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What ‘Notting Hill’ Got Right About My Neighborhood, and What It Left Out of Frame

Near the beginning of the 1999 movie Notting Hill, the character of bookseller William Thacker (Hugh Grant) spins round a London street corner and collides with superstar actress Anna Scott (Julia Roberts), spilling orange juice over the both of them. It’s a meet-cute that sets into motion one of the better known romantic comedies of the last 25 years, and entered Portobello Road into the pop culture ranks alongside Katz’s Deli where Meg Ryan faked her orgasm. The scene also, perhaps more significantly, cemented the London neighborhood as a tourist destination: Notting Hill had long drawn visitors, but almost immediately it was flooded with fans of the movie. On any given day, decades later, you’ll still find daily hordes of influencers posing in front of that blue door and tourists lining up outside The Travel Bookshop (now The Notting Hill Bookshop) where the film’s Scott later uttered her now famous line: “I’m just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her.”

With those words, what was once just another London postcode instantly became a pin on the Hollywood map.

Yet “this small village in the middle of a city,” to quote Thacker, also happens to be where I grew up—and why I remain disproportionately attached to this relic of the rom-com era. Watching the pair crash into each other in the orange juice scene is, for me, a prompt to remember what was taking place outside the frame: If the camera were to zoom out beyond the perimeters of the movie set, exposing the lights and the producers and the catering trucks, you’d also see me, age nine, walking the dog with my mother, amid the many different types of Londoners who call Notting Hill home—all of us unaware that we were witnessing our neighborhood turning into something that would no longer feel like it quite belonged to us.

In the years since, the movie Notting Hill has evolved from a well-worn VHS tape on a shelf into a virtual museum preserving my childhood and adolescence that I revisit at least once a year. When Thacker walks down Portobello Road as the seasons change, heartbroken over Scott’s return to America, I can see Alan, my parents’ then-grocer, manning his market stall; the antique shops my father loved to waft in and out of on Sundays in search of secondhand cameras; the rooftop cafe my mother liked to take me to for pancakes; the newsagent where I bought my first pack of cigarettes (Marlboro Lights); even a street corner that holds memories of an electrifying teenage kiss. During the pandemic, when I was unable to travel home for almost two years, I actively avoided watching the movie out of fear that it would make me unfathomably homesick.

But while it’s impossible for me not to place the weight of nostalgia and romanticism on what is, by all accounts, a fluffy movie, I can’t help but see that it’s also a flawed one. Much has been said over the years about director Richard Curtis’ erasure of Notting Hill’s large West Indian community, which is responsible for so many of the things that make the neighborhood special: the smell of jerk chicken wafting down All Saints Road from Jay Dees Catering; the gentle reggae drifting out of the few remaining record shops, once anchors of the area; and, of course, the throb of Notting Hill Carnival in August, which is so culturally significant it draws two million visitors each year to dance to jungle, dub, and dancehall. (Now Europe’s largest annual celebration of Black culture and Caribbean creativity, it was established in the wake of race riots in the 1950s following the police murder of an Antiguan-born carpenter.) Curtis has since said he regrets using an all-white cast in his love letter to the neighborhood.

Even with this nagging at me as a viewer, I still find so much pleasure and comfort in watching this movie over and over. I’m now 35, the same age as Thacker when he loses control over his life and ends up cohabitating with a half-naked Welshman while pursuing an entirely unrealistic—and out of reach—relationship with a film star. Throughout the ups and downs of his year, Notting Hill remains a steady backdrop, the tattoo shop and the dodgy hairdresser and the market stalls of Portobello giving a loose sense of permanence as time inevitably passes and summer moves into fall, winter, and then spring. The movie serves the same purpose for me. Real life, with all its challenges, continues to ebb and flow, but the home of my childhood remains immortalized on screen, just as I remember it—a fleeting respite from the ever-changing unpredictability of adulthood.

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