Back in the early 1980s, Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder had a number one hit with their call for racial peace song "Ebony and Ivory" ("live together in perfect harmony, side by side on my piano keyboard, Oh Lord, why don't we..."). While that was brilliantly mocked on "Saturday Night Live" by Eddie Murphy and Joe Piscopo, the point was nevertheless valid -- racism was and still is a big issue around the world. And that's particularly true in the U.S. where racial issues are still prevalent, especially when it comes to dating.
Although various racially mixed relationships are generally accepted, the black and white ones still get under some people's skin, from both sides of the racial divide. And of the pairings, the white man and black woman ones evoke the strongest response, possibly stemming all of the way back to pre Civil War days when white masters sometimes took their black slaves as lovers or just sexual conquests.
It's not clear if that's a catalyst for the unrest in the characters in "Something New," but race and dating are the big themes in this relevant and surprisingly fresh feeling film from first-time feature director Sanaa Hamri. Working from a script by Kriss Turner (similarly making her feature debut), Hamri continues a movie theme that started back with "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?" and has occasionally been addressed, off and on, in all of the intervening years since then. (That includes last year's "Guess Who," although that was more about the comedic "relationship" between the black woman's father and her white boyfriend).
Here, the main racial hang-up doesn't come from outsiders -- although there's plenty of that present. Instead, it comes from the female protagonist -- played by Sanaa Lathan -- who although not a complete racist (after all, she ends up with the white guy played by Simon Baker) -- does have racial issues with dating someone of the "opposite" color. Of course, it doesn't help that she's a bit of a control freak when it comes to her stringent criteria for the perfect man, or that she and friends commiserate that more than forty percent of black woman are not married, with the numbers being worse the more educated and professional they might be.
While initially put off by her adverse reaction to seeing that he's white upon meeting for their blind date, Baker's Brian doesn't have any such racial hang-ups, or dating ones for that matter. Instead, he works from physical attraction inward, finding her beautiful in her black skin and then trying to get her to open up, let loose and live a little. That said, for a film about such racial issues and the reactions of others to a mixed race pairing, it's interesting that the filmmakers took a mostly one-sided approach in telling their tale.
Sure, we see Brian reacting to how Kenya and others react to their relationship -- which is where some of the film's comedy plays -- but most if not all of those supporting characters are from her world. We never see what his friends and family think or how they react to him dating a black woman. I'm not sure whether such an inclusion would have significantly altered what finally plays out on the screen (I'm guessing the point is that he's grounded enough that none of that - even if adverse -- would affect him), but it's an interesting storytelling choice to omit that other half of the story.
And although the film doesn't really ever cover any new ground (from a dramatic or romantic comedy perspective) or come up with any brilliant observations about or answers to the great racial divide, for the most part it's a fairly engaging and entertaining film. Lathan, who previously appeared in films such as "Out of Time" and "Love & Basketball," is good as the conflicted woman whose unhappiness with men stems directly from her inability to be happy with herself. Baker is appealing as the guy who just wants to love her, and there's decent chemistry between the two, even when they're fighting over her inability to see past skin color and the reaction of others, or his tiring of her always talking about racial issues.
Supporting performances are generally good, with Blair Underwood present as the "other man" (and source of some same-race temptation), Mike Epps thankfully playing down his usual overacting and Donald Faison taking up some of that slack, but thankfully never to the point of being annoying. Those playing Kenya's friends -- Golden Brooks, Wendy Raquel Robinson and Taraji P. Henson (who was so good in "Hustle & Flow") -- don't get much opportunity to do much with their characters, but Alfre Woodard and especially Earl Billings (playing the protagonist's parents) make the most of their meager screen time.
If there's one complaint, it's that Lathan's character -- mostly as written, but obviously also as performed -- doesn't exactly get the audience to fall in love with her (and thus root for her success or at least happiness) due to her various personal issues. It's certainly not a fatal flaw by any means and it's probably more of a realistic portrayal of real life people in the same situation, but at times it left me a little cold or at least indifferent toward the character. Nevertheless, this is a solidly told and otherwise engaging film about those aforementioned piano keys trying to make some beautiful music together. Surprisingly fresh for retreading familiar grounds and genres, "Something New" gets a recommendation.