Television

Love Island’s First Black Winners Showed Me America Can Love Me, Too

As protests against racial injustice surged, a Black man and woman found a way to be together.

The couple embraces while wearing formal wear in a swimming pool.
Caleb Corprew and Justine Ndiba on Love Island. Adam Torgerson/CBS Entertainment ©2020 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Season 2 of Love Island USA, was, to use a word that these times have almost worn out, unprecedented. This season’s islanders spent the summer in Las Vegas, swapping the extravagance of the typical Love Island villa for the COVID-safe rooftop of the Cromwell Hotel. And in another first in the franchise’s history, the winners of the $100,000 cash prize, Justine Ndiba and Caleb Corprew, are Black.

When filming began in mid-August, the country was in the grip of a mass uprising for racial justice. George Floyd had been dead for nearly three months, Minneapolis’ 3rd Precinct long since reduced to rubble. Black Lives Matter protests surged from one coast to the other, with no end in sight despite escalating police repression. It was a summer unlike any I’d ever lived through, full of love and heartbreak, of grief and an impossible, improbable hope. After months of quarantining, the protests were a jarring experience. We had been apart for so long to keep one another safe. Suddenly, we were all together, for the same reason.

Standing with host Arielle Vandenberg shortly after learning America had voted for them as the season’s winners, Caleb put his arm around Justine’s waist and said, “Our love is authentic, our love is patient, our love is kind. There has been a lot of stuff going on in the world around us, and our love is unapologetically Black.” As I am watching, the magic around them dissipates. I notice that Caleb and Justine look different. Their words and movements, without the buffer of postproduction, are slightly awkward, real. I am not used to seeing them this way.

As I fell in love with Justine and Caleb this summer, so did the rest of America. In postseason interviews, they shared the sentiment that they were overwhelmed by the outpouring of support their relationship has received. “With everything going on,” Caleb said at the end of the season, “we thank America for loving our love.” But as a Black woman, I know how mercurial America’s love is—what must be sacrificed to earn it, what must be betrayed in order to keep it. They are no longer islanders. They are a Black woman and a Black man in a country that colludes against the life and liberty of Black people. I spent my days mourning Black death, and I spent my nights rooting for Black love. I felt, not for the first time that summer, dizzied by the dissonance.

Part of Love Island’s magic comes from the fact that the show takes place on an actual island (or, in this case, a rooftop). Aside from new contestants who enter the villa like carrier pigeons bearing news, the contestants are sheltered from the outside world. This season’s isolation was only magnified by the pandemic, with participants forced to isolate for weeks before the start of filming. To guarantee the safety of the contestants, the show took place in a COVID bubble, sealed off from anything that would endanger the cast and crew, or spoil the Love Island experience. CBS was committed to holding up its end of the bargain, and no rogue virus or racial reckoning would get in the way.

Justine’s difficult journey on Love Island as a dark-skinned Black woman only highlighted the limits of the show’s escapist fantasy. In a conversation with another contestant early on in the season, she opened up about the difficulty of finding love as a Black woman. Failing to make a connection with any of the other contestants, she asks, “For Black girls it’s like … where do we go?” For the show’s Black contestants, particularly the Black women, Love Island is no paradise. There is no bubble impermeable to the specter of racism, the brutal and unhealed wound of it.

As the show approached its season finale, the contestants’ conversations took on a markedly different tone as the focus moved beyond their insular world. Looking toward the future, they discussed adjusting to life outside the villa as if assimilating to life in a foreign country. They shared their anxieties about what it would mean to once again live in the world with no protection from reality, no shield between them and the national and global catastrophes that mar the day to day.

As soon as the season ended, the contestants were handed their phones and the veil between life inside and outside of the villa was lifted. I knew what news awaited Justine and Caleb. The list of those killed by the police had only grown longer. Protests continued. The pandemic had taken more than 200,000 lives, disproportionally affecting Black people. A few days after the season ended, Caleb was asked what news he found most shocking upon leaving the villa, and he promptly chose the grand jury decision in the Breonna Taylor case. “I have goose bumps just thinking about it,” he said on Instagram Live.

The stifling combination of police killings and pandemic-related fear makes it difficult to imagine anything beyond the current moment. The present becomes its own inescapable bubble. Part of what I find appealing about Love Island is the predictable narrative arc: Girl meets boy, they fall for each other, their relationship is tested, but love overcomes all. The world does not follow a similar trajectory.

I know the criticisms made against reality TV, but I don’t watch Love Island in pursuit of what is real. I tune in eager for what the show makes me believe is possible. If a Black woman can be loved for who she is, then so can I. If America can love Justine and Caleb, perhaps America can love me too. I surrender to the fantasy of Love Island even as the fantasy frays at the edges. Even though they posted a joyous Instagram picture this week,  the odds are against Justine and Caleb’s relationship. The winners and runners-up of last season are no longer together. The magic created on the show did not last far beyond it. But it feels good to believe it can, that things might be different for this season’s winners. If there is anything I’ve learned this summer, it is that what felt impossible just a few months ago no longer is.

Market logic dictates the relationship between a television show and its audience. In exchange for views and ratings, a show must deliver on its premise. Love Island repeatedly does. I know what my end of the bargain is, and I willingly uphold it. I cry when Caleb tells Justine he loves her for the first time on a date at the Grand Canyon. I watch them build friendships with the other contestants that are wholesome and nourishing. Caleb loves Justine, and in turn she learns to love herself. I tune in week after week. I surrender to the illusion that there exists a world that is different from this one, an island where there are only ordinary heartbreaks.