Continuing the ersatz “Director’s Series” with a look at a filmmaker who I’ll freely admit I never paid much attention to, even though most of his directing career has taken place during the 16 years I’ve been writing about movies: Malcolm D. Lee. I’m starting to realize the error of my ways in not giving Lee proper credit earlier than now.
Granted, I actually liked Lee’s 2002 movie Undercover Brother quite a bit. It was based on a John Ridley-written comic strip and starred Eddie Griffin (whatever happened to that guy?), Chris Kattan and Denise Richards. It also starred a guy named Dave Chappelle a year before his Chappelle Show on Comedy Central turned him into a national superstar.
The movie did okay, about $39 million, which is more than Lee’s debut, a little 1999 movie called The Best Man, which would help launch or cement the careers of a number of actors including Taye Diggs, Morris Chestnutt, Nia Long, Terrence Howard and Sanaa Lathan. All those actors had already been working for a number of years but putting them together in a movie helped to start a wave of African-American-led comedies that helped build up audiences for when Tyler Perry transitioned from the stage to movies.
Lee followed Undercover Brotehr with a cool film that not too many people saw called Roll Bounce, set in the ‘70s around a roller skating rink, which made about half as much as Undercover Brother. Again, if you look at the talent involved with that movie from Nick Cannon to Brandon T. Jackson, as well as Meagan Good, Chi McBride and Mike Epps, you have to give Lee a lot more credit for the casts he’s put together.
There probably isn’t much to say about Lee’s next three films — Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins with Martin Lawrence. Soul Men with Samuel L. Jackson and the late Bernie Mac and Scary Movie 5, which killed off that Wayans family franchise for good. Although Lee wrote Welcome Home, it just didn’t receive very much attention at the time.
Then came the movie that would elevate Lee’s status, and it meant going back to the roots of his very first movie The Best Man. I never actually saw the 2013 sequel The Best Man Holiday, possibly because I still haven’t seen The Best Man, but also the way a friend of mine described it to me made it sound like I wouldn’t like it very much. Either way, Best Man Holiday changed a lot of things for Lee, first of all reuniting him with Universal, who released Lee’s earlier films, but it also became his highest grossing hit, opening with $30 million or 88% of what the original movie made theatrically.
I did see last year’s Barbershop: The Next Cut, and without having seen a single other Barbershop movie, I was really impressed by how Lee was able to manage so many different comedic actors to create the most laughs without the overall story getting bogged down by all the comedic subplots.
Of course, that brings us to the summer’s big hit Girls Trip, which grossed $115 million and made it clear that black women continue to be an underserved market with Tyler Perry making fewer movies than he used to. (It’s good to note that only one of Perry’s films, Madea Goes to Jail, has come even close to that $100 million benchmark.) The movie had a number of already successful female actors like Queen Latifah and Jada Pinkett Smith, but the real breakout of the film has to be Tiffany Haddish, who has been acting for over a decade but never got a break-out role quite like the unforgettable Dina. A few weeks back, Haddish even hosted Saturday Night Live, so Girls Trip once again proves Lee (and producer Will Packer, of course) knows how to find talent and use them to their best abilities.
It kind of sucks to think Lee might have been ghetto-ized as a filmmaker, because of his decision to direct so many “urban films.” Obviously, he’s very good at putting together these great ensemble casts that add up to some of the biggest laughs. As good as Barbership: The Next Cut was, Girls Trip is very much a crossover hit that’s appealed to middle-aged white guys as much as its target audience of African-American women. That’s quite an achievement in itself, and the fact it’s Lee’s second movie to open over $30 million is just cake.
When you think of how hard it is to sell critics on comedy, Lee’s last three films have been deemed Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, as well as his first three films, and making comedies that critics enjoy is another huge achievement.
Lee’s next movie is the comedy Night School, scheduled for release by Universal next September. It reteams him with Girls Night producer Will Packer and Tiffany Haddish, who might be one of the few funny women who can go toe-to-toe with the film’s star Kevin Hart. It’s hard to say how many of Haddish’s Girls Trip fans will give Night School a look, but being able to direct movies specifically for urban audiences that are able to cross over to others is also quite commendable.
While Will Packer and Universal should be keeping Lee busy for a while, it just seems like a matter of time before he’s hired for a big franchise like a Fast and Furious movie (if Universal wants to keep Lee in the family) or maybe even a superhero movie. The thing is that Lee knows how to sell comedy, and that’s so essential to moviemaking these days since audiences seem to be driven to films that are more fun and entertaining.
It will be interesting to see what Lee does after finishing up Night School. He’s already been writing The Best Man Wedding, which should end that series on a highnote, but Universal hasn’t placed it on the schedule and who knows if we’ll see that after Night School or further down the line. It certainly seems like Lee has built up a lot of cred in the business so that he can probably branch away from straight comedies, if he so chooses.
Edward Douglas | East Coast Editor