A New ‘Best Man’ Gives Equal Time to the Women
The broom-jumping romantic comedy “The Best Man” debuted in theaters in 1999, delivering a bougie Black bonanza that would prove to have true staying power.
For his film directing debut, Malcolm D. Lee assembled for “The Best Man” a cast of young Black actors, anchored by Morris Chestnut, Taye Diggs and Nia Long, to play successful late-20s college buddies navigating the messier aspects of love and friendship as one couple prepares to wed.
There was no encroaching systemic racism for them to overcome and there were no societal ills looming large (unless you count the male characters’ misogynistic views). It was just two hours of beautiful people representing every shade of brown, sporting their best Y2K wear, thriving professionally and being decadently self-involved to the beat of a neo-soul soundtrack.
“It was such an important film during that time for the culture,” Long said. “We, as Black people, were seeing ourselves in a different way for the first time, and were thirsty for that.”
Lee, who also wrote the film, said he wanted Black filmgoers to “feel seen, and to normalize what I know as being Black in America.”
The film grossed an estimated $34.5 million (on a budget of $9 million), helped start the careers of Regina Hall and Sanaa Lathan, and became a Black rom-com classic, joining the ranks of Diggs’s 1998 star-making vehicle “How Stella Got Her Groove Back” and the Long-led 1997 drama “Love Jones.” The 2013 follow-up, “The Best Man Holiday,” doubled its predecessor’s box office numbers with a Christmas-themed tear-jerker that reunited the age-defying actors.
Now, more than two decades since they danced the Electric Slide to Cameo’s “Candy” during the first film’s climactic reception scene, the ensemble is back together for another installment. “The Best Man: The Final Chapters,” a limited series premiering on Peacock on Dec. 22, picks up where the sequel left off, in the aftermath of one character’s tragic loss and amid the shock of yet another wedding announcement. (And still, the actors seemingly have not aged a lick.)
“It’s kind of amazing that we’re all alive and healthy, and that we’re all thriving in this business,” Lathan said. “When we came up, there were literally a handful of us working and fighting for the same jobs.”
With eight hourlong episodes to work with (all dropping at once), Lee and the other writers expanded the story to give equal time to the women, introduce some new faces and tackle a more robust range of issues.
The two films offered a glimpse of the interior lives of four Black men who’ve been through it all together. There’s the ambitious novelist Harper (played by Diggs); his N.F.L.-star best friend, Lance (Morris Chestnut); Quentin (Terrence Howard), the resident Lothario and pot-stirrer; and Julian, or “Murch” (Harold Perrineau), the peaceable doormat. They grew older together on the big screen, but the series finds them finally growing up.
As “The Final Chapters” opens, Harper has achieved many of his career goals but is still as unmoored as ever. Lance remains a grief-stricken widower who is now floundering as a single parent. (His wife Mia, played by Monica Calhoun, died in the film sequel.) Quentin is still a showboating provocateur, but he is slowly learning how to show his vulnerable side. By contrast, Murch, the people-pleasing family man, has picked up a little of the edge that his cocky friend sloughed off.
“We’ve come a long way,” Diggs said. “We’ve all, as actors, lived our lives and had intense situations that lend themselves to our acting work, and you can see it in this series. It all comes through.”
Lee said he had been brewing up next-phase ideas for the gang ever since “Holiday” proved to be a hit, and he even wrote a draft of a script. But a third movie never happened, Lee said, because of the actors’ conflicting schedules and his stalled budget negotiations with Universal Pictures, which distributed the first two films.
After Lee signed a development deal in 2018 with the production studio Universal Television — the studio is, like Peacock, part of NBCUniversal — he began to rework the sequel concept as a limited series.
Lee, who also directed, among other films, the hit 2017 comedy “Girls Trip” and the 2021 “Space Jam” sequel, “A New Legacy,” sought out a seasoned TV pro to help him make the transition to the small screen. Enter Dayna Lynne North, who was fresh off a stint as a writer and executive producer for HBO’s “Insecure.” She had been a “Best Man” fan since attending the 1999 premiere screening of the first movie with her USC film school squad. Signing on to write and share showrunning duties on the series with Lee was a full-circle moment for her.
“It’s basically like watching LeBron play and having him come over and be like, ‘Hey, you want to come down here and see if you can make this shot?’” North said, referring to the Lakers star LeBron James. “It felt like home to me — I get where these characters are, and I know the world of television.”
“I came in knowing that I wanted to dive deeper into the women’s lives,” she continued. “We hadn’t gotten the same window into the women of ‘The Best Man.’”
Indeed, male egos rampaged through the films, in the form of grandstanding, trash-talking, territory-claiming and brawling, while the women’s roles mostly took a back seat. The series brings the ladies to the fore.
“I think we’ve done a great job of showing growth, maturing and being true to how life works, because it is complicated,” Long said.
Her character, Jordan, once primarily an embodiment of the “one that got away” type, ascends ever higher in her TV executive career while grasping for work-life balance. Hall’s Candace, who arrived to the franchise as a bachelor-party stripper and won Murch’s affections with her love of literature, adds graduate school to her already packed schedule as a mother and school administrator. And Lathan’s Robyn, Harper’s grounded, patient wife, gradually begins to emerge from his long shadow.
“It has been really synergistic in a weird way,” Lathan said of returning to the role. “The evolution of her growing her self-worth has been parallel to what’s been happening to me. She’s stepping into her power, and how that manifests is not necessarily expected.”
And then, there’s Shelby, the clear front-runner in the “Most Improved” category. Played by Melissa De Sousa, the character began as a snarky shrew who dominated the submissive Murch until she lost him to Candy near the end of the first film. She returned in the sequel as a scorned reality-TV drama queen, hellbent on stoking fires. The new Shelby is still brash, but she has more to offer than audacious one-liners.
“I had to fight for more because I was the least developed out of all of them,” De Sousa said. “People liked her, but they liked to hate her.”
She said she had asked Lee to flesh out the role for the series. “I said, ‘It’s really important that you show Shelby as a fully developed woman,’” she recalled telling him. “‘You have to show her heart.’” (Lee said he had already intended to do so.)
Beyond presenting the women with more depth, the series also travels outside the friendship bubble, giving its characters more to chew on than just who-slept-with-or-kept-secrets-from-whom melodrama.
The story bounces between the 2010s and the present (with episode titles cleverly referencing Black literature, including Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” and “An American Marriage” by Tayari Jones). The plot is studded with Covid-related business busts, a racial microaggression that snowballs into a run-in with the New York Police Department, gentrification woes, a #MeToo moment and a Black Lives Matter protest.
“It made it easier,” Diggs said of the more topical scenes. “It wasn’t like we had to go and do research to find out how we thought this character would feel, because it’s all very fresh.”
As the characters left their comfort zones, so too did Lee, who opted to share directing duties for a change. He directed four episodes, and Stacey Muhammad (“Queen Sugar”) and Charles Stone III (“black-ish”) took one each. The revered film and TV polymath Robert Townsend (“Hollywood Shuffle”) directed the two remaining episodes, bringing out the cast’s and crew’s inner fans. (“I’ve been in this business for a minute, so it’s great to be able to still feel star-struck,” Diggs said.)
While it all amounts to plenty of change for a beloved franchise, both onscreen and behind the scenes, Lee’s original vision remains intact. The goal has always been to depict the kind of people Lee knows in his own life — “upwardly-mobile, aspirational people who wanted to ‘make it.’” he said.
“But when you make it, guess what? Life is still there,” he continued. “When we get older, reality sneaks in — not just the big events like weddings and funerals but also those in-between things with career, family, your parents and kids.
“We wanted to deal with all of those things, but also have the eye candy and the nostalgia.”