Preference and Prejudice

Posted: Feb 08, 2006 12:01 AM

“It’s a preference not a prejudice.”

So says Kenya (Sanaa Lathan), a black accountant in her early thirties to Brian (Simon Baker), a white landscape architect of roughly the same age about her decision not to date him.

To Kenya, ruling out a potential boyfriend on the basis of race seems a responsible and justified position to take. Reflected back in Brian’s eyes, we see another point of view--what would it be called if he held a similar “preference”?

It is in these subtle moments that Something New, the feature debut from director Sanaa Hamri, lives up to its name. It manages to generate real romantic humor in the midst of social conflict without sacrificing one in service to the other.

According to the film’s statistics, Kenya is one of the 42.2 percent of black women that have never married. Like her highly-educated, professionally-successful girlfriends, she bemoans her inability to find an IBM (ideal black man). A short commiseration with her pals on Valentine ’s Day has them all committing to “let go and let flow.” That is, to relinquish their long-cherished dreams of what their perfect mates look like and open themselves up to other kinds of men.

For one woman, this means dating outside her economic class; for another it means seeing a soon-to-be divorced father. For Kenya, it means accepting a co-worker’s offer to set her up on a blind date.

However, her new “let flow” state of mind stops short when her date turns out to be white. And that’s not the only shade that has Kenya seeing red. Brian is also borderline blue-collar. He may run his own small business, but he does it working with his hands…in the dirt, neither of which adds up to the upper-middle class future Kenya and her family have imagined for her.

Instead she hires him to transform her new backyard, giving Brian the opportunity to surreptitiously cultivate her heart.

Rather than a campy parade of clichés a la last year’s Guess Who, Something New takes an honest, at times even uncomfortable look at the challenges interracial dating imposes today. As the film deftly exposes, some of the hurdles have changed, and a snob is a snob in any color.

Kenya’s upwardly-aspiring mother (an imposing Alfre Woodard) pushes her toward “appropriate” men, implying that Kenya owes it to her community to present the best picture of African-American success that she can. But where, Kenya asks herself, does her obligation to build up her community end and her obligation to build a happy life for herself begin?

Her family’s expectation that she succeed in a white world, on the white world’s terms, ultimately has the effect of stifling Kenya’s personality. Her stick-straight hair, beige business suits, and clipped speech act as a kind of corset on her natural strengths, preventing her from strongly voicing opinions that would be valuable to her firm. The film even goes so far as to suggest that they have made her a slight bit touchy and paranoid.

So when Kenya does finally, cautiously begin to come out of her shell and move past her perceptions, we cheer in unison not because she is “sticking it to the man” but because she is using her the gifts of her heritage to benefit everyone—herself, Brian, her workplace—around her.

Thanks to outstanding performances from Lathan, Baker, and Woodard, the movie is able to explore black/white issues without ever reducing them to stereotypes or demeaning any character. When it comes to race on film, that certainly is something new.