(The Root) —
"You know, people really know me from The Best Man. I've done five other movies since then, but it always comes back to The Best Man. It was time to do the sequel." --Malcolm D. Lee, director, The Best Man Holiday
The year is 1999, and a consistent stream of films directed by black directors has been making a dent in Hollywood for more than a decade. At the top of the decade, you've got Spike Lee, Robert Townsend, John Singleton, Mario Van Peebles, George Jackson, Bill Duke, Kevin Hooks, Doug McHenry, F. Gary Gray and the Hudlin and Hughes brothers making films that are literally changing the face of Hollywood.
Black films are turning major profits and showcasing tremendous black talent in front of and behind the screen. Hollywood is buzzing with action-packed universal stories, featuring black casts, writers, producers and directors. Add to the mix the official takeover of popular culture by hip-hop music, art and fashion, and you've got the ingredients for success.
Against this backdrop, black films in the late 1990s begin to more fully explore themes of love, friendship, family and memory. Films like Love Jones (1997), Soul Food (1997), Eve's Bayou (1997), Hoodlum (1997) and indie darling Hav Plenty (1997), make their way onto the big screen. Jeff Friday, Byron E. Lewis and Warrington Hudlin launch the Acapulco Black Film Festival (now the American Black Film Festival), creating a place where members of black Hollywood can network, collaborate and celebrate black film.
Among the most celebrated of the decade is a film by director Malcolm D. Lee, a young man being watched as much for his training at New York University's prestigious graduate film program as for his family ties to the most prolific and celebrated contemporary black filmmaker of the 20th century, Spike Lee (his cousin).
Malcolm Lee makes a film that would prove that movies featuring black casts with universal storylines not only are desired by audiences but also can make money at the box office. In October 1999, The Best Man debuts, starring a who's who of black talent (Sanaa Lathan, Taye Diggs, Nia Long, Morris Chestnut, Terrence Howard, Harold Perrineau, Regina Hall, Monica Calhoun and Melissa DeSousa). The story, about a group of friends coming together to celebrate a wedding while discovering just how much they don't know about each other, resonates with audiences to the tune of $30 million, despite an "R" rating for language and sexuality. A film that was made for roughly $9 million is a solid hit.
Fourteen years later, Malcolm Lee is back with The Best Man Holiday, the much-anticipated sequel to a film that is as important to the canon of black film as it is to audiences that love the film and what it represents. When asked what prompted him to make a sequel to such a beloved film, the director said it was the right time. Lee stated, "I always wanted to do a follow-up at some point. I didn't think that I wanted to do a sequel right away, because there were people encouraging me to do a sequel, a television show right away. I wanted other stories to tell as an artist. I didn't want to be pigeon-holed as an artist, telling only one kind of story.
"I had said to myself even back then that I would revisit these characters 10 years later just to see what kind of life they have lived. I'd let the characters live some life and me live some life so that I would have some kind of story to tell. So when it came to wanting to do it, the time was just right."
Lee, who has directed five films since The Best Man, including Undercover Brother (2002), Roll Bounce (2005) and Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins (2008), is mostly remembered for The Best Man. Writing and directing a sequel to a film that is his signature film, that audiences still love and that could potentially break box-office records would be a stressful task for most directors, but not Lee. He isn't worried about tinkering with the magic of the original film because he thought long and hard about making the sequel.
"When I decided to make a sequel, I said to myself, we can't just repeat ourselves, we have to do something that is just as special, if not more special, we have to top ourselves," said Lee. He has had success with his other films, working with larger budgets and established stars as he has honed his craft as a director, which is an asset to the film.
Lee said, "I don't see any reason why we shouldn't succeed, given that I feel like I'm a better writer than I was then. I'm a better director than I was then. The actors — as great as they were then — are better now. So, why wouldn't we make something that's just as satisfying, more sophisticated, just as funny, more emotional and do something special again?"
His words convey the passion with which he approached the project and reflect his ability to get the entire original cast on board. Sanaa Lathan, who reprises her role as Robyn in The Best Man Holiday, discussed how Lee got everyone back on board over dinner at a restaurant in Beverly Hills. "We were just so excited to see each other because we're all friends; it was like a reunion. He pitched it, moment by moment, scene by scene. Within five minutes, we were on the edge of our seats, literally like we were watching the movie, and by the end of the pitch, we were like. OK, Malcolm, please write this and we will all be on board," said Lathan.
Lathan's excitement mirrors the excitement of audiences anticipating the film. Lee sees the film as a continuation of the original, so audiences can expect a different experience, not necessarily a different movie. He offered, "The characters have grown. They've got children now; they've got mortgage payments. The things that you worry about in your mid-20s aren't the same things you worry about in your mid- to late 30s or in your 40s. There are issues and things that occur, that come up and change your life, that need to be addressed in this movie."
While Lee has a track record of success in Hollywood, this doesn't mean there aren't challenges. "I'm driven more by my heart than anything else, and my head and sometimes those things are counterintuitive. I'm still trying to figure out a way to make them both work." One thing Lee knows for sure is that right now, all that is on his brain is The Best Man Holiday. When asked what's next for the director, he simply responded, "Best Man Holiday. I can't look beyond that now." Neither can fans of the Best Man.
The Best Man Holiday opens nationwide in theaters Nov. 15.
Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., is editor-at-large at The Root. She is also editor-in-chief of the Burton Wire, a blog dedicated to world news related to the African Diaspora and global culture. Follow her on Twitter.
Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., a media scholar, is digital editor in chief at Grady Newsource and a faculty member of the Cox Institute of Journalism, Innovation, Management & Leadership at the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia. She is founder and editor in chief of the award-winning news blog the Burton Wire. Follow her on Twitter here or here.