit a few fan favorites that dispense pretty mixed and messy morals about courtship, marriage, and love.

1. “Let a man be a man.” – Vivica A. Fox as Maxine, Soul Food

If this advice were, “Don’t intervene unless you’re invited,” that would be great. But by making it gender-specific, something bad happens.

Men don’t need to be “allowed” to be men. Women don’t need to be unconditionally “submissive” so that men can “be men.” And if “being a man” means choosing pride over employment, as in the case of the newly married Lem (Mekhi Phifer) in Soul Food, you may want to reconsider the man you chose.

2. “Sometimes, a man and a woman have an understanding that no one else understands.” S. Epatha Merkerson as Nanny, Lackawanna Blues

This one sounds sweet on its surface. But if no one else understands why you’re with someone, that’s probably a red flag. In Nanny’s case, her ne’er-do-well, chronically womanizing, younger husband stood in stark and inexplicable contrast to her selfless, industrious, faithful personality. No secret understanding is worth that much heartache and that many headaches.

3. “I lie to you because I love you.” – Tyrese Gibson as Jody, Baby Boy

Is Baby Boy a satire? Ten years later, I’m still asking myself that. But let’s say we’re supposed to take it at face value, which is most likely. This one should be self-explanatory. Jody’s lying about the ridiculous number of women he’s sleeping with on the side. Nothing says love like the constant threat of STIs and HIV/AIDS.

4. “I might’ve been more prissy in the situation, but when I said Quincy could do better,” I meant you.” – Alfre Woodard as Camille Wright, Love and Basketball

I’m always a minority with this opinion, but Quincy never treated Monica well. They had a hot and heavy prom night and a low-stakes romance as college freshman. But the minute the relationship ceased to revolve around him, Quincy started being a grade-A jerk to the supposed love of his life. Even in the game-for-his-heart, he had to “prove something” by besting her and dashing her hopes, before deigning to reconcile with her.

So advising Monica to fight for Quincy was a bad move, Mom. Chasing someone who has never chased you is generally an ill-advised idea.

5. Vivica A. Fox as Shanté Smith, Two Can Play That Game

In art as in life, Vivica Fox is a fount of bad relationship wisdom. Take any of her advice in this film, with its complicated metrics for securing male devotion, and you’ll find yourself in a world of trouble. With rules like, “Break up with him before he breaks up with you” and “When your man messes up, no matter how small it is, you’ve got to punish him,” you’ll find yourself slinking up to your ex, hat in hand, hoping he’ll take you back, just like Shanté had to do. But then, that was the whole point of the movie: you can’t game a man into fidelity, attentiveness, or commitment. It’s a daily exercise in vulnerable, honest communication. Cards on the table, not stashed in the garter up your skirt.

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  • WaWa

    I could never watch a movie with a grown man in it calling himself “Baby Boy” I have seen none of the others except Spike Lee’s film because I know he produces quality work. But women looking into these films to learn about real life….are you serious?

  • Thanks to everyone for their comments!

    I wanted to address a few: nowhere in this article do I claim that women are actively watching movies to learn how to behave in relationships. The point is that these films do contain messages/morals about relationships–and the ones I’ve pointed out are problematic. (And let’s be real: the scenarios in these films are perpetuated in some of our relationships. If they weren’t, the films wouldn’t be relatable for their intended audiences. Some women game. Some women pine for/chase men who aren’t as invested in or committed to them. Some women do think that being “protected” from a dude’s shade/dirt/extracurricular activities mean that she’s his main chick–and they’re cool with that.)

    As is evidenced by the comments, we all discuss what we’ve “taken away” from each of these films (e.g. Quincy’s a jerk; Jody’s an idiot; Bird played the wrong hand). Even when you’re watching a movie “purely for entertainment purposes,” you’re still likely to discuss what works and doesn’t work about the characters’ relationships/the overall plot with your friends.

    That means that commentary about the film’s messages and outcomes is a part of the entertainment experience.

  • Harry Efz

    Can a WASP male add a pretty much thoroughly uninformed comment? I don’t think that my opinion on any specific ‘Relationship Takeaway’ matters much, but this is my first time reading your articles. I usually read Northeastern NYTimes-like posts; I am completely impressed with the high quality and thoughtfulness of both the agreeing and dissenting opinions here. If the rest of your articles provoke similar thoughts, I think it’s well worth attention from anybody interested in similar issues, regardless of their own demographic characteristics (race, income, or whatever)
    I’m becoming convinced that because of my perhaps overprivileged, pampered background, perhaps I don’t think about these issues as much as their seriousness deserves. Thanks for this thought-provoking forum!

    • ruggie

      Mark it on your calendar, Harry Efz: the day you realized that black people have brains.

    • Kai

      @ruggie LOL dead. That’s exactly what I was thinking when I read his post…

  • nestafan2

    Perhaps we all are just watching movies “for entertainment,” but moviemakers are clever enough to know that the underlying messages in the movies they make can seep into the consciousness of the audience–especially females. Some women think they are “too smart” to take their romantic cues from movie characters, but these are the same women who will make detrimental romantic decisions because their favorite movie character did it and it worked for her. I’d venture to say that there are some women who believe that sleeping with a man on the first date like “Nina Mosely” did will get them a long term relationship with a Lorenz Tate-like knight in shining armor. But in reality it probably hasn’t and won’t.

    Then there are the “I watch this movie because it was funny” type of audience. These people rarely extract anything from anything. Perhaps from lack of maturity, but mostly from lack of perception. Even an insightful article such as this will fail to evoke a meaningful discussion.

  • Nnaattaayy

    You’re not in the minority- I didn’t like Love and Basketball because the dude was so rude to her yet she continued to seek him out. My brother made me watch that movie because its supposedly a classic, but I think its crap lol.