While race within romance may seem like a potential powder keg waiting to explode, Judge Bill Gibron claims this genial romantic comedy handles the hot-button issue very well. It's the love story that's problematic.
Let it go, let it flow.
Kenya (Sanaa Lathan, Alien vs. Predator) is an accountant, a high-powered player in her important LA firm. As a proud black woman, she holds herself—and her personal standards—in very high regard. She will not settle for anything less than perfection—in her career, in her appearance—and in her love life. Though she's had relationships, she is still looking for her "IBM" (ideal black man). Desperate, she accepts a blind date from a friend. As it happens, he turns out to be a landscape architect named Brian (Simon Baker, Land of the Dead). He's handsome, hard-working, and something of a free spirit. He is also white. At first, Kenya rejects him outright. She would never date outside her race and believes that people of Brian's ethnic "ilk" continue to persecute and oppress her. When she hires him to fix up her backyard, the couple eventually grows close and it's not long before Kenya finds herself challenging her many misconceptions. Of course, her snooty upper-class family does not accept their daughter with a white man and tries their best to set her up with an available African-American legal scholar (Blair Underwood, Asunder) who has just moved into town. Naturally this leaves Kenya at a crossroads. This new man Mark is indeed the "IBM" of her dreams. However, Brian represents a chance to break free from the ideals that have trapped her for so long. So the question becomes, does our heroine choose the same old path or does she drop pretension and go for Something New?
Sorry to say it to all you sheltered social butterflies, but interracial relationships were, at one time, a social scandal so deep that people died over them. MTV may have convinced you otherwise, given that most couples on the used-to-be-a-videos-only channel are as multicultural as you can legally show under FCC regulations. Yet in all seriousness, as recently as a few decades ago, eugenics was still part of the status quo (some governments had programs in place as recently as the 1970s!). Interestingly enough, the notion of cultural purity still gets minor play in today's enlightened populace. To our credit, we have come a long way in realizing that people, in general, are people, no matter their skin pigmentation, but we are far from perfect. One of the amazing things about Something New, a racially-charged romantic comedy from first-time filmmaker Sanaa Hamri is that the ones with the color problem here aren't, for once, wearing white. No, the novel element of this movie, one that transcends some typical clichéd cinematic concepts, is the African-American position regarding dating outside your heritage. Certainly, Something New is not subtle in how it handles the subject. It gives us obvious bigots as well as a few closeted dogmatists. Still the notion that such a hot-button issue can be front and center of a typical boy meets/loses/gets girl dynamic argues for how far we've come as a culture, while reminding us that there are probably another good 400 years of work to be done before we really see the end of all prejudice…if then.
In truth, there are two racially-driven storylines here. At first, our attentions are turned to Kenya McQueen and her struggles as a professional black woman. Dealing with an obviously uncomfortable client who would rather talk to anyone except an intelligent woman of color, this fast-track accountant doesn't deserve to deal in "the black tax" (shorthand for how hard African-Americans must work to prove their worth within the white work force) and she lets us know it. Yet she must face it everyday and watching actress Sanaa Lathan internalize the issue is part of the movie's magic. She never lets on that it cuts so deep that she bleeds for days, yet when she finally gets beyond the seemingly cement version of the glass ceiling, we are genuinely moved. As a study of how educated ethnicities must deal with the dim-bulb dimensions of most of modern society, Something New does indeed explore fresh terrain. Still, this is only part of the story. The other element of the narrative is Kenya's contentious relationship with white landscape architect Brian Kelley (a bottle-blond Simon Baker). We are given a great deal of background as to why Brian's skin color would matter to Kenya. She has laid out her life plan in carefully conceived lists of what she will "do" (her job) and what she won't do (dogs, hiking, sensitive Caucasian men). In a manner quite different to the typical Hollywood rom-com, Brian and Kenya don't "meet cute." Instead, their blind date and subsequent discussions could be best described as a "meet curt."
Thusly we arrive at Something New's first flaw. Kenya is supposed to fall head-over-heels for Brian, taking up with him even though it goes against everything she stands for, as well as all her parents brainwashed into her. Yet as a man, Brian is—well, bland. He is supposed to represent a free spirit, a man truly in touch with his artistic and aesthetic soul. As played by Baker, we get nothing more than white teeth and a pet Golden Retriever. Brian is so milquetoast, so geared to be non-confrontational and understanding, that he becomes a kind of emotional void. Instead of fulfilling the romantic aspects of the narrative, he slowly sucks the life out of them. We never really understand what Kenya sees in him, since the relationship seems to be based more on the rejection of the past than a reflection of the future. When you find it hard to root for the couple at the core of this kind of film, its ability to sweep you up in the passion is more or less hobbled. Then there is Blair Underwood's character, Mike. Moving so fast he appears desperate, not desirable, it is a major mistake to introduce his character so late in the proceedings. Arriving at the 70-minute mark, he has to establish his persona, woo Kenya, and create a reason for her resistance before the overdone cotillion finale. It doesn't give the otherwise fine actor much room to work in and his role feels truncated and underdeveloped. In truth, Mike should be part of the mix from the very beginning. His presence would perk up all aspects of the love story. Still, it is possible to overlook these narrative obstacles and simply enjoy Kenya's personal awakening. Though it may be fueled by a little too much reality rigging (every person of color here is at the very top of their profession), it is still a heartfelt attempt at dealing with a very delicate issue.
Focus Features, as part of Universal, does a great job with the DVD presentation of this interesting independent motion picture. From a technical standpoint, the image and sound are sensational. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is almost flawless. The colors are vibrant and clear, and the contrasts are crisp and detail-oriented. Certainly director Hamri falls into the spectacle school of glittering up the screen with unnecessary optical froufrou (the aforementioned debutante ball is shot in so much gold you'd swear it was dipped in the precious metal), but the presentation can handle such pretension. Sonically, the movie uses both classic soul/R&B and some excellent examples of hip-hop to set the stage and the Dolby Digital Stereo 5.1 mix keeps it all bumpin' and bouncin'. The dialogue is always discernible, never lost amongst the beats, and the ambiance created in the romantic scenes is perfectly palpable. Along with a couple of cute bonus features—a "Do's and Don'ts of Dating" short with comments from the cast and an EPK style "Making Of" (insightful, if insipid at times)—and you've got a first-rate digital presentation.
Race is such a tenuous subject that when a movie manages to avoid its perpetual pitfalls to say something intelligent and interesting on the subject, there is an instinctual desire to leap to its defense. Something New doesn't require that kind of lockstep support. It derives its respect the old-fashioned way—it earns it. Too bad the love story could have been equally adventurous.
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• "The Do's and Don'ts of Dating" Featurette
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