When Lee was first approached to direct “Space Jam: A New Legacy,” a long-awaited follow-up starring LeBron James, he balked. “I didn’t think the basketball movie I wanted to make was ‘Space Jam,’" he said recently over coffee at a restaurant less than two miles from his alma mater, Georgetown University. “It certainly wasn’t the dream scenario.”
Lee, 51, who lives in New Rochelle, N.Y., with his wife and has three sons, has been a filmmaker for more than two decades. His first film, 1999′s “The Best Man,” has grown into a beloved franchise that includes the 2013 sequel “Best Man Holiday” and a forthcoming Peacock series that will reunite the original cast. But despite his self-assured debut and the crowd-pleasing comedies — “Undercover Brother” and “Roll Bounce,” among them —that followed, Lee’s work has often been placed into silos unfairly assigned to Black directors. His work on the raunchy 2017 comedy “Girls Trip,” which grossed more than $140 million on a reported $20 million budget, increased his under-the-radar profile. It’s no surprise that a blockbuster franchise came calling.
“Space Jam: A New Legacy,” which hits theaters and HBO Max on Friday, isn’t as wacky as the original, which incorporated Jordan’s surreal minor league baseball stint into its plot. (Jokes about James leaving Cleveland just don’t hit the same.) Though not a sequel, it adopts the basic template of its predecessor: LeBron and the Tunes team up for a high-stakes basketball game against a villainous Goon Squad, this time led by an evil algorithm known as Al G. Rhythm. Al (played by a committed Don Cheadle) takes advantage of a growing rift between LeBron and his son Dom (Cedric Joe), luring father and son into a digital network called the Warner 3000 serververse, where he plots to keep them forever.
This is where Lee’s decision to take on a Space Jam movie starts to make a lot more sense, despite Lee’s hesitation and the fact that he had never worked on an animated film. He zeroed in on the screenplay, which — as many a review will tell you — is credited to six writers. “I saw what they were trying to do with this father-son story at the core,” he said. And that’s where Lee thought he could help.
As a child, it hadn’t even occurred to Lee, born in Queens and raised in Brooklyn, that he could be a filmmaker. He was mystified by the film industry, then anchored by blockbusters like “Star Wars” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” “That’s what I thought of when I thought of movies,” Lee said.
That started to change in the early ’80s when his first cousin, Spike, moved into the basement of Lee’s parents’ home in Brooklyn while attending film school at New York University.
“To have somebody that I knew — somebody that was in my family, somebody Black — make movies … that didn’t compute,” Lee said. “But when he started to get notoriety and started to make his mark, I started to understand that it was possible.”
Lee also went to film school at NYU, after graduating from Georgetown with a bachelor’s in English and a fine arts minor. But his foundation in filmmaking came from working as a production assistant on several of Spike’s early films including “Girl 6” and, most extensively, “Malcolm X.”
Lee was comfortable directing actors (he had even wanted to be one, at one point) but being on his cousin’s sets introduced him to aspects of filmmaking he had overlooked: how to move the camera, how to frame a shot. Lee’s increasingly famous cousin was supportive, helping him sign with a talent agency and occasionally taking a look at his work — including an award-winning short Lee based on his years at a predominantly White preparatory school. (“Keep working, keep working,” Spike told him.)
Lee was 27 when he finished the screenplay for “The Best Man.” When he sent the draft to his cousin, Spike said: “This is the one.”
Even with an established filmmaker in his corner, Lee had to be strategic in pitching his first film. When he read about a forthcoming family drama with an all-Black cast, produced by Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds and his then-wife Tracy Edmonds, Lee saw an opening. By the time “Soul Food” hit theaters in the fall of 1997, he had “The Best Man” ready to go. “It just happened to be the right script at the right time,” Lee said.
The movie eventually landed at Universal. Spike agreed to produce “The Best Man” through his production company, 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks. Of all the things Lee learned from his cousin, he said, one of the most important things was to stay true to his vision — even if the more experienced filmmaker in the family disagreed with him. And they did disagree, on everything from who the lead actor should be to the right composer for the score.
But on the first day of production, Lee said, Spike showed up, shook his hand and wished him luck. “I never saw him again on set.”
“Just making the movie I wanted to make is Spike’s influence. I didn’t let anybody tell me what movie I was making,” Lee said. “I had a vision of what it needed to be. And that was always his thing: have a vision and make your movie.”
Balancing humor with heart has been a hallmark of Lee’s work since the beginning. And “The Best Man,” which made nearly $35 million on a roughly $9 million budget, established other tenets of his filmmaking approach. The ensemble cast included Nia Long, Taye Diggs, Morris Chestnut, Terrence Howard, Harold Perrineau and Sanaa Lathan — a refreshing mix of emerging and underappreciated actors, who portrayed characters Lee wasn’t used to seeing on screen: well-off professionals who just happened to be Black.
Lee made the movie during a heyday of sorts for all Black films, particularly rom-coms. Long had already starred in cult-favorite “Love Jones.” But “these were still coveted roles,” said Lee, who took yet another cue from his cousin — focusing not on marquee names but on the best actors for the parts.
Morris Chestnut was best known for starring in John Singleton’s gritty 1991 film “Boyz N the Hood” when he was tapped to play star running back Lance Sullivan, the groom in “The Best Man.” His character has a particularly emotional arc — tears stream down his face in the wedding scene — and the actor found those challenges appealing.
Chestnut said Lee’s directing style lends itself to deep character exploration. “He meets with each individual cast member before filming and we break down exactly what he’s expecting,” the actor said. “It’s a very smart thing to do as a director, because a lot of times once we’re in production, they don’t really have the time to do that.”
Chestnut said his role in the Best Man franchise “undoubtedly” opened him up to other roles — including as a leading man. He subsequently starred in “The Brothers,” alongside D.L. Hughley, Bill Bellamy and Shemar Moore, and followed that up with “Two Can Play That Game,” opposite Vivica A. Fox.
Regina Hall credits “The Best Man” with launching her career. Her small but memorable role as Candy, a stripper hired to dance at Lance’s bachelor party, marked her first appearance in a feature film. Hall was only given a few pages of the script, she said in an interview, but the film’s end set her up for a much bigger role in the sequel.
The franchise, now more than 20 years old, has a multigenerational fan base, Hall noted. “To be part of a Black film that really resonated with audiences and stands the test of time, it’s incredibly special.”
To date, Hall has worked with Lee more than any other director — having starred in “The Best Man” films, the 2016 “Barbershop” installment he directed and “Girls Trip,” in which she played the lead role. Hall said Lee is always open to feedback. On the R-rated “Girls Trip,” she would occasionally suggest that her character Ryan might use a well-placed expletive among friends. Lee “would be like, ‘Okay, if that’s what you want to say, like, gosh — really, y’all?’” Hall recalled with a laugh.
Lee started that relationship with his actors on his very first set. But “The Best Man” is more than a representation of Lee’s approach to storytelling. The film — and how it was received — also offers insight into some of the challenges he and other Black filmmakers have faced in the industry.
Lee said that when the film came out, “We thought, ‘Oh man, this movie’s going to be big’ — and it was big for a certain segment of the audience. But press and general audiences didn’t want to come see it. Or they were pigeonholing, like, ‘This is a romantic comedy for Black people.’”
“It was like, ‘That’s not the intention’. It was for everybody,” Lee said. “And foolishly, we all thought, ‘Oh, everybody’s going to see this movie.’ But they didn’t.”
Lee has battled such perceptions for most of his career. In 2013, when “Best Man Holiday” made more than $71 million off a $17 million budget, headlines centered on an “urban film” that had “over-performed” at the box office. Lee pushed back: “There is nothing urban about my movie,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “Seventy-five percent of it takes place in a mansion in the suburbs.”
“There’s a sense in my entire career that, like, ‘Oh, that’s less-than’ … ‘that’s for them,’” Lee said, paraphrasing but barely. “'I mean, you can’t possibly be as funny as Judd Apatow.'”
While efforts to make Hollywood and its productions more inclusive have helped bring attention to the issue, “it still goes on and it gets annoying,” he added. “But I’ve gotten to a place in my career and my life — I’m kind of like ‘whatever.’”
Industry titan Will Packer, who produced “Girls Trip” and “Night School,” said the undervaluing of Black films and talent is a topic he and Lee have discussed since meeting years ago at a conference.
“We’ve talked about the expectations of films that we’ve made aimed at Black audiences and how some Hollywood prognosticators don’t really know what to do with them,” Packer said.
Those outside of the entertainment industry might view box-office projections as just that: projections. But, Packer said, those projections inform studio analysts who make decisions on performance value, profit potential and other things that have real implications for filmmakers, including “how much the budget is going to be, how much I can pay my actors, how much I can put on the screen.”
As “Girls Trip” was heading into theaters, Universal announced that it had signed Lee to a first-look producing deal, nearly 18 years after the studio released his very first film. The deal has opened up opportunities for film and TV projects he might have otherwise been unable to tackle.
“I’ve needed support for a very long time,” he said. “I have a lot of ideas and a lot of things that go on pause — because I start to make a movie — and things that need development and need writers on them.”
Despite his initial stance on directing “A New Legacy,” Lee recognizes the milestone in helming a franchise with a $150 million budget. It was a challenge, Lee said, and a particularly daunting one since he replaced original director Terence Nance.
“If this had been my second movie, there’s no way I would have been able to handle it,” Lee said, noting that his leadership on set came down to “20 years of experience, working with actors, setting tone, knowing how to craft and land jokes.”
Early reviews for the film have mocked the movie’s copious use of Warner Bros. intellectual property, ranging from the DC Universe to “Mad Max” to “Casablanca.” But reviews have never really told the whole story when it comes to Lee’s films and how audiences will respond to them.
“I’m extremely proud of the movie. It’s certainly one of my coolest movies,” Lee said. “And I’m glad I’m able to make it for a massive audience.”