Race to the Finish

Washington City Paper | February 3, 2006
Something New also aims to send a message about unexpected romance. Weird, then, that its story of love appears to be threaded with an undercurrent of hate.

Before I tell you exactly how, picture this modern romantic-comedy setup: a blind date in which—gasp!—a white woman is unknowingly set up with a black man. Once they meet, the woman looks at her date, who’s handsome and charming, with barely veiled disgust. Though she won’t date him, she hires him to work on the yard of her new home, where she won’t let him walk through the front door. When her brother comes to visit one day, he’s rude to the rejected guy and explains his behavior by saying, “But he’s the help.”

Think it would fly?

Well, maybe, the filmmakers must have said. But only if we mix things up a little. So the reverse is the basis of Something New, directed by first-timer Sanaa Hamri (previous experience: music videos and a Prince concert film) and written by TV scribe Kriss Turner (Everybody Hates Chris, Living Single). Kenya—subtle, Turner—played by Sanaa Lathan, is a successful, beautiful lawyer who dishes with her equally successful and beautiful Sex and the City–cloned girlfriends about the increasing improbability of any of them landing a man. The film’s original title was 42.4 Percent, which according to a Newsweek study is the share of educated black American women who never marry.

When Kenya’s friends tell her the real reason she’s alone is because she’s holding out for an IBM—ideal black man—she agrees to be set up by a co-worker on a blind date. She soon meets the very white Brian (Simon Baker) and begins “What up?”ing every person of color in the coffee shop as she, clearly embarrassed, makes her way to a table with her date. Kenya tells him it’s not going to work. Of course, she runs into him again at an outdoor party, when she tells the host that she loves the landscaping and is immediately reintroduced to the paleface.

Surprisingly, Something New’s offenses lie in its execution, not its ideas. As Guess Who proved last year—well, to some—the what’s-she-doing-with-a-white-guy plot can be mined for both laughs and messages of tolerance. But the reverse-racism angle of that film was expressed mostly through Bernie Mac’s comic overreactions; the Caucasian object of his exasperation was loved by his daughter and given a chance by the rest of the family. Here, Brian is the bad guy all the way: Kenya literally shuts the door in his face. Her brother (Donald Faison) tells her, “You are not that desperate!” And her mother (Alfre Woodard) soon pushes an IBM (Blair Underwood) her way after Kenya and Brian finally, if unbelievably, start to get cozy.

The script itself has a few funny moments, such as when Kenya and her girlfriends decide their new motto for love is “Let go; let flow” and one of them remarks that “It’s better than ‘Keep hope alive!’” But the dialogue more often turns trite. (“I’m just a landscaper,” Brian tells Kenya. “I take hard earth and make things bloom.”) And once Hamri has the unlikable Kenya lose her ’tude and—literally—let down her hair, things get unforgivably gushy, an impossible transition for Lathan to pull off. Even if the actress could, it’d be too late anyway. No matter how sweetly Something New closed, you’d never quite get its bad taste out of your mouth.

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