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The Interracial Romance Onscreen

Films and TV shows have long used the onscreen interracial romance as a way to explore our own evolving relationships with racism. From I Love Lucy, to Jungle Fever, to The Big Sick, we’ve progressed from cautious depictions of interracial romance to politically charged melodramas that confront them head-on, to more modern tales where race is seen as just one of love’s many complexities. But even as movies and TV have increasingly normalized the interracial relationship, it remains a singular, and significant dynamic on-screen—and an essential part of our cultural conversation. Here’s our Take on how all of these depictions of the interracial relationship bring something to the table, even if they come from different points of view.

TRANSCRIPT

Lauren’s Dad: “You’re a white guy, she’s a black woman. Let’s talk about that.” - Love is Blind S1 E8

Film and TV have long used the onscreen interracial romance as a way to explore our own evolving relationships with racism. From I Love Lucy, to Jungle Fever, to The Big Sick, we’ve progressed from cautious depictions of interracial romance to politically charged melodramas that confront them head-on, to more modern tales where race is seen as just one of love’s many complexities.

But even as movies and TV have increasingly normalized the interracial relationship, it remains a singular, and significant dynamic on-screen—and an essential part of our cultural conversation. Stories about interracial relationships tend to fall into three general categories. In the first category, interracial relationships pose a challenge to their families or communities.

A second category takes a more “color-blind” approach, reflecting the increasing real-world acceptance of interracial romance while ignoring the prejudices that complicate it. And third, stories that find a middle ground—engaging with those prejudices, while also normalizing the relationship itself—bring necessary dimension to characters who might otherwise be reduced to the color of their skin.

Here’s our Take on how all of these depictions of the interracial relationship bring something to the table, even if they come from different points of view.

Meet the Parents:

1967 saw the debut of Stanley Kramer’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, in which a young white woman, played by Katharine Houghton, introduces her family to her black fiancee, played by Sidney Poitier. Billed as a love story of today, it truly couldn’t have been more timely: Interracial marriage remained illegal in 16 states until just two weeks after the film finished production. By the time it debuted, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner wasn’t just about this one, onscreen family confronting its feelings on interracial coupling.

America was finally confronting them as well. Kramer’s film was a commercial success—even in those Southern states where interracial marriage had so recently been outlawed—and it broke barriers by showcasing a kiss between Houghton and Poitier. But it was also criticized for its fairly shallow read on such a complicated topic.

Matt Drayton: “You’re two wonderful people who happened to fall in love and happen to have a pigmentation problem.” - Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967)

Much of that criticism centered on Poitier’s character, Dr. John Prentice, whom the film makes out to be impossibly perfect. As the writer James Baldwin noted, it held up Poitier as an unattainable standard for black people to meet, just to be accepted.

James Baldwin: “Black people particularly disliked Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, because they felt Sidney was being used against them.” - I Am Not Your Negro (2016)

Joanna, too, is not so much a fully developed character as a thinly sketched representation of young love. Failing to flesh out the lovers as individuals rob the film of complexity—like Joanna, the film doesn’t look directly at the issues it’s raising. Notably, the film gives more thoughtful treatment to the parents, played by Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. As professed liberals with supposedly progressive ideals,

John Prentice: “She said my dad - my dad is a lifelong fighting liberal who loathes race prejudice and has spent his whole life fighting against discrimination.” - Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967)

they’re forced to confront their own biases and hypocrisies once these fights are brought into their own home.

John Prentice: “Things are changing.”

Matt Drayton: “I have a feeling they’re not changing quite as fast anywhere else than my own backyard.” - Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967)

And of course, their fears are mostly based on what everyone else will think. The fear of how the world will respond is a common thread in stories of interracial relationships—particularly those involving black men, who have long been subject to racist narratives about the threats they pose to white women.

Jelani Cobb: “There is a famous scene where a woman throws herself off a cliff rather than be raped by a black male criminal.” - 13th (2016)

In Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever, the affair between Wesley Snipes and Annabella Sciorra inflames an entire community: Her father beats her. His father condemns him. Total strangers insult them.

Waitress: “I can’t even believe you brought her stringy-haired ass up in here to eat.” - Jungle Fever (1991)

Eventually, even the police get involved. The film is dedicated to Yusuf Hawkins, a black man killed in 1989 over rumors he was romancing white women, and it seems to argue that the world will simply never accept the interracial couple. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner ends on a decidedly more hopeful note, with black and white families sitting down together at the table—the literal realization of Martin Luther King Jr.s dream, articulated just a few years before.

Martin Luther King Jr.: “Sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners, will be able to sit down at the table of brotherhood.” - I Have A Dream speech (1963)

The film suggests racism is just a generational problem—that the times are changing, and that young people are already leading the way.

John Prentice: “You and your whole lousy generation believes the way it was for you is the way it’s got to be. And not until your whole generation has lain down and died will the dead weight of you be off our backs!” - Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967)

But in retrospect, this seems like so much Hollywood back-patting—the opposite extreme of Jungle Fever’s pessimism.

Four months after Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was released, Martin Luther King was assassinated, and the struggle for racial equality continues to this day. Even Katharine Houghton herself would later agree with James Baldwin, saying that while the film may have started conversations, they were largely one-sided.

Katherine Houghton: Black friends of mine, when I’ve said to them, “What is your reaction to the film?” they’ve all said, “Well it wasn’t written for black people. It was written for white people.”

In 2017, Jordan Peele’s Get Out offered a horror-movie spin on Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, with another story of a black man visiting the parents of his white girlfriend. Peele’s film questions and subverts the rosy outlook of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner to expose the myth of the post-racial society that sprung up around Barack Obama.

Dean Armitage: “By the way, I would have voted for Obama for a third term if I could.” - Get Out (2017)

While these white liberals welcome him to the family, Get Out suggests there’s an even more insidious racism lurking within these supposed progressives who fetishize black people, appropriate their culture, and through their soothing, post-racial rhetoric, ultimately want to keep them in the sunken place.

Meeting the family continues to be a formula that stories periodically revisit to track society at large’s changing views toward interracial relationships. And while the family formula often doesn’t provide the most nuanced depiction of the interracial romance, often reducing the couple itself to a political symbol, it does offer a useful snapshot of the progress we’ve made—or our illusions about it.

The Color-Blind Approach:

Not every depiction of an interracial relationship directly addresses race—nor does it need to. As Russell Boast, president of the Casting Society of America points out, “There’s been a kind of glamorization of diversity, where creators think that having it means it has to be a plot point. But sometimes that can have the opposite effect, making it feel not normal.”

Most interracial couples want to be treated like any other love story and to see themselves portrayed honestly as individuals—without the politics or the melodrama. When it comes to this color-blind approach, it’s notable that some of the more prominent depictions have taken place in otherworldly settings.

Star-Lord: “When are we gonna do something about this unspoken thing between us?” - Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

In 1968, as America was engulfed in civil rights struggles, Star Trek made history with one of TV’s first interracial kisses, between William Shatner’s Captain Kirk and Nichelle Nichols’ Lieutenant Uhura. The sci-fi series offered an aspirational vision of future humanity, one that had left racism behind and learned to respect and value all life within its vast universe.

More recently, The Good Place earned praise for depicting several interracial relationships without making a big deal of it. But it’s no coincidence the show takes place in the afterlife, where such mortal concerns as race seem relatively minor. Still, even here on Earth, we’ve increasingly seen interracial relationships depicted as normal, without it becoming a major plot point.

The Office made occasional jokes about the culture clash between Kelly, an Indian woman,

dating the white Ryan. Overall, though, their relationship is defined not by its racial differences, but by the pair’s mutual toxicity. And while it may be race that first brings Kelly and Ravi together,

Pam: “Ravi, our amazing pediatrician, was asking us if we knew any girls and I said I know the perfect girl.”

Jim: “Because Kelly is Indian and… oh, that’s it.” - The Office S8 E21

ultimately, as she’s dumping Ravi for Ryan again, Kelly remains color-blind —and blind to a lot of other things as well.

The color-blind approach reflects the fact that younger generations increasingly don’t see interracial romances as controversial or even unusual. According to a Pew Research Center study in 2012, 93 percent of 18 to 29-year-olds accepted interracial dating, an attitude that’s been reinforced repeatedly on-screen by couples for whom race may be a consideration, but it’s rarely a conflict—if it’s even mentioned at all.

Crucially, today these color-blind interracial couples are increasingly at the center of their story: Friends may have countered criticisms over its lack of diversity by casting Aisha Tyler to play Ross’s girlfriend, but everyone knew she was only a temporary fling before he inevitably went back to Rachel. There are drawbacks to this approach: Whereas stories about interracial romances that challenge their communities often reduce them to just their politics, the color-blind narratives ignore those politics completely.

Still, while failing to engage directly in racial conversations might seem like reluctance, these depictions fulfill the equally important goal of representation. They allow interracial couples to be themselves, rather than a symbol. Being color-blind on screen matters in a world that isn’t, offering us a vision of how it should be.

Nichelle Nichols: “Don’t you understand that for the first time we are seen as we should be seen?”

Bridging the Divides:

We don’t live in a color-blind world, but neither do we live in a political melodrama. So the most modern, more realistic approach to the interracial relationship seeks a middle ground—one that doesn’t present race as its defining characteristic but doesn’t shy away from it either.

The couple in The Big Sick have plenty of obstacles to surmount—not least a life-threatening illness—but race is certainly among them.

Kumail: “I’m fighting a 1,400-year-old culture, you were ugly in high school. There’s a big fucking difference.” - The Big Sick (2017)

In a more complex reversal of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Emily’s white parents are comfortable with Kumail being Pakistani. It’s Kumail’s family who can’t accept him dating a girl who isn’t from their culture. But even though Kumail’s mother actually disowns him at one point, this conflict is only one part of a complex story—what matters most is how these two young people work through their relationship, not how others feel about it. We’re no longer just telling simple morality plays about white families who learn to tolerate their daughter’s black fiancee—or offering color-blind utopias that pretend race doesn’t exist. These more modern depictions are open about our differences, without being consumed by them.

Simon: “And you’re Jewish. Which is cool.”

Bram: “And I’m black too. And gay.” - Love, Simon

They’ve even begun to represent interracial relationships where neither person is white or straight, offering a fuller, more complex picture of the many different kinds of cultural divides that have to be crossed in order for two people to be together. Most importantly, they put their focus on depicting characters as multi-faceted individuals.

The 2016 drama Loving portrays the real-life story of Richard and Mildred Loving, whose Supreme Court case led to the legalization of interracial marriage, in the same year that Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was released. Yet despite the story’s obvious historical significance, the film makes a more powerful statement by portraying the Lovings as a thoroughly ordinary couple, lingering on their moments of domestic routine and unforced intimacy. Unusually in this kind of story, their community is even depicted as largely supportive. As writer-director Jeff Nichols told The New York Times, he wanted to highlight how “segregation wasn’t a clean divide in these communities.”

Even today, our feelings about race aren’t a clean divide, either. Shows about a protagonist of color that primarily feature white love interests have sometimes been criticized for not focusing on people of color as viable partners while holding up the love of a white person as the ultimate prize. This is an important concern in a world where data from dating apps suggests that many people are already biased towards white partners.

The interracial relationship story is a way of looking at the broader social conflicts of racism through the private lens of an intimate, personally affecting story. It’s a story that asks us to question our histories and our unexamined privileges and look at the inherent power dynamics that are always at play, even in our romances—even in those moments when it seems like we’re the only two people in the world.

And although we are still reimagining and perfecting its portrayal, the interracial relationship gives us all something to hope for: that moment when our past joins hands at last with a more loving future.