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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
In a dire decade for the genre, Queen Latifah became a new kind of rom-com star

In a dire decade for the genre, Queen Latifah became a new kind of rom-com star

Graphic: Libby McGuire

Queen Latifah has arguably never been more regal than she was at the 2003 Academy Awards. Her new comedy, Bringing Down The House, was the number one film in America for the third week in a row, and she was attending the Oscars as both a musical performer and a Best Supporting Actress nominee for Chicago. While the rapper-turned-actor had enjoyed a successful career ever since the release of her first album in 1989, she entered the stratosphere during the early aughts. Queen Latifah became a household name and a new kind of movie star. She used that clout to pivot toward becoming a new kind of romantic comedy star as well.

Watching the Oscars at home, screenwriter Michael Elliot was struck by how much his female friends loved Latifah’s gorgeous blue satin gown. “It was like she was Cinderella,” he explained, “and they were Cinderella watching her.” When one friend suggested he should write a rom-com vehicle for Latifah, his first instinct was that Hollywood would never greenlight a love story with someone like Latifah in the lead role. But he reconsidered when he remembered how My Big Fat Greek Wedding had found unprecedented success with an unconventional everywoman. “Most women in this country don’t physically relate to the leading women we see in movies,” Elliot explained to applause during a panel for his 2010 film Just Wright. He wanted to write a love story that would change that.

It took years for Just Wright to actually get made, and in the interim, Queen Latifah was romanced onscreen by hunks like Djimon Hounsou in Beauty Shop and LL Cool J in Last Holiday. As with her iconic role as Khadijah James on the ’90s sitcom Living Single, these films depict love stories where Latifah’s size both is and isn’t a big deal. In a genre where the default heroine is skinny and white, it’s revolutionary to see a plus-sized Black woman presented as an object of desire. And it’s equally revolutionary to see that fact mostly treated as afterthought.

Just Wright takes an even more nuanced look at love and beauty standards. Early in the film, confident, funny, successful physical trainer Leslie Wright (Latifah) enjoys a seemingly perfect evening with a handsome blind date. Yet as the night comes to a close, he politely tells her that even though she’s “good people,” he sees her more as a friend. Leslie isn’t mad—he’s well within his rights not to date someone he doesn’t feel a spark with—but she’s clearly disappointed. His gentle rejection speech is something she’s heard a million times before. And at 35, she’s tired of being seen as “the perfect homegirl” and nothing more.

Romances featuring plus-sized women usually fall into one of two categories: Either the woman is a self-assured man-eater (Rebel Wilson in Pitch Perfect) or her arc is about learning that the real thing holding her back isn’t her weight, it’s her lack of self-confidence (Amy Schumer in I Feel Pretty). Just Wright acknowledges that there’s a middle ground. Leslie is confident, self-possessed, and willing to put herself out there. But she still finds it hard to date in a world where she doesn’t necessarily fit the ideal standards of beauty or femininity. From the beginning, Just Wright finds space to celebrate all the great thing about Leslie, while also acknowledging that our culture has deeply internalized biases about what kind of people are “supposed” to end up together.

So even though star Nets basketball player Scott McKnight (Common) meets cute with Leslie, he soon falls for her bubbly, conventionally attractive god-sister Morgan (Paula Patton) instead. The duo quickly get engaged, but things shift when Scott suffers a potentially career-ending knee injury. Ambitious Morgan is worried about whether she’ll still be able to build her brand as an “NBA wife,” which causes Scott to reassess what he really wants from a partner. And when Leslie moves in as his full-time physical therapist, things only get more complicated.

As in her 2006 interracial romance Something New, director Sanaa Hamri uses a deceptively gentle approach to tackle big, thorny cultural issues. Just Wright isn’t explicitly about Leslie’s size, although it’s not not about that either. The fact that Leslie dresses down in jerseys, shouts trash talk at ball games, and describes herself as “not one of those salad eatin’ chicks” is exactly the sort of thing that would give her the ultimate “cool girl” allure if she were a size zero. But in her curvier package, it’s perceived differently. Leslie’s parents are worried about her future happiness—her dad (James Pickens Jr.) earnestly, her mom (Pam Grier) somewhat judgmentally. It’s only Scott’s mom (Phylicia Rashad) who can see that Leslie is actually a perfect match for her son.

In an era where romantic comedies increasingly relied on over-the-top characterizations and broad physical comedy, Hamri brings a welcome amount of dignity to Just Wright. Latifah is absolutely radiant throughout, and in the film’s best moments, she and Common lock into some charmingly naturalistic chemistry, particularly during a sweet walk in the rain and a dreamy late-night piano playing session. Yet the film’s PG-rated gentility is sometimes a hinderance, too. Just Wright struggles to move beyond general rom-com pleasantries and into the genuine emotional tension that characterizes the genre at its best. It simmers without ever fully turning up the heat.

The film also has a leading man problem. While Common can be a compelling screen presence when used correctly, he doesn’t have the emotional range to carry Just Wright as it delves into its fraught final act. It’s intriguing to think about what an actor like Morris Chestnut or Black Lightning’s Cress Williams (both of whom romanced Latifah on Living Single) might’ve done with the role instead. As it is, this is a good film that had the potential to be a great one.

Yet for as easy as it would be to write off Just Wright as just another predictable, formulaic romantic comedy, its casting makes it undeniably unique. Though the “leading lady who’s unlucky in love” archetype is a cornerstone of the genre, that sort of character feels very different when brought to life by Queen Latifah rather than, say, Ginnifer Goodwin or Katherine Heigl. The push-pull between the new and the familiar is something the romantic comedy has grappled with a lot over the past few years, as films like Crazy Rich Asians and Love, Simon deliver conventional romantic fantasies featuring brand new types of characters. Like Just Wright, those romances are simultaneously clichéd and kind of unprecedented.

It’s tempting to describe Just Wright as a self-empowerment fairy tale for plus-sized women; Leslie not only gets the guy, she also learns to chase her sky-high career aspirations and more confidently advocate for what she wants in a relationship. Yet in an NPR interview, journalist Allison Keyes astutely asked Common if maybe the real message of the film is that men need to learn to look beyond just the “minus twos and the size zeros” of the world. “I do actually believe that men will see this and realize that, you know, ‘I don’t have to fall victim to society’s stereotypes,’” Common agreed. “I do feel that guys can get influenced, and [onscreen] images are important… I think this will help men to see that all women are beautiful.”

As a rom-com that earned mixed reviews and didn’t make a huge splash at the box office, Just Wright certainly didn’t singlehandedly upend centuries of cultural norms. But its refreshing central romance serves as a reminder of how often we see men of all shapes and sizes paired with gorgeous women in movies and TV shows, and how rarely we see anything close to the reverse. That’s a trend that’s slowly starting to change with Aidy Bryant’s Hulu series Shrill and Rebel Wilson’s endearing rom-com parody Isn’t It Romantic finding recent success. As the body positivity movement enjoys increasing mainstream acceptance both onscreen and off, it’s worth bowing down to plus-sized pioneers like Ricki Lake, Mo’Nique, Melissa McCarthy, and, of course, Queen Latifah, who helped blaze the trail.

Next time: 10 years ago, Disney tried to revive its princess line by giving Tangled a romantic comedy flair.

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Caroline Siede is a pop culture critic in Chicago, where the cold never bothers her anyway. She loves sci-fi, Jane Austen, and co-hosting the movie podcast, Role Calling.