The Best Man Holiday, the R-rated sequel to 1999’s The Best Man, opened to $30.6 million this weekend, surprising box-office watchers who had predicted the $17 million film wouldn’t generate half of its ultimate take home. Yet to director Malcolm D. Lee, who wrote and produced the film along with its predecessor, the only surprise is how Hollywood hasn’t evolved its thinking toward films featuring black actors.
“I’m tired of the dismissive, marginalized way that movies starring African-American actors who don’t happen to be Will Smith or Denzel Washington or Kevin Hart, [are talked about when they] perform well at the box office,” Lee says. “Tyler Perry makes a movie and it’s number one almost every time. Think Like a Man was number one two weeks in a row. People talk about [Best Man Holiday] over-performing, but I feel like we got under-estimated.”
The majority of the audience for Best Man Holiday (87 percent) was African-American females, 90 percent of whom saw the original film. More important, the sequel generated an A+ with exit pollster Cinemascore indicating that the film should broaden out to a wider audience.
Lee is counting on it.
“I’m a black filmmaker and I fully acknowledge that I tell stories with African-American actors and characters. But they are all very universal,” he says, adding that he was pleased with how Universal Pictures marketed the film beyond race. “It’s not just a movie for African-American audiences. It’s a movie for everyone.”
In the past year a number of films, including The Butler ($116 million) and the Jackie Robinson biopic 42 ($95 million), have exceeded expectations, earning more diverse audiences than many in Hollywood predicted. Yet the African-American film community remains largely unconvinced that these hits represent the beginning of anything permanent.
“It’s hard for black filmmakers who have been in the business for a long time to think ‘This is It,’” says filmmaker Ava DuVernay (Middle of Nowhere), who also runs a distribution company for black films. “You would hope Hollywood would take each of these kind of renaissances as precedent-setting, like this is a foundational year and next year we will build on it. But it never happens. Black films never set precedent. We always have to start over.”
Spike Lee, who directed the upcoming adaptation of the South Korean revenge film Oldboy (and is Malcolm Lee’s cousin), echoed DuVernay’s thoughts in a recent interview with EW. “I’ve been through this every 10 years,” he said. “There’s this so-called ‘renaissance of black cinema,’ so I’m not excited. There will be another nine-year drought and then on the 10th year, new articles about the same thing. I’m tired of it.”
Malcolm Lee initially held off on a Best Man sequel in order to expand his resumé and explore different genres, directing 2008′s Samuel L. Jackson/Bernie Mac comedy Soul Men and this year’s David Zucker spoof Scary Movie. He’s now hoping to capitalize quickly on his success with a third Best Man film. “I think if the audience continues to support the film, the studio would like to get a third under way soon,” he says. “And I have a great idea for another one. It will be a lot of fun, in a different environment, but it will be something that will still have resonance and meaning with the audience. I don’t want to wait another 14 years.”
Now maybe Hollywood won’t either.