Why don’t films about traveling or moving abroad ever feature black women?

August 27, 2010

The film that launched many a female fantasy -- including my own! about life in bella Italia.

The film that launched many a female fantasy -- including my own! -- about life in bella Italia.

Julia Roberts' character Liz laughs it up with Javier Bardem in Bali in "Eat Pray Love." But why is there never a sistergirl starring in one of these American-woman-reinvents-herself-abroad cinema tales?

Julia Roberts' character Liz laughs it up with Javier Bardem in beautiful Bali in "Eat Pray Love" (who wouldn't love THAT?). But why is there never a sistergirl starring in one of these American-woman-reinvents-herself-abroad cinema tales?

In a gorgeous summer film that felt like a come-to-life travel brochure for historic Verona and the Tuscan countryside, Amanda Seyfried's character lost a fiancee but found love in "Letters to Juliet." At least THIS film featured a beautiful black female extra as a guest at the film's Tuscan hotel. (Sad when that's a HUGE deal!)

In a gorgeous summer film that's a come-to-life travel brochure for historic Verona and the Tuscan countryside, Amanda Seyfried's character lost a fiancee but found love in "Letters to Juliet." At least THIS film featured a beautiful black female extra as a guest at the film's Tuscan hotel. (Sad when that's a HUGE deal -- in 2010!)

For most folks, spending 10 bucks and a couple hours at the movies is all about passive entertainment. But sometimes, you encounter a cinematic gem that literally becomes life-changing, that totally alters the way you see the world. That one for me was 2003’s “Under the Tuscan Sun,” which inspired me, following a major surgery and reordering of life priorities, to quit my corporate job and pack my bags for fabulous Firenze (Florence), Italy.

Even now, if I’m flipping channels on the TV and “Tuscan Sun” is on, regardless of whether the film’s at the beginning, middle or end, I plop down and watch. And certamente, I own the DVD—and when I’m feeling the need for a bit of inspiration, I’ll view it again. I recently interviewed Under the Tuscan Sun author Frances Mayes  for a national Travel story, and that conversation took me back to those dreamy days of living in bella Italia.

 The latest movie buzz, of course, is about Julia Roberts’ “Eat Pray Love,” which hit U.S. cinemas earlier this month. As I’m sure you know (or have heard, whether you wanted to or not), this gorgeous travelogue-on-film it’s based on Elizabeth Gilbert’s monster best-selling memoir about ditching New York City after a traumatic divorce and subsequent love affair and spending a year traveling through Italy, India and Indonesia. (Her gig was WAY easier than mine, as her publisher’s book advance funded her year of self-discovery.) Personally, I never got past the “Eat” portion of the book, but perhaps that’s because I’m too Italy-obsessed to care about the rest.

But here’s what got me thinking: none of the films I’ve seen extolling the joys of traveling and/or relocating abroad has ever starred a black woman—or a woman of color AT ALL. (Please, someone, tell me if I’ve missed one.) Wouldn’t it be fabulous to meet a mocha-skinned sister chucking it all to chase her destiny in bella Italia or bodacious Buenos Aires? Now THAT’s a film I’d gladly pay over and over to watch! 

And we know these stories are out there. I met two INCREDIBLE African-American sisters in Italy, and we’ve become great friends over the years—in part because of this amazing shared black-girl expat experience. I know single black women who packed up their kids and traded their American lives for Parisian ones. Fierce black females making their way in the corporate worlds of London and Dubai. We’ve seen memoirs like Kinky Gazpacho, a great read from African-American writer Lori L. Tharps about her lifelong fascination with Spain—and how she ended up netting a husband in the process.

But those stories never get told on the big screen.

I don’t know—maybe a filmmaker’s tried to green-light a project but was told it was too “niche” and wouldn’t appeal to a broad audience. (But OF COURSE, we women of color are ALWAYS supposed to easily identify with everyone else’s stories.) 

I’d LOVE to know from you UrbanTravelGirls what films have whetted your appetite and prompted YOU to pack your bags for foreign shores, even if you didn’t plan a permanent vacation? What movies are must-adds to our Netflix queues?

And ALSO, share what overseas-adventure film you’d LOVE to see translated into a “sistagirl” version. Tell us—we’re waiting to be inspired!

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22 Comments Leave a Comment

  • 1. vonnie  |  August 27, 2010 at 5:20 pm

    you KNOW then it’d be a black movie and no one would see it (according to producers). Chile, the best you’re going to get any time soon for that is “How Stella Got Her Groove Back” because obviously the only place that black people go is to Jamaica to hump men.


  • 2. LaTonya  |  August 27, 2010 at 8:42 pm

    Although this may not fit exactly into what you are looking for, Mahogany starring Diana Ross is one of my favs. She took Rome by storm in that one! But I agree these stories are few and far in between!

  • 3. nicole  |  August 27, 2010 at 9:04 pm

    I was thinking the same thing!! Where are the women of color? I would love love to see a travel/explorative movie which included US!

  • 4. Vanessa  |  August 28, 2010 at 8:43 am

    A question I have been asking for years! After I am done with my book about a black woman who goes to Italia, I will try to get it made into a film. After I get it published, of course :).

  • 5. Kim  |  August 28, 2010 at 11:39 am

    Hey Vanessa,
    I’ll help you pen the manuscript!! I’m on my way to Italy in 3 days and I can tell you I’m FULL of life-affirming issues that need to be worked out….LOL.

    my question is, where are all of our Black movie producers, writers and moguls? Surely they have the wherewithal to financially back films like this. AND, surely they are talented enough to create films that depict modern, educated and upwardly mobile women of color suffering through some of the same things as Ms Gilbert, all the while making the film speak and appeal to people across ALL demographics and not just a few.

    I’m like Maureen, I am fascinated by all things Italian. This trip is going to be all about seeing the ‘real’ Italy. I’ve done the tourist stuff. Now I want to get to know the locals; spend my time hanging out where they do.

  • 6. rebecca  |  August 28, 2010 at 1:40 pm

    I agree we need to put that to our film makers so they can make a film about us traveling because we do travel and it would help those that want to travel get over the fear.

    thanks for sharing you are an encouragement!

  • 7. Otha Greer  |  August 29, 2010 at 1:54 pm

    Maybe it’s because sista’s like me don’t put it out there. As a very mature African American female, I travelled alone from January 2010-April 2010 to Cuba and Panama. It was an amazing adventure where I studied Spanish by day, explored the cities and met fabulous people from all over the world, and danced salsa almost every night for the 2 months I was in Cuba. It was indeed a trip of a lifetime and one I plan to write about one day. In addition, I have travelled extesively to over 20 countries in Africa, mainly concentrating on West Africa, but throughout the African continent . Much of my African travel was done solo as well. Again, there is a book just waiting to be written.

  • 8. Felicia Shelton  |  August 29, 2010 at 7:18 pm

    On time as usual, Maureen!
    I was talking to Fly Brother via Skype last night and we talked about my upcoming move to Italy. He mentioned Mahogany and that was that. Will watch it again later on tonight. I will turn Italy, OUT, watch me!
    To topic, uh yeah, with all the money that we as Black women spend on hair care products (WHY LORD?!!) You would think that we start directing our time and money to more useful things: education, the Arts, etc. We should start demanding to see more of our faces on the big screen as well as the small screen. We have the money to do so. Damn, do I have to make a documentary about myself my friends (never met you but I consider you a friend) who travel the world like it’s a ride to Target? Hmm? Let me started on that…

    Oh! Why do Black women and men seem to be everybody’s sidekick? EPL has not come to Korea yet so I’ve only seen the trailer. We always seem to be the voice of “reason”, very practical, somewhat conservative: boring. Maureen and Vanessa please publish a book, a movie or something else fabulous you have in your heads about your experiences in Italy, because I already know I will.

  • 9. Shirl  |  August 30, 2010 at 9:45 pm

    Passport Diaries was a book about a black women who goes to England,France and Greece, it was an excellent book. I heard rumors it was going to be made into a movie. I would LOVE to see that book made into a movie!

    @ Vanessa, please let us know when you get your book published! I could stand to read more books about black women who travel internationally. Italy, particulsrly Firenze, is one of my favorite places on earth! I’m an avid reader! Do you have a website?

  • 10. wedding party  |  September 1, 2010 at 6:52 am

    Gracias!good quality points you high light in this article. I’m not in its entirety together with you, though enjoyed to learn your view point on this subject.

  • 11. Tammy  |  September 1, 2010 at 3:17 pm

    I think a screenplay may be your next project — goodness knows you have plenty of experience and material to draw from! :)

  • 12. Vanessa  |  September 6, 2010 at 12:59 pm

    Thanks for the interest ladies!
    If you ever read this, be sure to hit me up at vanessamargolis@yahoo.com
    We need to talk!

    Unfortunately, I do not have a website now, but when I complete my first few chapters, I will definitely post them. Hopefully here *fingers crossed* and a few other places. Thanks!

  • 13. Vanessa  |  September 6, 2010 at 1:07 pm

    Totally agree! We tend to be the sassy sidekick, the one saying, “You go, girl!” while the white female lead is kissing her Prince Charming. Although my book is fiction, it draws strongly on personal experiences. I’ll let you all know when the sample chapters are ready. Have faith in me, ladies!

  • 14. Amber  |  September 6, 2010 at 2:40 pm

    This is an excellent topic and I love your blog! I just came across it. I have OFTEN wondered the same thing about the lack of women of color in the movies finding themselves abroad. I am an African American woman in my 30s who started traveling abroad when I was 22 – when I graduated from college. I have never looked back!

    Movies about travel per se haven’t been my inspiration to travel so much as a great movie set in a really interesting location. I will say that Under the Tuscan Sun definitely worked its magic on me. However, Shakespeare in Love was the catalyst for my first trip abroad to London. I was so intrigued by the time period and English history brought to life on the screen and I wanted to see the sites for myself. Unfortunately I was not too impressed with London at the time (although I’ve been back many times now and love it) so I hopped on a train and wound up moving to Edinburgh, Scotland for several months. I fell in love with the people, the culture and the city. I was in completely unfamiliar territory living with the locals and loving it.

    I have since been to the Highlands of Scotland and believe it to be one of the most beautiful natural wonders on earth. I have had similar experiences in the Irish countryside. My trips have been transforming experiences in my life and I discover something more about myself each time I travel. I should mention that 95% of my travel is done on my own – I’m a single black woman traveler and I wish so many of us could just set out and explore the world.

    I’m not rich. I just make traveling a priority and spend my money accordingly.

    I think with the wealth of stories and experiences that we all have to share we could fill a couple of shelves at our local bookstores and I think it’s time we get our stories on film :).


  • 15. Renee King  |  September 13, 2010 at 6:35 am

    Felicia and Vanessa stole my thunder….I was going to say that the black woman is rarely seen as the heroine in hollywood (maybe the woman shooting up heroin, but never the independent, self-assured world traveler) like the protagonists in Tuscan and EPL. We have been relegated to the role of Mammy 2.0….which is either an improvement or just business as usual in La La Land.

    It will take US to change this….we need to be more selective about which movies we support, because all that matters to the powers that be is what they take in at the box office. We need to become producers and writers like some of the women on this board. Only then will we be able to exact positive change in the way that we are perceived. We are not a monolith, we all have different stories to tell, different life experiences that if told, can mean the difference in how someone else’s life story unfolds.

    On another note, Maureen, since Bloglines is closing October 1st, I need to resub to your RSS feed, but couldn’t find your RSS icon….help! ;-D


  • 16. Kelly E. Carter  |  September 20, 2010 at 1:08 pm

    We are well overdue Maureen. But it’s just a matter of time before my story is ready to be published and then on to the big screen ladies. And it will appeal to all races, regardless of what the naysayers want to believe.
    Shirl, I went to college with Tamara Gregory, who wrote Passport Diaries. I’ll check in with her to find out what’s the latest. Plenty of books are optioned and then never get made. But her character was only on vacation. There are many of us who move abroad, like Maureen and I did. And we have stories in us just dying to get out.
    Mine is almost ready to break free!

  • 17. urbantravelgirl  |  September 21, 2010 at 4:15 am

    Ciao, Kelly! I can’t WAIT to read your fabulous Italian story and then see it at the cinema.

    Thanks for reminding us about Tamara Gregory’s “Passport Diaries” — a fun read about a sister on a European vacation. But I’m with you — while “on-holiday” stories can be fun, I’d love to see a film (a la “Under the Tuscan Sun”) about a black woman who, like us, takes the total plunge into life abroad. And I agree — our stories CAN be universal!! America often would rather make us THINK they’re only relevant to us….


  • 18. Randall  |  November 11, 2010 at 10:21 am

    I’ve never really noticed this before but upon reading your article, it really got me thinking. Why is it so? I will definitely be checking out the suggestions on the other comments. This post was really a very interesting read.

  • 19. Shoreyland  |  February 17, 2011 at 7:17 am

    I travel all the time and people tend to think that my husband is white because we get out and go to places with our backpacks, our guidebooks, and not much else. It’s very hard to people to understand that there are people of color that are educated, adventurous, and willing to be daring.

    I was watching a documentary the other day and someone said, “Black folks are more conservative than white folks could ever hope to be”. How true! I have stayed in 5 star hotels and I have used CouchSurfing.com to stay with strangers. All the Black people in my life told me I was crazy. It’s not only the view of “others” that we don’t travel. It’s the idea/image of we have of ourselves that people of color stay at home, attend school, get “good jobs”, get married, raise a family, and maybe take a cruise once in a while to a “safe” country.


  • 20. urbantravelgirl  |  February 17, 2011 at 2:05 pm

    Ciao again, Shoreyland –
    AMEN to everything you just said!! WHY is it that too many black folks think that to travel is to be “acting white?” Or that to travel somewhere other than the Caribbean or Africa is less-than-black enough? The world is a huge place, and we can either embrace it or get left behind.

    SO glad that you’re not afraid to get out there and live life — even if you are CouchSurfing, girl! (My mom would have a heart attack if I even told her about it.) Yes, bad things happen in the world — there’s no denying that. But WORSE things are more likely to happen to us in our own backyards, from folks that are just like us. So why not say your prayers, book a flight and JUST DO IT?

    Happy travels,

  • 21. Chloe'  |  April 27, 2011 at 1:12 pm

    Hey I want to know, is it pretty expensive to travel. I’m a 20 year old americian black girl or woman. and I want to travel the world. It’s what I’ve wanted to do since i was little. I’ve been saving up money from work to travel but how much do you think I should have saved up before I go?
    And thanks so much for this site and showing black women especialy americian that there is something beyond the urban walls of america.
    Thanks : )

  • 22. Freebird  |  May 21, 2014 at 1:48 am

    I am glad I happened on to this site. You ladies have encouraged me to want to travel. I am getting myself in a position where I can make it happen- and SOON.

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