Robert (Darrin Dewitt Henson) is a nice, thoughtful painter, who is regrettably fired from his job by longtime friend and boss Nate (Josh Ventura). The reason for Robert’s firing is initially unclear, though we later learn that it is because Nate has been sleeping with Robert’s girlfriend, Mita (Erica Hubbard). You’d expect this to be an unbearably fraught reveal, but it is more or less handled with playful civility. In fact, not a single conflict in Black Coffee is played above mild annoyance. That should have been the first warning sign that this isn’t a particularly interesting movie.
Robert’s same-day dumping and firing is mended by the comforting words of his cousin Julian (Christian Keyes). Julian is a wisecracking coffee impresario who has quickly turned his fortune around by living a simple mantra: black people should be entrepreneurs and not employees. Julian is convinced that Robert’s time spent working under “the man” has stagnated his creativity and intellect.
To remedy his cousin’s present troubles, Julian asks Robert to make a coffee delivery to an upscale law office recently opened by the independent Morgan (Gabrielle Dennis). It’s love at first sight for Robert, though Morgan requires a more rigorous vetting process. The “unlucky” Robert stumbles into a bit of good fortune though when Morgan mentions she needs an expert painter to complete her office renovations. Despite his unprofessional come-ons, Morgan agrees to hire Robert. Is it any surprise that an unexpected love blossoms between the two?
Writer/director Mark Harris clearly prefers the path of least resistance when it comes to building relationships, as Morgan and Robert encounter very little trouble becoming an actual couple. The only hiccup, and it is a minor one, is when Morgan’s ex-husband, Hill (Lamman Rucker), threatens to contest some of the terms of their impending divorce if she doesn’t stop seeing Robert. That’s no matter though. Robert conceives a plan to pair up his ex with her’s. In this task, he recruits a bookstore owner named Duke (Richard Gallion), who at one point, has an aside to the camera, informing us that everyone needs love, even crazy people.
There are no real subplots in Black Coffee. The film’s supporting characters seem stuck in episodic scenes with little to no life lived between our observations of them. We’re left to watch back-to-back scenes of Morgan and Robert’s relationship that follow one another with seemingly no passage in time. This creates a significant continuity problem for the viewer. Characters in the film occasionally remark the passage of time through dialogue, but it’s a lazy technique and is almost always a surprise to us.
Perhaps the only saving grace here is the warm performance by Dennis. She provides depth to a role that lacks it, and to a film that doesn’t earn it. She acknowledges her fellow performers with a look in her eyes that feels something like truth. It isn’t a mistake the only glimpse at something close to chemistry occurs when she occupies the screen. Her fellow castmates do a serviceable job, though they’re obviously stunted by the screenplay. Dennis is the only one that manages to transcend the plodding dialogue, albeit in flickers.
Despite my complaints, I must admit that I found the film’s idea of love rather charming. There is almost no sexuality in Black Coffee, and the holding of hands feels like an act of consummation. Robert and Morgan’s courtship comes about as a result of emotional exploration. The pair is tender with each other, waxing poetic on love, intimacy, and commitment. Sex is an afterthought. This may be the least erotic romantic comedy of the year, and that’s probably a good thing.
Unfortunately, Black Coffee is ultimately undone by a lack of conflict. Robert is supposed to be down on his luck, yet almost everything goes his way. Nothing impedes the desires of the characters. When they decide to do something, it simply happens. If Harris’ intent was to inspire people to will accomplishments into existence, I’d say he’s picked the least effective medium to present his case. Film thrives on action and conflict, but these characters are too nice to have either, and they quickly lose our attention.
Compelling ideas lurk around the most base level of the script. It’s true that non-white persons should occupy more spaces at the top of America as opposed to the bottom, and it’s also true that even crazy people do need love. To present either in such a facile way borders on irresponsible. If the goal was to simply present role models for black youths, why choose a fictional story? There are successful, happy black professionals and artists that exist in our society. They are real, and their lives are more rich and nuanced than anything represented in Black Coffee.
Black Coffee's courtship-over-eroticism ideals are appealing, but the film is too nice to bother us with things like conflict or drama.