Note: minor, formulaic plot points revealed below.
The overwhelmingly named Kenya McQueen (Sanaa Lathan) is a perfectionist. Each morning, she speedwalks through the park to prepare for yet another busy day at the prestigious L.A. accounting firm where she’s trying to make partner. Surrounded by whiteness — in literal and metaphorical senses — she makes her way by making her own kinds of order. She makes lists, as in, what needs to be done, what she doesn’t “do” (sushi, dogs, the color red), and what she wants in her IBM (Ideal Black Man): he’ll be taller than her, educated, and professional.
She knows what she wants. And yet, she’s not even close to having it. As she and her similarly equipped, ambitious, and disappointed girlfriends — Cheryl (Wendy Raquel Robinson), Suzzette (Golden Brooks), and Neda (Taraji P. Henson) — commiserate over drinks, they cite the infamous statistic that serves as Something New‘s point of departure: 42.4% of black women have never been married, owing to a dearth of acceptable partners. They look round the restaurant and see one much publicized reason for this dearth — a black man with a white woman. Kenya’s friends have dating nightmare stories to share, and they worry that she’s not even beginning to be “out there.” When they advise her to loosen up (“Let go, let flow”), she reluctantly agrees to a blind date, another thing she doesn’t “do.”
She regrets it immediately, especially when she sees that Brian (Simon Baker) is white. Making her way to their table at a Magic Johnson Starbucks, she marks herself as black (“How you doin’ brother?” she asks a surprised employee, before noting a customer’s hair: “Girl, you are wearing those dreads!”). Her performance is broad enough that her date, observes, “You’re making sure everyone knows you’re down.” When Brian wonders why she agreed to the date at all, she tells him, “I promised my girlfriends I’d be more open.” Again, he gets the point: “But not this open.”
Feeling conflicted, Kenya ends the date abruptly, then hires him to design her backyard — she wants a garden and a fountain, he’s a landscape architect. When he arrives at her place, their romantic-comedic differences set up a pattern. She has trouble with his affectionate and hairy golden retriever, he wonders about her resolutely beige décor (“My mother thinks bright colors are for children and whores,” Kenya laments); she freaks out over a spider, he informs her that she “needs” him (to complete her garden, of course); she wears a suit on Saturday, he thinks she needs to relax. As the film is focused on Kenya’s dilemmas, Brian is something of a cipher, the primary force for her transformation without a life beyond her vision (perspective being a key variable here). “I take hard earth and make things bloom,” Brian explains, in case you’ve missed his function.
Brian knows she’s “sensitive about color,” but also calls Kenya on her fear of spiders (he gives her a copy of Charlotte’s Web) and her weave (“I’m just wondering what you looked like completely naked”). The only reason his interventions are more okay than offensive is because he sees the “real” Kenya, the one who wants to “let go.” But, as she confesses to Brian, her background — an asthmatic/sheltered childhood, cotillions and high class anxieties, high expectations from her uptight academic mother Joyce (Alfre Woodard), and her own misreading of big-hearted doctor dad Edmond (Earl Billings) — makes her worry about “having a good time” or worse, “being herself.”
While her conflict is interesting, the film tends to reduce it to one-liner comments by antic supporting characters. Her wannabe-player brother Nelson (Donald Faison) wonders if she’s “sleeping with the enemy”; her girlfriends insist that the thing with Brian is just about sex, that her “serious” relationship will be an IBM. On cue, Nelson introduces her to his former law school professor, Mark (Blair Underwood), with whom she has “more in common.” They share stories of “that old black tax,” and understand without having to explain what it means to have to “work twice as hard just to prove yourself equal.”
To allow Kenya’s crisis, Brian has a convenient meltdown moment. She’s complaining about the “white boys on the plantation” in her office (whom we have seen act out, so we know she’s right to be upset). “Can we give the ‘white boys’ a rest?” asks Brian. Suddenly it’s clear to Kenya that he doesn’t get it, that she’s making compromises. She needs to be able to talk about “the white shit that drives [her] crazy,” she asserts. “Being black” means “you never get a night off.” Briefly undone by her rage at this moment, Brian is, of course, really a good listener, unthreatening but also right. Being the “natural” man who sees Kenya’s inner self, he’s a typical rom-com element. The fact that he’s white is either new or very old, depending on your perspective.
Though he’s mostly a means to Kenya’s trajectory, Brian does endure a couple of his own semi-vulnerable moments. No surprise, these are occasioned by the black men who want to protect Kenya, including Nelson and Cheryl’s working class boyfriend Walter (Mike Epps). “We got her back, like family,” warns Walter during a double date at a comedy club. (Here Sommore’s routine targets interracial dating: the problem with white men is they don’t know how to break up with women, leaving them “chopped up in the freezer.”)
That Walter is an unlikely perfect partner for Cheryl (who at first sees only their class difference) might explain his own coming around to like Brian. But still, his transformation is something of a surprise. One late night, as Walter and Cheryl are advising Kenya to follow her instincts, she worries, “What if my instincts are screwed up?” And here, Walter speaks Something New‘s moral: “It’s not about color, it’s about love between a man and a woman.” This is new: Mike Epps plays a character with an arc.