Female Filmmaker Friday: Something New, 2006 (dir. Sanaa Hamri)
I actually talked a little bit about this film earlier this week on my new video series on YouTube, but I wanted to write about it as well because I fell head over heels for this film. It was written by Kriss Turner and directed by Sanaa Hamri and as far as I can tell, this is both women’s only feature film to date, which is a real shame. This film follows the rom-com structure perfectly, but is also full of wonderfully layered characters and packed with social/racial commentary.
The film starts with its main character Kenya (Sanaa Lathan) dreaming about getting married, then abruptly waking up, realizing it’s just a dream. Kenya is the daughter of an affluent black couple, living and working in Los Angeles. She works as a corporate finance manager at a top Fortune 500 type company, but she’s often second guessed by the rich, white clients because she is a woman and she’s black. She learns to grin and bear it. She has a circle of similar working lady friends Cheryl (Wendy Raquel Robinson), Nedra (Taraji P. Henson), and Suzette (Golden Brooks). Early on in the film, they have drinks together on Valentine’s Day and lament the fact that 40% of black women never marry and that professional black women are the most likely to never get married.
We then follow Kenya back to her home, where we get this great moment at night, seeing Kenya as a woman who is as vulnerable as she is strong.
One of her co-workers sets her up on a blind date, who just happens to be a very white, blonde man named Brian (Simon Baker). This immediately makes Kenya uncomfortable (in a very funny scene), wherein Kenya tries to be a little more “black” than she usually is, to counter balance having coffee with a very white man. Brian can sense that she is uncomfortable and tries to remedy the situation, but it ends with Kenya leaving. Baker is so charming (and so damn hot!) throughout the movie. His light touch balancing off of Sanaa Lathan’s uptight, but perfectly timed with comic and dramatic moments performance, really is what makes this film work. Also, they have chemistry to boot.
Kenya’s whole house is just beige, beige, beige. It’s sad. Also, here back yard is a mess. Eventually, she runs into Brian again (he’s the landscape architect for the parents of the co-worker who set them up; ahh yesssss rom-coms!). This, of course, is awkward at first, but because we are watching a rom-com, they make up a bit and Kenya hires him to come fix up her back yard. We know at this point that Kenya’s life is really boring and way too beige and even though Brian is super white, he’s a little “colorful,” and we know he’ll be a good influence.
I mean, look at that man! He’s basically really hot (literally!) and sweaty and working in dirt and/or playing with a dog for the first third of this movie. It’s nice and Hamri films it in such a way that you really cannot help falling for Brian yourself, let alone wish that Kenya would hurry up and bang him as well. I like how she paced the early part of their relationship, though, because Hamri builds up such delicious sexual tension between her leads before allowing them to collide.
After a few really spirited conversations (wherein you find out a lot about why Kenya is the way she is), Brian forces her to go hiking with him, and although she complains through most of the strenuous parts, she can’t help but fall in love with the natural world around her (and maybe a little bit with Brian too!). Look at those smiles! This leads to a really hot, but tastefully filmed sex scene, after which Brian sticks his foot in his mouth pretty bad asking about Kenya’s weave. He doesn’t mean to be insensitive, but he clearly doesn’t know anything on the subject (although earlier Kenya had asked him if he ever dated black girls and he said he’d dated all kinds of girls; this statement now seems a little dubious).
However, a little bit later, Kenya decides to have the weave taken out and try having just her own natural hair. You get a hint later on in the film, that most of Kenya’s behavior is what it is because of her controlling mother, including have a long, straight weave in at all times. I like this shot because I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen a film that really showed how one attached a weave to one’s head (or has it taken out again)!
Then, because we are in a rom-com, we get a lot of cute first phase of a dating scenes, including this gem with way too many candles and Brian painting Kenya’s toenails. Really, I don’t need much more in a movie than Simon Baker painting a lady’s toenails.
And cooking! You have to show a cooking scene. Also, he helps her paint her house (no more beige!). Earlier, he’d asked about all the beige and she says her mother (Alfre Woodard) says colors are for children and whores. She’s clearly a charming woman. But, it is nice to see Kenya come out of her shell, start wearing colors and really becoming her own woman. Part of me doesn’t like that it took a man to get her to change, but then I realize part of why I started dressing better many years back had to do with a guy, so I know this kind of behavior is based in reality. A lot of people need someone to help them change for the better; they can’t do it for themselves. We also get a great party scene wherein Brian is basically the only white guy and he goes through quite the hazing. It’s a charming scene.
But then we get the inevitable rom-com breakup. Brian’s had a hard day, Kenya’s had a hard day. Brian asks Kenya about her day, she starts talking about the racial discrimination she faces daily, and he asks for a break from this topic for one night. This does not go down well. Kenya rips him a new one, basically telling him when you’re black you don’t get to take a break from it for a day. He says he’s not black and never will be and maybe this (pointing at himself) is not what she really wants. It’s a brutal argument – and it takes place in public at a grocery store. It’s a great place to set it because it contrasts to the happy cooking scene earlier in the film. It also builds on the various race arguments the two have throughout the film, Earlier, they were all in good fun and a way to learn about each other; but now it’s a straight up argument, with no one coming out clean. Brian’s apology (coming two weeks later!) is also really great (I had it as a Movie Quote of the Day earlier this week), but it’s too little too late.
Kenya’s brother Nelson (Donald Faison) introduced her to his mentor Mark (Blair Underwood) at the party I mentioned earlier, and now they are dating. He’s just as beige as she was earlier in the film, but he’s exactly what her parents want for her and he’s exactly what she thought she always wanted. It’s sad to see her revert to how she was at the beginning of the film, because she was clearly not happy. It takes awhile, but eventually she realizes this for herself. She’s tasted a little bit of true happiness with Brian (and maybe even true love!) and can’t settle for a passion-less imitation, not matter how perfect it might seem. The scene where she breaks off with Mark is one of my favorites in the film because she comes to this realization so organically and she’s so scared to do something for herself and to do something that’s not playing it safe, but she knows that if she doesn’t, she’ll be unhappy for the rest of her life. It’s a brave moment and Lathan displays so many emotions with just a single look. It’s fabulous.
Then we jump to cotillion! Yes, cotillion! They’re rich people, so they go to cotillion. Kenya gets drunk and heckles the new debutants, before getting so drunk she has to excuse herself.
There she has a heartfelt conversation with her father (yes! a true rom-com moment!), who shares some much-needed outside perspective on how she’s feeling about being in love with a white boy. He gives her the courage and encouragement that she really needs to have faith in her own feelings. It’s a great moment.
Then we get the big moment we all hope our rom-com will have: our protagonist chasing after Mr./Mrs. Right, finding them and confessing their undying love. I am a huge fan of rom-coms and honestly do not care if they follow a formula, as long as they give me new and interesting characters, ones that I can root for and ones that I hope live happily ever after. This film gives you that, and it gives you some great social commentary like a cherry on top. Fantastic!
The film ends, much like it began, at Kenya’s wedding, only this time it’s not a dream. It’s not like she had dreamed at all, but the reality she finds for herself is more than she could ever have hoped for. I loved every minute of this film and I wish Hamri and Tuner had been able to make more feature films and I wish it could have launched Sanaa Lathan as a rom-com queen a la Sandra Bullock in the 90s, because she’s perfect in this role. But, alas, real life isn’t like the movies and sometimes we only get a gem like this once.
Posted on September 19, 2014, in Female Filmmaker Friday and tagged Alfre Woodard, Blair Underwood, Donald Faison, Earl Billings, Golden Brooks, Kriss Turner, Sanaa Hamri, Sanaa Lathan, Simon Baker, Taraji P. Henson, Wendy Raquel Robinson. Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.