The broad, elegant man seated on the gray velour loveseat in the lobby of the Four Seasons Hotel--one leg casually draped over the other, an arm confidently embracing the ridge of the couch--may be the least angry man in Hollywood.
He's Malcolm Lee, 29, cousin of filmmaker Spike Lee (probably one of the most angry men in moviedom), and he has made the kind of movie that is hard to come by these days--a mainstream, upbeat, human film about a bunch of people who just happen to be African American.
"The Best Man," a first feature written and directed by Lee, stars a group of impossibly beautiful twentysomething actors as former college pals getting together for a wedding. Long-gone sexual tensions reemerge and current-day romantic complications arise when the eight pals reassemble, which has led more than one reviewer to dub the film a "Big Chill" for African American audiences. (And yes, of course, there's a soundtrack: Stevie Wonder, Bob Marley, Lauryn Hill, Me'shell NdegeOcello, you get the picture.)
In this film black people drive nice cars. Wear beautiful clothes. Have outrageously successful careers, lonely personal lives, romantic frustrations. They're religious, they're profane. They speak in full, college-educated sentences and homey slang.
But Malcolm? (As in 'X'?) Lee? (As in Spike?) Where's the politics? Where's the anger?
He smiles, kindly, composed and--may we say--sexy as he reflects on the question. Lee wears a tailored brown sport coat, square glasses and a big diamond stud in one ear. Everything about him bespeaks confidence.
Patiently, he explains that he has different priorities. "What I set out to do was create characters that were interesting, multilayered characters and put them in a world where there would be tension," he says as he sips some bubbly water. "People want to see good-looking people on screen. They want to see educated, intelligent people who have careers, not jobs, who can get married, who have issues with men."
You see, Lee says, he's very interested in the black experience. Just a different black experience than audiences usually see.
"You rarely see black men bond on screen, unless it's some violent action pictures," he continues. "I just wanted my characters to tell a story that was universal, where it didn't matter if you were black."
He says: "It's important to make full black male characters, because we've been . . . vilified in the media, not only in Hollywood and television, but by ourselves--that we're violent, misogynists, criminal, negative low-lifes who don't want to work. Maybe plenty are--but it's not reality. It's so ingrained in the American psyche that even black people think they have to be a 'nigger' or a 'nigga,' or a bitch or a whore to be understood as 'black.' "
Lee didn't set out to make a film about black normalcy. "The Best Man" is more simply a reflection of his own experiences, refracted through a writer's prism.
He grew up in Crown Heights, a Brooklyn suburb divided between African Americans and Hasidic Jews, his father a music teacher, his mother an administrator in the medical industry.
But Lee, an exceedingly focused kid, spent most of his childhood at predominantly white preparatory schools. He was smart, played three different sports and excelled in theater and drawing. He says simply, "I was a good student." From fifth to eighth grade Lee attended a snobby private school on the Upper East Side of Manhattan (on scholarship), and in ninth grade he transferred to another elite prep school in Brooklyn Heights. In both places he was the only black male in his class, and he spent afternoons hanging out with rich friends on Park Avenue, frequently taking holidays with them in the Caribbean, in Aspen, places his family could never afford.
But until puberty hit and dating became an issue, he never thought about it much. "My parents kept reminding me I was black," he says, with no intended irony. "It was easy to be seduced by the white people I was around. My parents constantly told me, 'You can't [expletive] around like your white counterparts. Their parents have money.' " Pause. "They just wanted to keep me aware that there's a difference. But I don't think my friends thought of me as 'black' per se."
If occasionally Lee would feel like an outsider--he remembers attending a birthday party on Park Avenue at age 12 where "Blazing Saddles" was shown and the kids laughed uproariously through repeated references to the N-word; he walked out of the room crying--for the most part he felt remarkably grounded, normal and accepted. And lucky. Still, when it came time to choose a university--Columbia, University of Pennsylvania and Emory came calling--he strongly considered a black college. Think of all the women!
In the end, he says, he chose Georgetown, where he could play intramural basketball and learn an appreciation "for the beauty of black women," of whom he didn't see much during high school. (He's now engaged to marry a teacher, Camilla Banks.) He went on to NYU Film School, took a year-long fellowship in screenwriting at Disney but also learned plenty from assisting his cousin Spike as production assistant, editor and assistant director.
But his concerns could not be more different from those of his political--and taboo-breaking--cousin, who is a producer on "The Best Man." Malcolm Lee wrote five scripts before this one, and they all seem to deal with the upper-middle-class black experience. There's "Morningside Prep," about being a lone African American student at a prep school, there's another script called "GEMS," which stands for Georgetown Ebony Man--it's about six black guys in a largely white university. One senses a trend here.
In point of fact, while Lee admires his cousin, he feels closer in spirit to the soul-searching angst of Woody Allen. Stories of relationships and personal struggle are the sort he wants to tell. He grew up on the films of John Hughes--"Sixteen Candles" and "The Breakfast Club"--and remembers thinking, "You see that black kid in the background? What's that kid's story? That's me." And then he thought, "It will probably be me who'll tell it."
But don't think that Lee just sailed into Hollywood on the happy ship of hard work and education. Nope. Two years ago he was 27, with five scripts in the bag and not a green light in sight.
In desperation, he sat down to write something that would sell. He had another script he wanted to direct and thought he could raise some cash by writing--what's not to like?--a wedding picture. It was originally titled "My Homeboy's Wedding" and set in the District; the title was changed to something less black-specific, and D.C. was swapped for Manhattan.
But halfway through the project, Lee became rather attached to his characters and decided he wanted to direct it. That's when he found it was nice to have family in the business. Spike took the script to Columbia, then Universal, which asked for some changes. Lee obliged, and--voila!--the studio gave him $9 million to film it.
He earned a reputation at the studio as a pro, and the admiration of his cast as a leader. "He was smart, intuitive and collaborative," says Universal chief Ron Meyer, about as high a compliment as you get from a studio executive.
Says Nia Long, who plays an ambitious TV producer with the hots for an old college near-flame, Taye Diggs: "Malcolm gave me the confidence to play the moments, to really go there with the comedy."
But the shoot of the film, Long confides, really did feel like a celebration. "There have not been a lot of African American films in this situation. Malcolm is to be commended. . . . He lets us play a world that we really live in, but that we don't get to portray on screen."
Look, says Lee, "these characters are as black as any people in the world. But they have no confusion about who they are. They want the best things in life." He smiles again, that smart, mature, insightful regard that inspires confidence. "It's the world I live in. It's the world I aspire to be in."