Why you should care
Because love has never looked so funny.
Ray’s booty call cannot believe what she’s just discovered. She’s been looking for commitment and he’s been out banging other girls. So while he’s making a postcoital grocery store run, she starts cleaning out his room — by throwing his possessions out the window. To another girl, Ray yells, “I’m emotionally unavailable right now!” The audience at Sundance, which is totally white, cracks up at this hilarious Black romantic comedy.
Except that “romantic” comedy is a misnomer for How to Tell You’re a Douchebag — there is no romance here. It’s more like a sexuality comedy, full of millennial hang-ups about commitment, texting, fuckboys and urban malaise. Imagine if Issa Rae’s outlook and Aziz Ansari’s sensibility had a love child. Or perhaps the movie is more of a “mash between Drake and Woody Allen,” as its star, DeWanda Wise, puts it. Whatever the movie’s parentage, it’s available on iTunes as of last week.
And it is the indubitable brainchild of Tahir Jetter, filmmaker of features, shorts and Web series who has shown at Sundance twice and signed with Rae’s Color Creative TV a couple of years ago. Jetter is not exactly like Ray, his onscreen alter ego — he has evolved to self-awareness and even regret — but he happily admits to the similarities. The 28-year-old director is hot stuff: He can direct and write and, oh yeah, blow off women immaturely. Needless to say, he has plenty of fodder for his scripts. He knows where his value is: “There’s interest in me as a voice,” he tells me, perhaps euphemistically. As The Guardian put it in its review of his Sundance feature, “Tahir Jetter hopefully has some more stories to tell.”
OK, so, his love life. When I ask him about past relationships, Jetter cracks the biggest, not-guilty-but-guilty smile. Then he opens up: He was just like the douchebag in his movie until a couple of years ago when he fell, hard, for a girl and was ready to settle down. The girl rejected him. After he “crashed and burned,” Jetter started thinking entitled thoughts, ruminating over why bad things happened to him. Then, perhaps to help heal, he started writing.
That’s not where the autobiographical parallels end. Close, a tale that flips a worn-out narrative by focusing on a girl who doesn’t get emotionally attached, came to Jetter when he realized he has “a thing for emotionally reserved women.” Hard Times, the short that Rae brought onto her network, can best be described as Magic Mike 2.0. So did Jetter strip in real life? During the recession, times were indeed, um, hard, so, um, yes, he did. Twice. Cue the big grin.
Welcome to the 21st-century’s multihued answer to the otherwise whitewashed rom-com genre. It’s been a long time coming. In 2014, New York magazine infamously created a list of its favorite rom-com movies since 1989’s When Harry Met Sally, and not a single one featured a protagonist who was not white. Meanwhile in the history of the Oscars, three out of the four Black actors nominated for the Best Actor played violent characters. And yet, Black rom-coms are as marketable as “Hollywood’s latest CGI showcases,” according to The Guardian — which is to say, very marketable.
Jetter’s work owes something to movies like Hitch, Love & Basketball and (500) Days of Summer. It deconstructs male identity and sexuality, says co-founder of Black & Sexy TV Numa Perrier, and rewrites narratives about toughness and machismo. His protagonists are middle-class hipster types who say “daft” and “asinine” and have blogs and quote, unquote white-people problems. In some ways, Jetter is trying to shape the genre in his own image. He describes himself as “sophisticated” and “erudite,” but he’s quick to point out that crunk music fits in just fine. “I think his potential is infinite, I really do,” Wise says. “He has a mastery of so many genres at once.”
Trace that back to his childhood too, perhaps. Jetter grew up in Prince George’s County, Maryland, a predominantly Black suburb of D.C. His parents, who both worked at TV stations, divorced when he was 3, and he lived mostly with his mother. A self-described nerd who felt the pressures to be an alpha male, at school, Jetter was called out for “acting white”; the hard-core jocks hated him because he participated in the “wrong” sports, like rowing. After years of making music videos with his friends, he went to the University of Maryland for college. After a year, he transferred to New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.
More than anything, Jetter is tenacious, Rae says: “Tahir is one of four or five people I know who once he says he’s going to do something, he does it.” Perhaps because he knows he has a small window to make magic happen. After Sundance, it’s back to square one, and the tedious process of raising capital and writing the next script.
Kind of like Ray, his lothario onscreen version of himself. At the end of the movie, Ray hopes to be a better person. “I think I can get there,” he proclaims in cheesy rom-com fashion. “With some effort.”