From the mid-1990s to somewhere around 2006, Hollywood bankrolled a number of romantic entertainments targeted to — though not made exclusively for — black audiences. Pictures like Love Jones, Brown Sugar, How Stella Got Her Groove Back and Something New provided a showcase for actors of color, a refreshing change from the usual practice of airlifting the occasional black actor — wisecracking sidekick alert! — into an otherwise all-white-people action movie or thriller.
Even though those movies weren't always romantic comedies in the strictest sense, they were still more appealing than most of the "white" romantic comedies of the day. Instead of giving us Meg Ryan or Kate Hudson desperately trying to appear average and pathetic, the "black" comedies were populated by attractive people wearing beautiful clothes and leading interesting, complicated lives. These comedies of manners were bold and vibrant, and like the romantic comedies of the '30s, they weren't afraid of aspirational glamour. Why settle for the sad vision of Sandra Bullock in a baggy sweater, sniffling into a tissue, when you could be watching Nia Long stride into the sleek corner office — one that she'd earned — wearing a drapey silk pantsuit?
And then, even though they made good money and filled a crucial niche, these movies disappeared almost as mysteriously as they had arrived — strangely enough, just before we got it together to elect our first black president — leaving the field wide open for Tyler Perry's broader brand of humor and Madea's even broader bosom. And so it's only now that we're getting a sequel to one of the most exuberant and astute black ensemble comedies, Malcolm D. Lee's 1999 The Best Man.
The Best Man Holiday picks up 14 years after The Best Man left off, and an early montage gets newcomers quickly up to speed on the four male characters introduced the first time around, as well as their significant others, exes or would-be exes. Harper, the once-successful author played by Taye Diggs, has fallen on hard times: Writer's block has hit him hard. His agent (a wily John Michael Higgins), trying to coax another hot book out of him, explains bluntly why the first was such a success: "It was funny, sexy, smart." Then comes the killer kicker: "And not just black-people smart."
It doesn't help that Harper and his wife (Sanaa Lathan) are expecting their first child after a long fertility struggle. Plus, it's Christmas time, and they've been invited to spend a holiday weekend with his former best friend, upstanding pro football player Lance (Morris Chestnut), his sweet, self-sacrificing wife (Monica Calhoun), and their four — count 'em! — beautiful and well-behaved children. Diggs and Chestnut's characters have had something of a falling-out — if you saw The Best Man, you know why — but their other pals, also invited for this weekend of revelry and revelations, have problems of their own: Long, Harold Perrineau, Regina Hall, Melissa De Sousa and the irrepressible Terrence Howard all reprise the roles they played in the earlier film. And, miraculously, most of them look as if only two or three years have passed rather than 14.
If you haven't seen The Best Man, you may well be thinking, Is this a movie or a soap opera? Actually, unapologetically, it's a little of both. Lee — who again wrote the script — throws in everything he can grab: love, sex, money, jealousy, interracial romance, mortal illness, childbirth; there's even a dance number. Lee can't quite juggle it all, and the picture drags a bit through its last third. All that free-floating melodrama, even tempered by the occasional well-placed zinger, takes its toll.
Then again, maybe Lee — cousin of Spike, incidentally — is just making up for lost time. A lot can happen in 14 years, but what hasn't changed is Lee's tendency toward inclusiveness. (He recently made an entry in the past-its-sell-by-date Scary Movie franchise, but he also directed the sly, marvelous 2002 blaxploitation spoof Undercover Brother.) The Best Man Holiday isn't a piece of social realism. And yet, like the dazzling, canny comedy of Key and Peele, it acknowledges that it's futile to speak of a single black experience; at this point in America, we're all a mess of experiences. When the guys in The Best Man Holiday break away from the women for a turn at the pool table, they segue into a debate about which girlfriend or wife, past or present, has proved best at "rocking the mike." (They're not talking about karaoke.) The women, left on their own, are actually bawdier.
We've seen this kind of thing thousands of times before, with white characters as well as black ones, which is probably the point. Lee seems less interested in capturing how people of color talk than in capturing how people talk. He coaxes us to step in and listen, and the very casualness of his invitation is the key to the joyousness of The Best Man Holiday, flaws be damned. In one of the finest sequences, the men rib Long's boyfriend, a white guy (Eddie Cibrian), only to recognize that he's extremely good to and for her. They posture as big men, and he shames them a little with his lack of judgment about Long's romantic or sexual past. They've caught themselves being stereotypes, and it's all good, because who isn't a stereotype? But really, they'd rather be better men. Maybe we're getting that much closer to being one nation under a groove.