After two decades spent making movies, including last year’s record-
breaking “Girls Trip,” Malcolm D. Lee wishes he could stop paying his dues.
Director Malcolm D. Lee sits second-row center in a darkened editing room at Warner Bros. Sound in midtown Manhattan. He’s in cool-dad uniform — straight-leg jeans and a soft-looking gray henley — and tooling around on his MacBook while the final few scenes of Night School, the movie he’s working on, play in the background. The last 12 minutes or so of the film have to accomplish a lot: a comedic montage, a spotlight moment for last year’s breakout star Tiffany Haddish, an emotional resolution, a triumphant speech that segues into a triumphant dance-off. Now it’s down to the minutiae of making it work — sound. If there’s a weird breath or a background reaction that’s too loud, there goes the carefully considered comedic timing.
Lee turns on a desk lamp, and a soft spotlight shines down on his notepad. He picks up a silver pen, holds it just over the paper, and waits. The tape rolls. We make it through most of the scenes up until a three-second snippet of OutKast’s “Hey Ya!” comes in. It came in too loud. We stop. Lee gives firm but friendly directions in a clear and slightly nasal voice. “A music cue steps on Hart’s last line,” he tells one of the editors. I hadn’t even noticed. The tape is rolled back. The tape rolls again. The three-second snip of “Hey Ya!” comes in. We stop. Tape rolled back, tape rolls, “Hey Ya!” again. One more time. Two more times. And one more time, just in case “Hey Ya!” hasn’t forever burrowed into the brains of all eight people in the room. Then, the last time, I laugh in a place I hadn’t laughed before. He nods and instructs the engineers to go to an earlier scene.
Lee almost didn’t take on Night School, a Kevin Hart/Tiffany Haddish comedy about a ragtag crew of adults preparing for the GED. It comes out in September, which means a grueling summer of work. Lee was coming down off the success of Girls Trip, so when producer and frequent collaborator Will Packer (Girls Trip, Ride Along, Think Like a Man) brought him the script, he wanted to say no. “I was tired. The whole year was exhausting. The script was not in great shape. I was like, I really don’t want to work this hard.” But Lee also saw a strategic move — Night School is distributed by Universal Studios, the studio that put out Lee’s other movies, including Girls Trip. With Night School came a first-look deal with the studio, which includes film and TV projects, something he’s always wanted to do.
“Universal trusts me now. They value my opinion,” Lee explains. “That’s meaningful. I’ve never had a home in TV,” he says, pausing. “I’ve never had a home in movies, to be quite honest.”
“How many movies have you made?”
“This is number ten,” Lee says.
“Well … happy anniversary,” I offer.
“Thanks,” he responds with a dry laugh.
It’s wild to think that over the course of a 20-year career, Lee, 48, is just now feeling at home in his industry. He wrote and directed his first major studio film (with Universal) in 1999. The Best Man is an ensemble film about upper-class black friends in the days leading up to a wedding. It’s long been considered a classic — a standout example of the kind of movie about black people that used to get made all the time. The Best Man gave audiences a glimpse of the inner lives and loves of a group of educated, affluent black people and a chance to ogle Taye Diggs’s abs.
Since then, Lee’s been involved with major studio movies with familiar names, but you probably didn’t know who was responsible for them. Ones with all-black casts that used to play regularly on Saturday-afternoon movie marathons on TBS or USA: Undercover Brother; Roll Bounce; the sequel to his first film, The Best Man Holiday; and Welcome Home, Roscoe Jenkins. But when Lee looks back at his own career before Girls Trip, he doesn’t see a string of hits. “Most of my movies, they’ve been doubles. Singles, OK?” Lee says. “Girls Trip was a home run. Maybe even a grand slam.”
By every criteria, Girls Trip — about four female friends who reunite in New Orleans for Essence Festival — was an undeniable success. Lee directed the script by Kenya Barris and Tracy Oliver. The female-led, raucous (as is the current trend) comedy came out last summer when no other comedies were box-office hits (including the “white” version of Girls Trip, Rough Night, which made only $8 million on opening night versus Girls Trip’s $31.2 million). Some of it was timing — culturally, we needed a big laugh during the summer of 2017. Some of it was the cast of underused actresses: Jada Pinkett Smith, Queen Latifah, Regina Hall. Some of it was Tiffany Haddish. Lee was responsible for her casting, and, as Haddish puts it, he gave her space to play. “Before we started filming, he had a meeting with me,” Haddish tells me over the phone. “I was nervous, and he sat me down, and I asked him, ‘Why did you hire me?’ And he said, ‘I watched the tape, and every time you made me laugh. I knew what was coming, and it still made me laugh. I knew that I could work with you.’ ”
A lot of the movie’s success also had to do with a demand for representation from female and African American audiences. It celebrated Black Girl Magic, it celebrated friendship, it celebrated sisterhood at a time when people were sick to death of those things not being celebrated on big screens.
It made oodles of money: It was the first comedy of 2017 to earn more than $100 million and the first movie that was written by, produced by, and starring black people to do so. Girls Trip made more money than any Tyler Perry movie. “It’s kind of always been my intention and goal, since deciding to want to be a filmmaker, to make so-called ‘black movies,’ African American movies, mainstream,” Lee says, kicking his black Nike-clad heels up onto the desk as the room empties out. It’s time for a union-designated lunch break.
Lee puts his hands behind his head and leans back in his chair in the eternal insouciant repose of confident men; except for him, that’s not entirely the case. “Am I surprised? I don’t know. Somewhat,” he says before reiterating, “but it’s been my expectation to get there.”
So many parts of Lee’s upbringing will feel familiar to anyone who has watched and loved and related to The Best Man. He grew up in brownstone Brooklyn before gentrification battles reached Portlandia-sketch levels. His mother was a medical records administrator; his father, a schoolteacher whom Lee describes as a “race man.” He wore dashikis and played his son jazz and records of Malcolm X’s speeches. “Then he sent me to this lily-white prep school. It was a thing, but I made it through,” Lee says. In junior high, he was the only black male in his class of 35 kids; in high school, he was the only one among 55 kids, he recalls. “But I wasn’t isolated. I could relate to all kinds of white folks. I had a desire to be liked and a desire to be diplomatic,” he says of a childhood where he hung out with jocks and nerds and at people’s country homes.
While he was a teen, his cousin Spike — yes, Spike Lee — came to live with his family and attend film school. It was the first time Lee recognized that “somebody black” was going to make movies, and it made Lee want to make movies, too. He started working with Spike whenever he could.
Lee then went to Georgetown, where he found a group of black male friends that he still plays basketball with today. The Best Man was born out of those relationships that were so meaningful after being the only black male in his class for eight years. He wrote a screenplay called Morningside Prep, loosely based on his own experiences in high school. He got into the Disney Screenwriting Program, then went on to NYU for film school. During all of this, he worked closely with Spike, first as a production assistant on Malcolm X while taking a year off from Georgetown, then as an assistant on Clockers while in film school, and then as a director trainee on Girl 6.
There was a time on the set of Girl 6 that Lee calls one of his proudest moments. It all had to do with one shot — a mythical shot. “[Spike] was setting up a shot. Theresa Randle and Isaiah Washington were kissing, and all these phones were dropping out of the sky. And I said, ‘You’re going to do a longer lens on that, right?’ At first the response was ‘Naw,’ and then Spike changed his mind. Did the shot. And I thought, I do have something to contribute.”
Eventually, Lee felt that there wasn’t much more he could contribute to Spike’s films and says the feeling was mutual. Spike was gearing up to do He Got Game, and Lee asked for a job. “He was like, ‘Naw,’ ” Lee says. “I was hurt. But I understood.”
Working with Spike and absorbing the differences between them shaped how Lee perceived his own style. Spike, Lee diagnoses, has never been afraid to say what he thinks and feels. “He wants to call people out, and I’m like, Maybe let me ingratiate myself first.” In some ways, at least from my film-going standpoint, the difference between the movies Lee went on to make and the ones his cousin continues to make mirrors what have historically been the two types of accepted “black films” in Hollywood: lower-budget comedies (Girls Trip cost only $19 million) and highly sociopolitical race-driven films. Now, with critically and commercially successful movies like Moonlight, Black Panther, Get Out, and Netflix’s Strong Black Lead campaign — a push to make and celebrate films by black writers and starring black performers — the categories are expanding.
“I don’t focus on race so much, but I’ve definitely focused on black people,” Lee says. “And what makes us unique and what makes us special. And everything that I love about black people and some things that I don’t love about black people.”
So Lee set out, ready to make movies with his own Malcolm D. Lee signature: “life movies with a lot of laughs and some tears.” They also often include a dance sequence, he jokes (Roll Bounce has a great one). There was a movie he’d written in film school, Feast and Famine, that he describes as a “great New York love story inspired by Rob Reiner, Nora Ephron, and Woody Allen” (he knows it’s complicated to like Allen now). Lee wanted to make it as a feature, so he decided to write something commercial to get it sold. He moved into his parents’ basement and wrote the screenplay for The Best Man. “I was kind of mercenary about how I approached it,” he admits. He pulled out everything he learned from his Screenwriter 101 book: three-act structures, set pieces. He made it a wedding movie because they do well in the market, and there hadn’t been a black wedding movie at that point. He watched Diner and The Big Chill as inspiration.
Spike read the script and told him, “This is it.” When The Best Man was released, he gave Lee a framed poster of the all-black movie God’s Step Children — a divisive 1938 film about a light-skinned woman who denounces her own race — that now hangs in his office.
“Let me give you the nickel tour,” Lee says when I arrive at his Bronx office a few days later. He bought the space after The Best Man and refurbished it after Girls Trip. Light is streaming in through the big, clean windows, like God’s own director of photography. Jazz is playing on a music snob’s stereo system.
The two-room space is like a Malcolm D. Lee retrospective. His whole career — past, present, future — hangs on the walls. He shows me his signed posters; a framed Ebony article titled, “The Black Pack,” featuring the cast of The Best Man Holiday; and directors slates from all the films he’s worked on. On another wall hang two large whiteboards of upcoming projects, with statuses of each written in neat block script. That first screenplay, Feast and Famine, is still on the board, in progress, I notice, with a little note that reads, “Send to Donald Glover.”
Lee settles onto a brown leather pouf in the office’s sitting area. “You make a movie like The Best Man,” he says, picking up the conversation from where we left off in the studio, “and … everybody wants to talk to you.” But Lee wasn’t quite sure what he wanted to do next. “I wanted to write my own stuff and be a writer-director, be an auteur,” he says.
He took Undercover Brother.
“They always say, ‘One for me, one for you,’ ” he shrugs. It was a spoof of blaxploitation films of the 1970s, starring Eddie Griffin and Chris Kattan, long on slapsticky humor and broad characters. I remember seeing it as a teen and laughing hysterically at a joke about white people and mayonnaise. When Lee made it, he was told he was making a movie for 13-year-olds. “It could have been a minstrel show in the wrong person’s hands. But I tried to make it feel grounded.”
For his next project, Lee turned down Hitch because it would have “broken me,” he says. “There were huge studio expectations. There was a lot of pressure that I didn’t want to deal with at the time.” Instead, he decided to direct the Bow Wow comedy Roll Bounce in 2004. It was supposed to be a $100 million movie for Fox Searchlight, Lee explains. But the studio pushed it to a September release date when all the kids were in school. There was no marketing budget. It made only around $17 million at the box office and received lukewarm reviews.
“I feel like most of the movies I’ve made — Undercover Brother, Best Man, Roscoe, Best Man Holiday, Barbershop — they all were movies that I would say were crowd-pleasing movies,” he says. “If marketed correctly, or marketed to the right audience and given the right release date, they would be big hits. The people that were with me were saying that as well.”
As he runs through his filmography like an IRL IMDB page, Lee has reasons for why each one didn’t reach commercial success. He talks rapidly, pointing at the corresponding movie poster as he goes. Roll Bounce, the September release. Next was Welcome Home, Roscoe Jenkins starring Martin Lawrence that was stymied by a “terrible title.” Soul Men: Samuel L. Jackson was difficult to work with — “he’s harder on black directors” — and “nobody gave a shit about two old R&B singers.”
Scary Movie 5? “It was just a bad movie. Believe me. Don’t bother going to see that movie. Or renting it, or anything. It’s not worth your time,” he groans. “I needed work!”
He hadn’t made a movie in the three years after Soul Men, so when Bob Weinstein called him up about Scary Movie 5 and said, “You know black. And there’s a number of things in the movie that will require that,” Lee said OK. On set, it turned out he was really just a backseat director. The producer, he says, interfered constantly. Lee didn’t even finish editing the film. Now the Scary Movie poster hangs on his wall of shame, across from the bathroom, next to a poster of Bill Cosby.
For years there was a belief in Hollywood that movies led by all-black casts didn’t sell overseas. “Harvey Weinstein, in all his wisdom, said, ‘These movies are a bad model. They can’t make money.’ And the studio’s thing was, We can get Morris Chestnut to be in Fast and Furious and we can get Terrence Howard to do such and such, and we’ll still get a black audience,” Lee says, explaining the three-year dry spell leading up to Scary Movie 5. It was only six years ago that Tyler Perry wrote a letter on his website begging Hollywood executives to make more films with all-black casts to save these types of movies from going extinct. Because they sort of had. Gone were movies like Soul Food and Two Can Play That Game and Friday. The kinds of projects Lee hung his hat on — funny and thoroughly black. Instead, black actors like Chestnut and Howard, people Lee had worked with, were cast in “white” movies in order to attract a black audience, he says.
Lee took what he could get, but even he had limits. He was offered a Heaven Can Wait remake, “where a black guy dies and is sent back to earth to teach an all-white town how to sing gospel,” he says with an eye-roll. “It was frustrating because everyone was always talking about brands. So I was thinking, Well, what’s my brand? My brand is The Best Man.” He needed to get back to that.
While still working on Scary Movie 5 in 2011, he became determined to make a sequel to The Best Man to recapture the magic of that first movie but also to create something that was “a little more challenging. Something that’s gonna deal with a little more deeper life stuff,” he says. “To let people know that I wasn’t just a one-trick pony.”
So he planned a dinner with the whole cast: Chestnut, Diggs, Howard, Sanaa Lathan, Nia Long, Harold Perrineau, Regina Hall. Lee booked a table for ten at Boa, a steak restaurant he didn’t realize was right below the Soho House (a tale of two Hollywoods), and hired a photographer to come take pictures and then leak them. He needed buzz.
Everyone was on board — none of the actors had steady work, either. But Lee read the market and said they had to wait till Jumping the Broom came out, another comedy with an all-black cast (Paula Patton and Angela Bassett) and a wedding plot. The movie made only $37.7 million, but it was enough for Universal to have some confidence in the profitability of The Best Man Holiday. “I told [the cast], ‘If we do this, nobody’s getting paid what they’re worth. You got to think about this as an indie movie with studio financing.’ ” They all agreed.
The movie reunited the original cast 15 years after when the first movie left off. They get back together over the holidays, and though they’ve drifted apart, all the old romances and rivalries remain. The movie was a modest success ($72.8 million), which Lee attributes to the fact that it premiered on the weekend before Thor opened. But even if the numbers weren’t there, Lee feels the movie righted the industry. “People realized, OK, these movies do make money.”
At first it seemed the studio wanted to make a third — Lee thinks it will be the best one, “the Malcolm Lee movie we’d expect.” But they won’t pay. It’s been delayed indefinitely. “I don’t feel at this point that I should have to struggle. I kind of paid my dues.”
When The Best Man Holiday came out, Lee remembers one review from USA Today. “They called it a ‘race-themed movie,’ he says in frustration. He hates that term. Race isn’t a theme or a genre. “There was nothing race-themed about this movie at all! I’m doing movies about people. About relationships. Do they happen to have black skin? Yeah. It’s a misnomer.”
Lee’s attempt to distance himself from a made-up genre is a little complicated but understandable. Because black comedies are often made on smaller budgets, in shorter time, they are perceived as lower quality — they are dismissed. As Will Packer, producer of Girls Trip and Night School, explains, “You don’t have the mainstream marketing push often or the mainstream resources, because Hollywood tends to relegate those types of movies to the niche. I truly believe that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
With Girls Trip, there are new questions, new worries: Why didn’t Tiffany Haddish get the same nominations as Melissa McCarthy for Bridesmaids? Why isn’t Lee on the same list of prominent comedic writers and directors like Judd Apatow? “Part of it is that you’re talking about guys that have done bigger box office globally, and so they should be lauded and acclaimed for that,” says Packer. “But given the budgets that Malcolm Lee has been working with, given the profit margins of his films, I think he should be talked about in a similar breath.”
It’s something that Lee has felt himself. “I don’t think I get put in that same category as other comedy filmmakers,” he says. “I got great reviews on Best Man Holiday, great on Barbershop, great on Girls Trip, so I can’t really complain. But there’s a little bit of a disconnect that I feel like, Put me in that category, too,” he says, patting his chest. “Because I’m getting laughs.”
Lee sighs, resigned. “But you just don’t ever … you just don’t ever know. So again, you do Night School, because, hey, you never know what this movie’s going to do. You have to get your next job. Have to store your acorns.”
Tracy Oliver, who co-wrote Girls Trip and is the showrunner of the TV adaptation of The First Wives Club, recognizes the pattern, she tells me via email: “Unfortunately, there’s still a lot of uphill battles that creators of color face. Every success, like Girls Trip, is still considered the exception to the rule, so you’re constantly having to prove yourself to mostly white male executives that just don’t get it.”
For now, Lee has work — lots of it. He has Night School. He has TV to work on. There’s another big project he can’t talk about. He wants to try something other than comedy, eventually, like political or adventure movies, or period pieces, or a stunt-driven movie, or a comic book movie, or an intimate drama, or a character study. But whatever he does, he wants to feel like he’s broken through.
“I’ve had a string of number twos. I’ve been killing it on number two. Best Man Holiday, Barbershop — all number two. But people are paying attention. Let’s see what happens with this,” he gestures to the screen.
Back in the studio, everyone comes streaming in after the lunch hour. Lee takes his feet off the table and spins his chair toward the screen. He drains his water bottle, then shoots it into a garbage can a good 10 feet away. He misses. Someone scoops it up, hands it back to him, and he shoots again.