'Best Man Holiday' Resonates Across Racial Lines

Dec 2, 2013
Originally published on December 2, 2013 6:36 pm

Somewhere between Gray Thursday, Black Friday and Cyber Monday, a lot of us pulled ourselves out of our turkey-induced stupors to go to the movies. And one of the top performers over the long weekend was a movie that's been around for a couple of weeks and is still pulling viewers in. Malcolm D. Lee's The Best Man Holiday is a sequel to his 1999 sleeper hit, The Best Man, and despite having opened last month, it had the fourth-highest box-office tallies this weekend.

The movie stars an almost all-black ensemble cast, with some very recognizable names — Taye Diggs, Terrence Howard, Nia Long, Sanaa Lathan — but if you want to stay on Lee's good side, you will not refer to this as a black movie or a race-based movie. Several early reviewers received a cascade of scalding tweets, Facebook posts and emails from the movie's fans when they did. That reaction is an updated version of the cultural cluelessness that occurred when The Best Man debuted in 1999.

"I remember Entertainment Weekly said, 'Here's a Big Chill for the black audience,' " Lee recalls, still clearly irritated. "And I was, like, 'Why's it gotta be for the black audience?' "

Lee deeply believes that in both movies his cast is grappling with life issues that are universal — finding the right mate, searching for professional success and gratification, wondering how to craft a secure future — and not at all race-based.

"I always tell people when the first Best Man came out, I wrote the right script at the right time: It was an opportunity for people to see African-Americans as just people."

Critic Darlene Donloe says black audiences especially find this more nuanced presentation immensely satisfying.

"It's so refreshing to see yourself on-screen, and to see yourself in the way that you actually live your life," Donloe says. When that's done, the box office really responds. Yet, she says, Hollywood still treats each successful film about normal black life as a happy fluke.

In both Best Man movies, Lee's characters were preoccupied with a lot of things — career challenges, health challenges, do-I-run-Dad's-empire-or-not challenges — but they were not at all preoccupied with race.

In fact, race qua race was brought up only once in The Best Man Holiday, when writer Harper Stewart (Taye Diggs) comes by to see old friend and almost-girlfriend Jordan Armstrong (Nia Long) at her spacious office, where she's a programming executive at MSNBC. Harper is startled to be introduced to Jordan's boyfriend — a charming, dimpled, easy-going lawyer named Brian McDaniels (Eddie Cibrian). Who happens to be ... white.

After Brian leaves the two old friends together, Harper can't resist ribbing Jordan, as he puts on his "white guy" voice to imitate Jordan's new man.

"Brian McDaniels," Harper smirks, in a plummy baritone, "I like to ski in Vermont." (Apparently Vermont instantly telegraphs The Whitest Place Possible.) "I like dating chocolate girls ..."

McDaniels is symbolic of the changing choices black women are making, Lee says. "There are a lot of black women, professional, who are very ambitious, who don't always have that black male counterpart. So I thought it was completely believable to have a person outside Jordan's race be interested in her." And in this case, Lee's art is imitating life: The skyrocketing numbers of interracial couples indicate that dating outside one's race is becoming more and more common. (And Long actually suggested that Jordan's significant other be nonblack as recognition that things are changing.)

Although early numbers of The Best Man Holiday indicated the film's audiences were almost entirely black, later reports have been more ethnically varied. Reports from several Los Angeles theaters say the crowds to see the movie have been multiethnic, and heavily female.

Lee is happy that black audiences recognize themselves in the film and that nonblack audiences are getting a look at black life that isn't often shown in mainstream media. He's particularly happy that they're seeing a more balanced vision of black men. That's been his mission since forming his production company, Blackmaled, two decades ago.

Lee believes black men feel culturally blackmailed, as they are often portrayed as hyperaggressive, violent, surly, thuggish. Basically, to borrow another filmmaker's title, they're a menace to society.

And, he adds: "Not only are black males blackmailed from the general public, they also blackmail themselves into believing there's a certain way black males have to be in order to be really black."

With the characters from The Best Man Holiday and his other movies, Lee says, he wants audiences to see that real black men are tender as well as tough, protectors of their women and children and unafraid to stand up for what's right, even when it costs them. He wants them to be seen as best men in every sense of the word.

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Thanksgiving weekend is one of the busiest times of the year at the movie theaters. The movie "The Best Man Holiday" has actually been out for a couple of weeks, but still landed at Number 4 on the box office charts this weekend. It's a sequel to a hit from 1999, "The Best Man."

NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates reports that both movies feature African-American casts, but director Malcolm D. Lee doesn't want to call them black films.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: The first movie brings college friends together for a wedding.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Good to see you guys.



BATES: Reviewers compared it to another cult favorite, which left Malcolm D. Lee both flattered and irked.

MALCOLM D. LEE: I remember Entertainment Weekly said, you know, here's a "Big Chill" for the black audience. And it's like: Why's it for the black audience?

BATES: Lee insists the things his characters did - growing up, branching out, settling down - were not race-specific.

LEE: I always tell people with the first "Best Man," in 1999 when it came out, that I wrote the right script at the right time. You know, it was an opportunity for people to see African-Americans as just people.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: So what happened? I mean and you called me earlier, what happened?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Oh, girl. The caterer's tripping, the florist screwed up the order, and Mama still hasn't found a dress.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Well, girlfriend, don't worry about it. Superwoman is here.

DARLENE DONLOE: It's so refreshing to see yourself onscreen and to see yourself in the way that you actually live your life, not the way Hollywood or society thinks you live your life,

BATES: Critic Darlene Donloe believes both "The Best Man" and its sequel also pulled in non-black moviegoers because they were intrigued with the middle-class black life they saw onscreen. "The Best Man" made about $30 million in 1999 and the sequel made more than that on its first weekend alone. So, Donloe says, it's a mystery to her why there aren't more films like this at the multiplex.

DONLOE: They always think: Well, that's a fluke, it can't happen again. But yeah, it happens again. Well, it can't happen again till the next time it happens.

And then is it a fluke again? Well, and how many times is it a fluke?

BATES: Lee has kept it current in his "Best Man" sequel. One of his old friends has become famous as a real housewife of somewhere or other. There's also a cable TV executive and a bestselling writer, and an NFL superstar who is hosting the group over the Christmas holiday.

One night the dinner conversation at his home - a vast marble slab of prefabricated luxury - centers on sexting.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: You remember back in the day, you wanted to see booty, you had to either cop a Playboy magazines or get late-night cable?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: And now porn is just on your Smartphone.

BATES: But it's not all winks and spit-takes. The friends experience infertility, financial trouble and life-threatening illness. In other words, Lee's characters are not preoccupied with being black.

LEE: But I think in particular for African-American audiences it is rare for them to see a movie with characters going through the struggles that these characters are going through.

BATES: In fact, race arises only once, when one of the friends introduces her current boyfriend who is white to her former crush. Taye Diggs is Harper and Harper cannot resist imitating the new guy.


TAYE DIGGS: (as Harper) Brian McDaniel, I like to ski in Vermont.

NIA LONG: (as Jordan) Shut up, Harper.

DIGGS: (as Harper) I like dating chocolate girls.

BATES: This is what's happening in real life for many black women, Lee says: they would prefer a black mate but are opening their minds to loving whoever loves them.

Lee is most concerned, though, with portraying black men in a light he recognizes. He named his production company Blackmaled, that's B-L-A-C-K-M-A-L-E-D, for a reason.

LEE: That's a negative term, you know, blackmailing someone. And I think that's how black males are also portrayed.

BATES: So he's providing some alternate images from the swaggering or surly ones often seen in popular culture. In "The Best Man," for instance, Harper dumps his cool persona in public when he realizes the true love of his life is walking away.


DIGGS: (as Harper) Robyn. Robyn.

SANAA LATHAN: (as Robyn) Go off me.

DIGGS: (as Harper) I need you. I cannot do this alone. Please don't leave me now.

BATES: Lee hopes the men in his films will encourage his brothers to push away from the narrow definitions of black masculinity that are so prevalent.

LEE: You know, not only are black males blackmailed from the general public, but also they blackmail themselves into thinking that there's a certain way that a black male must be and how he must behave in order to be really black.

BATES: In this case, Malcolm Lee's vision of what black really is has been raking in a lot of green.

Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.