America is afraid of sex. Specifically, America is afraid of black sex. Whether it be between two black folks or in an interracial tango, black sexuality is still one of the greatest taboos when it comes to the screen. Films with black love and black sex are hard to market.
Take last year’s Beyond the Lights, directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, which was one of the most romantic films of the past decade. Despite a bungled marketing campaign, the strength of its love story has made it a burgeoning cult film. It is an adult, sophisticated romance between Gugu Mbatha-Raw's Noni and Nate Parker's Kaz, but you'd be forgiven for thinking it was either some Step Up sequel or a Nicholas Sparks knock-off when it first hit theaters. It's easier to play up other elements of a film where black sex is a central plot point, which is why we're now in the era of the black erotic thriller.
Black sexuality is a multifaceted stereotype. Black men are either Mandingos for white sexual fantasies or eunuchs lower on the totem pole than a peacocking white male. Black women either gotta have it or they're desexualized caretakers for emotionally downtrodden white children. But there's one constant: Black love is scary. It's wicked. That's what's highlighted, for example, in Jon Cassar’s upcoming When the Bough Breaks. Jaz Sinclair plays a sweet-verging-on-saccharine surrogate to Morris Chestnut and Regina Hall, only to eventually reveal herself as a crazed sexpot intent on obliterating their marriage. The plot follows the same pattern as The Perfect Guy, last year's thriller about a dark and violent sexual affair between Sanaa Lathan and Michael Ealy. But these films are also played as grindhouse fodder. When white actors star in erotic thrillers like The Girl on the Train, Gone Girl, or Fatal Attraction, they're allowed to be taken seriously. Black films with the same subject matter are "guilty pleasures" — they're "so bad it's good."
But despite America's trepidation when it comes to black sexuality, these films kill at the box office. In fact, Screen Gems, the movie studio behind When the Bough Breaks, has this down to a science: Churn out a black grindhouse erotica film each September and watch the coins roll in. When the Bough Breaks is set for release on September 16, 2016. The Perfect Guy bowed last September. The year before that, Taraji P. Henson and Idris Elba's No Good Deed also got a September release. The only film to buck this trend was 2009's Obsessed, but that one starred Beyoncé and the powder keg of sexuality was interracial: between Idris and Ali Larter, in the role of evil temptress.
While Tyler Perry's Temptation and the Billie Woodruff–directed Addicted got flack for punishing their black heroines harshly for exploring their sexuality (the former gave its lead HIV; the latter fell into the crosshairs of a deranged psychopath), they're not too different from any other black erotic thriller. What the films with all black leads have in common is that they involve triangles where a black woman is punished for letting her guard down, for trusting a man, or for wishing too hard for a picturesque life. The theme is always that black sexuality is punished: It's a little off-kilter, and it ends in bloodshed.
This was commonplace in non-black films, too, once upon a time. Bridget Fonda is terrorized in Single White Female. Glenn Close and Michael Douglas engage in viciousness in Fatal Attraction. Angie Dickinson gets hacked up in Dressed to Kill. During the '80s and '90s, Hollywood was rife with pulpy, sexed-up thrillers starring sexy blondes and demonstrating the perils they encountered by opening their legs to married men or even daring to leave the house in a sensible pair of pumps. Some of these movies were taken seriously, most were high-end trash, but they made money — and audiences couldn't get enough of them.
But then, something funny happened on the way to the orgy: Erotic thrillers suddenly started being taken seriously.
Fatal Attraction was nominated for six Academy Awards, thanks to the star power of Close and Douglas and the direction of Adrian Lyne. Years later, Unfaithful would earn Diane Lane an Oscar nom. Rosamund Pike got one for Gone Girl, and that movie generated all the heat that a prestige film is awarded. Watch the trailer for this year's tapioca thriller, The Girl on the Train — one thing we can all agree on is that it's fucking bonkers.
There's not a goddamn difference in presentation when it comes to this trailer and When the Bough Breaks, except that because the latter is a black thriller, it's seen as a movie to watch in Harlem or Baldwin Hills or wherever the ethnic festivities are to your liking. The twists in Gone Girl were straight out of an episode of Days of Our Lives, but David Fincher directed it, so it was given the descriptor "Hitchcockian." But that's just because a sexed-up psychodrama for white actors means a stylish, noirish, sexy thriller that will probably garner Oscar recognition — or at least a Hollywood Reporter roundtable. To be a black actor handed the same script means that no one will really take your film seriously, even if it will kill on opening weekend and black people and white gays will gather in their living rooms years later to play drinking games to your scenes.
Artists of color fight for the chance to lead their own superhero flicks or to not be whitewashed out of films they should be starring in. The question is always: "Will this sell?" The answer is that sex sells whether it's black or white. But if white sex can sell with an air of prestige, why can't a black erotic thriller get handed a competent director and screenwriter who can plumb their characters' depths instead of whisking up lines like: "Don't be afraid of me ... you're already inside me"?