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‘The Best Man Holiday’: Universality that tugs at the heart

This image released by Universal Pictures shows, from left, Taye Diggs, Morris Chestnut, Harold Perrineau and Terrence Howard in a scene from “The Best Man Holiday.” (AP Photo/Universal Pictures, Michael Gibson)
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“The Best Man Holiday”, the anticipated sequel to Malcolm D. Lee’s 1999 film “The Best Man”, came close to beating out Thor for the number one spot in this past weekend’s box office sales, bringing in $30 million. And while critics were stunned by its success, much of the debate about the movie has focused on whether it should be characterized as a “black film” or “race-themed” movie.

While it’s refreshing to see brown faces on the big screen that are not slaves or a gun-toting cross-dresser, my support of this film transcends racial pride. “The Best Man Holiday” deals with the themes of masculinity, faith, loss and love in ways that have been leaving audiences – female and male – with lumps in their throats and tears in their eyes. I applaud the film for being able to touch people at an emotional core, reflecting experiences that bind us as a human family.

Both the original and sequel center on the fractured relationship between Lance (played by Morris Chestnut) and Harper (played by Taye Diggs). As the quintessential “Alpha male,” Lance portrays the difficulty that some men have with issues of pride, anger and forgiveness. Together, he and Harper struggle to be vulnerable towards one another in spite of their fears. It is powerful to watch their relationship so succinctly capture the challenges to healing in the aftermath of betrayal.

In an interview with Lee, I asked what he was hoping to get out of the storyline and character depictions. “There are flaws within our character,” he said. “There are likes; there are dislikes. We love; we hate. We have relationships. We hold grudges. We have the capacity for emotion and the capacity for forgiveness. These are things that everyone goes through – whether you are black, white, Asian, Latino. There’s a shared human experience.”

While it is noteworthy to point out that media portrayals of African American men as complex, three-dimensional depictions are rare, the emotional roller coaster ride Lance and Harper undergo together goes beyond their skin color, as Lee points out. It is about hyper-masculinity’s wrestling match with friendship. One calls for control while the other demands vulnerability.

In that same vein, faith and fear constantly clash in the lives of these characters. Lance’s life is governed by faith; it dictates his every move. His faith is what gives him the strength to keep fighting when the circumstances of life make him want to give up. It’s what helps him deal with loss and grief. Harper, on the other hand, operates out of fear. He has financial fears, as well as fears about fatherhood. Both of these men have known loss and pain intimately, but it’s their relationship or lack thereof to God that shapes their responses to life’s challenges.

Then there’s love. Not only the love that these two men have for one another but also the love that they have for the women in their lives. So much of what they do ties back to their desire to provide and care for their wives, which is refreshing to watch.

Their commitment and faithfulness is juxtaposed against the fears that career-obsessed Jordan (played by Nia Long) has about love. The challenge given to her by Lance’s wife Mia (played by Monica Calhoun) to be “open to love” is one that we are left with. The message is clear: love requires constant vulnerability and forgiveness. It brings forth great risks, but it is worth it in the end.

It is because of these universal themes that this film has done so well, leaving movie goers emotionally raw and exposed. Lee sought to highlight the value of “love of friends and family, shared memories and connectedness” in an age in which everything has been commercialized and so much of our focus is on material matters.

But, yet, that mission seems to be ignored by commentators again and again in their analysis of this film’s success.

When asked what he thinks about the “race-themed” characterization of the movie, Lee said, “‘Black film’ is not even a genre. If you put that out there, that means it’s about black people and for black people exclusively and that’s not the case. I’ve made it my mission to make movies starring African American actors and about the African American experience and put them in the mainstream. They’re very universal stories I’ve told – every movie I’ve done.”

Hopefully, “The Best Man Holiday” will help in broadening how African Americans are depicted in motion pictures. But I also hope that it moves us away from thinking that we must always see race before we see our commonality.

Read the full interview with director Malcolm D. Lee here.