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Michaela Coel in Been So Long
Michaela Coel in Been So LongCourtesy Netflix

Finally, a British rom-com about black people in love

The Michaela Coel-starring Netflix film is a total joy for its portrayal of a bold and confident dark-skinned black woman weakening a man’s knees

In our new column THE BINGE WATCH, TV writer and critic Bolu Babalola takes a deep dive into what’s streaming, and tells you what should be on your watch list. 

The most memorable moments of Netflix’s new musical, Been So Long, feel like a kiss on your collarbone, or a hand at the small of your back, lingering two seconds longer than would be platonic. It’s like making eye contact with someone whose name comes up first on your Instagram search button. A hand brush, a thigh bump, that dip in your belly. Put simply: it is hot as fuck.

This shouldn’t be noteworthy. The film, led by Michaela Coel and Arinzé Kene, is, by all accounts, is a rom-com. As a self-appointed romcomoisseur, I can testify that it meets all the required tenets: Boy Meets Girl. Boy Acts like a Dick. Girl Also Kind Of Acts Like A Dick, But It Is Justifiable Because She Was Protecting Herself Against The Boy Turning Out To Be A Dick. They Forgive Each Other For Being Dicks. Happily Ever After. As is standard for rom-coms, nestled between these occurrences is some hot rom-com sex, in which the girl keeps her bra on, and we cut away to the next morning just as the guy descends on her to a John Mayer song.

However, in Been So Long, this tender depiction of desire is a big deal precisely because it shouldn’t be a be a big deal. That’s because Been So Long is ostensibly the first British rom-com with two black leads. Not Charlie-from-Friends-black, where the character is essentially a white person poured into a black body (someone, please step into Sitcom Universe, take a camera to a sis and snap a pic with the flash on, because I have questions). In Been So Long, these characters are black black: baldly black, boldly black, viscerally black. Somehow, this is done without it being an oppressive adjunct to their lives, nor being the focus of it –  their blackness melds inextricably with the universal experiences of romance and lust. It just is, because black people just are. Even though it shouldn’t be, this is a novel concept in the British pop cultural landscape.

The urban musical (urban because it is set in Camden – not urban as in ‘white liberalese for black’, to be clear) follows Kene’s Raymond and Coel’s Simone. Been So Long’s plots don’t always flow smoothly, and tonally the songs don’t always quite land, but it is a sweet, affable romance, and the chemistry of the two leads proves a compelling force that works to dynamise the tale. Raymond is freshly released from prison (for being an accidental accessory to a caper), and is a man with his heart in the right place, attempting to find his place in a neighbourhood that has moved on without him. Simone is a dedicated single mum, hardened to romance due to her personal history, but whose tenderness and warmth is seen through her relationship with her strong-willed, wheelchair-using daughter, flighty mother, and vivacious best friend Yvonne (played effervescently by Ronke Adekoluejo).  

Simone and Raymond’s paths intersect at a local bar when the near-reclusive Simone is dragged there by Yvonne (Adekoluejo declares: “it’s an emergency, your vagina called and told me it’s dying”). Raymond, meanwhile, finds himself there in attempt to anchor himself to some familiarity in his ends. The film’s main plot follows Simone’s journey with reconciling with her past pain, and opening and softening herself up to love.

“She isn’t the one pining, checking her phone, staring longingly at the door after her lover’s walked out of it; he is. My girl is in control”

Throughout the film, Raymond is on a mission to win Simone’s affections. Kene looks at Coel with pure, unadulterated want, and Coel plays steel-turned-molten to perfection, her romantic reticence very slowly eroding under Kene’s smoulder. She isn’t the one pining, checking her phone, staring longingly at the door after her lover’s walked out of it; he is. My girl is in control. She has this handsome (read: absurdly handsome; stressfully handsome) man tripping for her. Crucial. I can’t remember ever seeing a dark-skinned British black woman in a British production have a man so utterly, demonstratively, sweetly, smitten with her.

Pop culture provides both a prism through which the world is seen, and a reflection of its ideals. It moulds convention. The ability to love and be loved is key component of being human – so if the typical mainstream rom-com protagonist is usually white, what does that say about who we feel can be loved? What does it mean when black women aren’t seen in that context? In Tom Edge’s (delightful) rom-com series LoveSick (also on Netflix), we see the charming Antonia Thomas’s Evie being longed for by Johnny Flynn’s floppy-haired sweetie-pie Dylan. It’s lovely – and notably, Evie is a woman of colour. However, while it’s wonderful to see, Evie is a light-skinned bi-racial woman with green eyes. It is a more conventionally acceptable form of blackness, palatable to the ‘mainstream’  consumer, and – although still rare – we are more likely to see lighter-skinned women being desired on television than dark-skinned women, due to colourism.

Pop culture and television has typically treated black women like they’re a Nandos order they can modify the spice on to their tastes (black – but not too black, please!). If darker-skinned black women are seen on mainstream television, they’re angry, sassy side-kicks, either hypersexualised or desexualised – either way, they’re dehumanised.

Here, though, the black women are vibrant and multi-dimensional. Simone is gorgeous, dark-skinned, and bald. She is adored, longed for, lusted over – not because she is black, but because of the person she is through her blackness: witty, sharp, and surprisingly tender. She only has sex when she initiates it. Yvonne, her best friend is beautiful, deep-skinned, keeps a rotation of rainbow-hued wigs and loudly, proudly loves sex. She’s also funny, loyal, and a good aunt to her friend’s daughter. Her sensuality isn’t her identity, but blends into it. Even in their most vulnerable moments, both women are sure of their essence – and it makes the sexy moments even sexier. These are women who are aware of their power.

Throughout the film, Coel and Kene maintain a searing, compelling heat that is underpinned by the fact Raymond is enchanted with Simone, who in turn exudes a quiet current of “Yes, I got the sauce. And?”.  Their dynamic is both sexy and sweet, and their banter is delightful to watch. Adekoluejo soars as Yvonne, and the film is a solid start to what I hope is a black rom-com (re)naissance in the UK. It’s a joy to see a dark-skinned black woman weaken a man’s knees, because why wouldn’t she? Lets hope we don’t have to wait so long until the next time we see it.