Black Couples in TV and Movies Who Have Influenced Pop Culture
By Doriean Stevenson
Getty Images/NBC/New Line Cinema
It’s Black History Month, a time to pause and appreciate the undeniable impact Black people have had on the history of the United States and the world. We acknowledge the struggle, yes, and all of the things Black people have overcome -- but we also celebrate life, love and Black joy. Isn’t it poetic, then, that Valentine’s Day occurs during Black History Month? It's the perfect reason to spotlight all the things we love about Black culture and to recognize how far we’ve come when it comes to seeing Black love unencumbered by Black trauma onscreen.
Black love in TV and movies has hit a gorgeous stride as of late. The last few years have seen a number of great films like the recently released Malcolm & Marie, which plopped us in the middle of a dramatic battle between lovers. Moonlight showed us a coming-of-age tale complete with a decades-long love story. The Photograph gave us love across generations. Sylvie’s Love transported us back to the mid-1900s for a love story that felt simultaneously fresh and classic.
Upon release, The Photograph saw plenty of comparisons to the 1997 film Love Jones. Director Stella Meghie said she was thankful, calling Love Jones “an iconic Black romance film” and saying “if you are doing it right, probably someone is going to mention it.” She also explained to ET's Nischelle Turner the effect that Love Jones had on her growing up. “It’s just one of those things that’s inside of you,” she said.
The couples in these films join a long line of lovebirds in classic Black movies and TV shows who have imprinted popular culture. So let’s take a closer look at the pop culture moments that prove these timeless Black TV and movie couples’ lasting impact.
In 2006, Kanye West released a video for Touch the Sky, which featured cameos by not only the hilarious Tracee Ellis Ross, but also the one and only Nia Long. Her appearance in the video was inspired by one key lyric: "Couldn't keep it at home, thought I needed a Nia Long."
Back in the ‘90s -- and even to this day -- everyone thought they needed a Nia Long or that they needed to be Nia Long. The infatuation sprang from her many roles as a love interest to the likes of Will Smith (on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air), Cuba Gooding, Jr. (in Boyz n the Hood) and Larenz Tate (in Love Jones). Her role as Nina in Love Jones made her a mainstay in familiar casts in the Black romantic movie boom of the ‘90s and early 2000s.
Starring Tupac Shakur and Janet Jackson, Poetic Justice quickly became a favorite. The movie had an immediate effect on fashion and also includes a fantastic early performance from Regina King and poetry by the legendary Maya Angelou.
Jackson has credited her work with Shakur in the film for helping her break out of her shell. The film was released in 1993, the same year as her strong, sexy self-titled album and four years ahead of the adventurous The Velvet Rope.
With Jackson and Shakur leading the cast, the movie almost feels like a hip-hop and R&B collaboration. So it’s no wonder the film has influenced rap music. Kendrick Lamar released “Poetic Justice” featuring Drake and a teasing hook from Janet Jackson in 2016.
Big Sean and Jhene Aiko take on Shakur’s and Jackson’s characters in the 2020 music video for the song “Body Language.” The video also recreates scenes from Love Jones, The Best Man and Waiting to Exhale. "Big homage paying to a few of my favorite flicks growin up," the rapper wrote on Instagram about the movies he referenced in his music video.
Waiting to Exhale
Waiting to Exhale totes a stellar cast (Whitney Houston, Angela Bassett, Loretta Devine, Lela Rochon, Gregory Hines… ) and equally incredible soundtrack (Whitney Houston, Babyface, Toni Braxton... ). And while there are many memorable scenes, the moment when Angela Bassett’s Bernadine hits her limit and sets her cheating husband’s car ablaze has been reimagined in TV shows, music videos and the gif that says a thousand words, even when you only have 280 characters.
The movie celebrated its 25th anniversary in December of last year, and Bassett spoke of how important it still is. "I say it still holds up," Bassett told ET's Kevin Frazier of the film, which still has a devoted fan base even a quarter-century after its 1995 release. "To that point we hadn't seen films that told the lives of older Black women. [And] it was the first of a film that featured women for women, so it was really, you know, a trailblazer."
The Best Man
Love Jones’ Nia Long also stars in the 1999 film The Best Man, along with other members of the Black love boom crew: Taye Diggs (How Stella Got Her Groove Back, Brown Sugar), Morris Chestnut (The Inkwell, Two Can Play That Game), Sanaa Lathan (Love & Basketball, Brown Sugar) and Terrence Howard (Yes, Ashanti’s “Foolish” video counts here).
The Best Man’s ensemble cast, their romantic connections and friendships and the blurred lines between, became a template for many Black rom-coms to come. And the film’s wedding scene influenced many real-life nuptials.
Movies aren’t the only source for inspiration when it comes to Black couples who have had an effect on the culture. And because our small screen has now become our big screen, it’s important to give these characters their due.
The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air
The impression The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air has had on television and popular culture is evident. Similar to The Cosby Show before it, the show opened up what a Black family on television could be and a new representation of Black life…
… and Black love. The bond between Uncle Phil (James Avery) and Aunt Viv (Janet Hubbard from 1990-1993 and Daphne Maxwell Reid from 1993-1996) was the bedrock on which this classic family stood.
J. Cole outlined the type of love he’d like to have in his song, “No Role Modelz.” The rapper starts by pointing to Uncle Phil as “the only father that [I] ever knew,” and later says he wants “a real love, dark-skinned Aunt Viv love.” GoldLink kicks off Christina Aguilera’s song, “Like I Do,” with a verse that includes the line, “Let’s start a family, I’m Uncle Phil, you my Aunt Viv.”
The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air cast reconnected late last year and, during the reunion, they spoke of their love for the late Avery. “I fell in love with him as soon as I met him,” Reid said of her on-screen husband. “He was so generous in heart and spirit and so smart and so open too, I mean, his life was a big hug.”
A Different World
Where the Huxtables gave us representation of a Black American family, The Cosby Show's spinoff, A Different World, showed us the lives of young Black students in an HBCU environment. The lessons learned weren't just in class -- these characters also experienced, among other things, young love. Lisa Bonet (Denise Huxtable) was only part of the cast for the show's first season. In the end, this was fine, as the true stars of the show emerged: Jasmine Guy (Whitley Gilbert) and Kadeem Hardison (Dwayne Wayne). The saga of Whitley Gilbert and Dwayne Wayne remains one of television's best love stories, played out over six seasons.
Style in the late '80s and '90s was directly influenced by this couple -- the Dwayne's flip-up shades and Whitley's iconic skirt suits. The couple has been referenced in songs by J. Cole ("Know we be arguing, but ain't you riding with me / We breaking up, we making up like Dwayne Wayne and Whitley") and Nicki Minaj ("I was on the plane with Dwayne / You can call me Whitley, I go to Hillman / Listen, I'm the baddest in the school, the baddest in the game / Excuse me, honey, but nobody's in my lane").
Martin, starring Martin Lawrence (Martin) and Tisha Campbell (Gina), had an undeniable impact on modern culture. Set in Detroit, the stars and themes of the show were unabashedly Black. Stars like Biggie Smalls, OutKast and Snoop Dogg guest starred on the show, bringing more attention to the expanding hip-hop scene in the 1990s. And though we only speak of the first four seasons of Martin (season 5 onward is a more tumultuous conversation) there’s no match for that iconic, best friend love portrayed by Lawrence and Campbell. “The one thing I’m most proud of with Martin is that it shows a Black man loving and respecting his Black woman,” Lawrence told Vibe magazine in 1997 of the relationship at the center of the show.
Phrases from the show still live in our vernacular ("You go, girl!" and "Damn Gina!" being the most popular). References to the love bond in Martin have popped in music by artists like SZA (“Go Gina”), Polo G (“Martin & Gina”) and others. LeBron James occasionally posts Martin clips on his Instagram. Campbell is still called “Gina” when fans see her in public, but it doesn’t bother her. “I get that all the time but I don’t mind. I love it. I love that people revere it so much that all of the memes, they come from that and people love it and I appreciate it. We all do," she told ET's Kevin Frazier.
Campbell had more to share on the impact of Martin. “There were so many Black shows going on at the time. What was important was that there were two young African American people who were in love,” the actress continued. “Now, we had The Cosby Show representation. But we really [never] had two young people who were having fun, discovering each other, discovering life. I think that is [why] there are so many songs about Martin and Gina.”
For the latest content celebrating Black History Month, please visit our Black History Month page, or read more in our Black Stories section. And don’t miss our Black History Month special on ET Live.