We spoke with the director behind Really Love on how Love Jones inspired her latest film, and why the ending was left open-ended.
The intimate shots featuring Kofi Siriboe and Yootha Wong-Loi-Sing are a significant part of the storytelling within Really Love. Once they become a couple, their passion is seen through close-ups, vivid colors, and film photography. Set in modern-day Washington, D.C., the world Isaiah (Siriboe) and Stevie (Wong-Loi-Sing) live in is filled with societal and familial pressures. But their separate paths allow them to stumble upon love in the most unlikely way.
Isaiah and Stevie’s journey through love might remind you of Love Jones, or it might not. While director (and Baltimore native) Angel Kristi Williams is passionate about Theodore Witcher’s film, she didn’t seek to replicate it. Instead, she says it was more about wanting to paint a picture of two characters that viewers can fall in love with. She was also driven by the idea of inspiring viewers to recall their own experiences with love.
“Love Jones is obviously a reference. I saw that film when I was 17 on VHS and was like, ‘I want friends like this, I want to fall in love like this,’” she said over a Zoom call from Los Angeles. “It was just so inspiring and beautiful. So that was a huge reference for me, and then also Love & Basketball, Cooley High, Nothing But A Man.”
Now, Williams’ Really Love has joined the canon of good Black romance films, although it did take some time to come to fruition. Alongside screenwriter Felicia Pride (although they’re both from Baltimore, Williams and Pride met in Los Angeles in 2015 through a mutual friend), Williams shopped the script to production companies for two years before it was eventually sent to Stacey King, the wife of MACRO CEO & Founder Charles King. After reading it, King said she felt it was this generation’s Love Jones, and passed it along to Charles. A few months later, he called Williams and said he’d like for her and Pride to pitch the film together. The two-hour pitch meeting led to a call where he shared he’d like to fully finance the movie.
Okayplayer spoke with Williams about bringing Really Love’s main characters to life, Kofi Siriboe’s performance, and the ending that left viewers yearning for more.
What are your thoughts on the resurgence of Black love stories that we’re experiencing right now?
Angel Kristi Williams: I love it. I want us to have more of it, you know what I mean? I think we get so excited about Queen Sugar, Cherish the Day, and Insecure. Then, when the season ends, we’re all sort of like, “Oh no. What do we watch now?” I want us to have an abundance of that so that we can choose.
I’m curious about the road leading up to the film being released. Can you walk me through the very early stages before MACRO got involved?
The original screenplay was actually brought to me by Felicia Pride. She was a novelist before she ever wrote her first screenplay. She moved to LA to shop the script and had written the screenplay like eight years prior to us meeting, and just getting a lot of no’s.
Folks were like, “People don’t want to see a Black love story,” or “We already have stories like this.” She just struggled to get the film off the ground. Her and her partner [Latisha Fortune] at the time, who was also an executive producer on the project, had done a proof of concept short, and the film at that time was titled Open-Ended.
What came next?
So, fast-forward to us meeting in 2015. We were just at a mutual friend’s backyard barbecue and connected over the fact that we’re both from Baltimore and both Black women. She told me that she had written her first screenplay and sent it to me. I read it that weekend. It was the first time I read a screenplay that someone else had written that I wish I would’ve written. It just felt so familiar — I recognized the characters. I was like, “These are my friends, this is my family.” The way they spoke, the way she described the city — it was just all so familiar. That following week, we got dinner and she was like, “I want you to direct the film.” That sort of began the journey.
So, she and I continued to develop the screenplay for another two years before we pitched it to MACRO. The way it got to MACRO — one of my producers, Aaliyah Williams — we had been friends but never worked together. Aaliyah and I [were] just chatting and she was like, “What are you doing?” I said, “Well, I think I’ve found my first feature.” I described it to her and she was like, “Send that to me.” I shared the screenplay and the deck with her, and then she sent the script to Charles King’s wife [Stacey, who] was like, “This is the next Love Jones. This is our generation’s Love Jones. You have to read it.” So, she read it, loved it, and passed it along to [Charles], and then he read it. It took a couple of months but then, finally, he was like, “I want to bring Angel and Felicia and I want to meet them.” So we went to pitch the film.
It ended up being a two-hour meeting — everyone at that company was in the room. We pitched everything, down to the marketing and who we saw the audience being. We just had all of that laid out. The following day, Charles called me and said, “Never before have I been so impressed with a filmmaker’s vision for a project, and I want to fully finance this movie.”
How would you define Stevie?
I think that she is definitely in her law school life. She has to sort of put on a different type of armor, and when she’s with Isaiah, that sort of comes down. I mean, even in the way that we shot the film — it’s very subtle but if you notice, every time she’s in her law school environment, the picture gets colder. Then, whenever she’s with Isaiah or she’s in her own space, the sound warms up because there’s more warmth there, there [are] Black people. Whereas in this law school, it’s very sterile, it’s very white, and she’s often the only Black face. So she’s the only thing that’s bringing the warmth.
She comes across as cold at times. Was that done for a reason?
It’s not cold, but more so a fear of vulnerability, which you see just slowly sort of peeling away. Isaiah’s an artist who also has a fear of vulnerability. He is completely vulnerable in his work, but not always able to bring that same sort of vulnerability [to Stevie] and to the relationship. I think, ultimately, their biggest challenge is their ability to be vulnerable. I mean, there [are] so many missed opportunities where they’re both feeling things and they aren’t able to express them.
I wanted Stevie to be this very well-rounded portrait of a Black woman who had flaws, and who also has things that you admire. I wanted her to be relatable, but also — I think it was a very real thing to be sort of driven by your parents’ ambition for you, and I think she’s at a place where she’s really beginning to question that. She has to make a decision about if she’s going to continue on that path, or if she’s just going to switch it up.
Can you also tell me about the world-building around Isaiah’s character?
I think that the way Kofi plays characters — there’s nuance, and then the moment where he breaks, he’s very intentional about where those moments come so that they feel earned in a very beautiful and powerful way. When I read the screenplay, I [realized I] grew up around a lot of very blue-collar men. I think that an artist being sort of born and bred in a city like D.C., you sort of have that attachment to the fine art world, but you also come from this very blue-collar upbringing. I wanted to combine those two — he’s not this sort of hipster artist who went to art school and just became something else. In some ways, that’s one of the things that make it challenging for him to navigate in that space because he isn’t willing to morph into what everyone expects from him as an artist in that space. I really wanted to speak to that.
Can you walk me through the idea of the director of photography, Shawn Peters, capturing emotional moments? I felt this was done extremely well in the film.
I really wanted this film to be in Isaiah’s point of view, and I thought that it would be — because he’s a painter — like, “What if the film sort of unfolded in a way that he sees the world?” Gerald Lovell, the painter who created all the original work that represents Isaiah’s work in the film, he photographs things before he paints. He takes photographs, puts them up on an easel, and then he paints them. So, [Shawn] really leaned into that and said, “OK, if we’re seeing the world through Isaiah’s eyes, then I want everything to look like a photograph and [then] look like a painting.” That inspired this very still composition that pays a lot of attention to color, and how we can use color to mirror what is happening emotionally with the characters because color is psychological and it has different meanings.
Shawn and I wanted to be very intentional about how we were using the camera to tell the story. So, the very specific moments where we use a handheld camera — for instance, the first time they go on a date in D.C., it’s a handheld camera because we wanted to really show that that connection was shifting, and it’s very fluid and feels a little bit surreal. [Shawn] has very sensitive eyes, so he’s very meticulous and delicate. I think that feminine energy being behind the camera, and the way that he’s framing — he chose different lenses for [Wong-Loi-Sing] and [Siriboe]. That’s the first time I ever had a director of photography who did that.