'Best Man Holiday' director Malcolm D. Lee talks making the sequel his way, diversity in pop culture

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Image Credit: Gilbert Carrasquillo/FilmMagic

For director Malcolm D. Lee, The Best Man Holiday is not just the sequel to his 1999 African-American romantic-dramedy The Best Man, but a means to unite different audiences and help them understand our universal problems.

Reprising their roles in the new movie are Taye Diggs (Harper), Sanaa Lathan (Robin), Terrence Howard (Quentin), Nia Long (Jordan), Morris Chestnut (Lance), Monica Calhoun (Mia), Harold Perrineau (Julian), Regina Hall (Candy) and Melissa De Sousa (Shelby). Lee brings the group of affluent African-American friends finding their way in the worlds of romance and adulthood together again for a weekend. This time, they’re more mature, but there’s still plenty of scandal, drama, and exuberant personalities.

The Best Man, which debuted in October 1999, was a box-office hit and helped catapult the careers of Howard and Diggs. Lee’s mission to defy the stereotypical African-American characters in media through his first film proved a success.

“Getting any movie made is a challenge, but I wrote the [original] script in my mind that was partially an answer to Waiting to Exhale,” Lee told Entertainment Weekly. “The archetypal images of black men represented in that movie, that … was not my reality. They weren’t [people] who I went to school with or who I was. I wanted to create a film that I can relate to. There was a small representation of films and TV shows that showed complex African-American characters, like Love Jones or The Cosby Show.  What was gratifying about creating The Best Man the first time was the ability to create characters who were not marginalized — they had layers, dimensions, faults, things that make them tick and subtext.”

Though a sequel was discussed immediately after the release, Lee was apprehensive about moving too quickly. Allowing some breathing room for the cast and characters to grow, it wasn’t until seven years that he presented an idea for a second movie. “I thought if I was going to revisit these characters, it would be 10 years later, when they have a chance to live some life and I had a chance to live life and experience and have a story to tell,” Lee said. “When [talks of a sequel] came around 2011, I called the cast up because I was thinking about a sequel for the Best Man since 2006. All in the same room, I said, ‘I have an idea for a sequel, and if you like it, I’ll do it.'”

He got the green light from the actors, but convincing studio executives proved to be an uphill battle. The idea of a sequel was welcomed, but there were reservations about Lee’s script. “The executives posed a number of changes to the script, such as another wedding movie or adding sexual tension between Jordan [Nia Long] and Harper [Taye Diggs],” Lee recalled. “I said, ‘Look, I don’t want to do that.’ That’s not what I wrote. That’s not what I pitched to you guys. Before we throw out the baby with the bathwater, let me do a reading for you guys. Let me organize the cast, do a reading, and if you decide that this is not the movie you want to make, then we can discuss something else.”

Lee was determined to keep his script, gathering the all-star cast once again for a cold read and taking a leap of faith on the project. “I called up all the actors and said, ‘Not to put pressure on you guys, but this is it,'” Lee continued. “‘This version of the movie will sink or swim with what we do with this read-through.'” Fast-forward almost 15 years, and Lee is bringing the “Black Pack” together once again . With a new outlook on directing and a few films under his belt (Undercover Brother, Roll Bounce, and Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins), he revisits the cult classic by challenging himself, the cast, and fans even further.

Proud of the steps he’s taken in film, and in Hollywood, Lee’s Holiday joins an array of movies this year that portray a broad view of the African-American experience, including 42, 12 Years a Slave, and Fruitvale Station. As for TV, Lee appreciates the work of actors and shows such as Kerry Washington and Shonda Rhimes’ Scandal that show a greater reflection of American society, but feels there’s still room for growth.

“TV has a long way to go,” Lee said. “There are shows that people flock to, like BET’s The Game, Being Mary Jane. You would think network television would get a clue to create shows with an all-African-American cast — what a revolutionary thought — but there really isn’t.”

And Lee is still striving to create a wide variety of black films in theaters — not just to please African-American viewers, but general audiences too.

“Let’s keep making quality. We’ve got the quantity now, let’s make them be equal as far as the quality. We should all have choices at the movie theater,” Lee said. “On top of that, general audiences are going to see these movies, which is a real great step. Not everyone looks at a movie poster to see an all-black cast and says, ‘Oh, that’s not for me.’ That’s been my experience, but I’m hoping that will change because a lot of these stories are very universal. They may have the specificity of being African-American, but these stories are all about human beings and what we go through, expect, want, and desire.”

The Best Man Holiday hits theaters on Friday.

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