When Malcolm D. Lee was a youngster, he didn’t really know if being a filmmaker was possible. At that point, no one in his family was in the business and what constituted “film” to him were massive feats like “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” and “Star Wars” — and none of those were made by black people.
Then he watched his cousin Spike go from living in his parents’ basement to becoming one of the most talked about directors in the industry with films like “She’s Gotta Have It,” “School Daze” and “Do the Right Thing.”
By the time the younger Lee was 19, it was decided. He too would make movies. But his cousin gave him an important directive that truly stuck with Malcolm.
“Make film,” Spike would constantly say, signing a poster or a book as he became more famous. “Make black film.”
And so Malcolm did, and has been doing so since 1999’s “The Best Man.” In the 18 years that have passed, he’s directed seven additional films, most with predominantly black casts. His ninth picture, “Girls Trip” in theaters Friday, continues this trend. And this time, it’s an ode to black girl magic.
“The films that I've done do appeal to black women,” he said, “but here's an opportunity for black women to tell the story — for them to be the leads and tell it the way they want to see it, the way they see themselves.”
We wanted the ultra bougie and the super ratchet.
— Will Packer
“Girls Trip” follows four best friends from college reuniting after some time apart for a trip to the Essence Music Festival in New Orleans. Starring Queen Latifah, Jada Pinkett Smith, Regina Hall and Tiffany Haddish — who deserves a Melissa McCarthy-style breakout for her hilarious antics in the film — the picture, perhaps for the first time, puts four black women at the center of a buddy comedy. What results is a laugh-out-loud good time projected to be the most successful comedy of the summer.
The film was the brainchild of mega producer Will Packer of the “Ride Along” franchise and “Straight Outta Compton.” Inspired by the types of movies, “usually with white guys — they go off and have a fun trip and behave really badly,” he said, he thought about staging something similar “with some chocolate girls,” actresses like Regina Hall, whom he had worked with in “About Last Night” and the “Think Like a Man” movies.
After running the idea by Hall, who thought it sounded “fun,” he approached Lee shortly after the “Best Man” sequel “The Best Man Holiday” premiered in 2013. (Hall also starred in “Best Man Holiday,” a box office “surprise” that debuted in second place behind the “Thor” sequel and went on to make more than $70 million in the U.S.)
“I loved what he had done with ‘Best Man Holiday’s’ ensemble cast and the strong female characters,” Packer said, thinking this would be a great chance to finally collaborate. “And he had broad audience appeal.”
Lee “loved” the idea, re-teaming with “black-ish” showrunner Kenya Barris and “Survivor's Remorse” writer Tracy Oliver, who together penned his 2016 flick “Barbershop: The Next Cut.”
Then it came time to cast. Both men wanted Hall at the center of the ensemble.
“I was like, ‘Yo, she's ready to be a leading lady. She's ready to play a lead in a movie, and she's got incredible range,’” Lee said. “I told the studio, and [Packer] convinced them that she's perfect for this role.”
They were able to nab Latifah and Pinkett Smith, the duo’s first on-screen pairing in 20 years since 1996’s “Set it Off,” purely out of the two’s shared interest in the script. They said “yes” as a pair.
Rounding out the cast is Haddish, an up-and-coming comedian who Lee, Packer and Packer’s business partner James Lopez had seen on “The Carmichael Show.” She was the “fearless,” as Lee described her, and unpredictable spice needed to complete the foursome.
“You’re baking the cake and all the ingredients have to be just right or it falls flat,” Packer said. And what they had assembled seemed to be right, especially since they “wanted to show the complexity of these characters.”
“Malcolm and I wanted the couth, articulate, well-mannered and high-powered [woman], but also the down to Earth, ’round the way girl,” said Packer. “We wanted the ultra bougie and the super ratchet.”
This is black women telling their story the way they see themselves. Black girl magic is real, and everyone's craving it right now.
— Malcolm D. Lee
And setting “Girls Trip” at Essence, a real-life music festival (where they actually filmed on location last year) celebrating black womanhood and black excellence hosted by one of the leading black women’s magazines, was the finger-licking icing on the cake, giving the movie an added level of authenticity.
After all, they’re celebrating black women.
But as with any movie where black people are centered, Lee knows there will be some critics in the community who think some of the picture’s representations to be problematic or stereotypical. He’s seen it first-hand with just about every movie he’s done. He responded in advance:
“To those detractors that say we shouldn't be portrayed that way… Well to whom? Who are we afraid of at this point? [Donald] Trump's in office. They don't give a … about us. White people certainly don't care how you look. They don't care nothing about that.
“And as far as black people are concerned, we've been so conditioned to be like, ‘We gotta present ourselves the right way.’ And I am somewhat in agreement with that … [but] there's a time and a place for everything and this is a movie. This is fun and this is black women telling their story the way they see themselves. Black girl magic is real, and everyone's craving it right now.”
Also, Packer noted, though “Girls Trip” is a movie for and about black women, it isn’t only for black people — just like all of his and Lee’s pictures.
“This is the year that [started with] ‘Hidden Figures,’ and I love what that movie was able to do,” he said noting its box office appeal beyond the African American community, to the tune of $230.3 million worldwide. “Now we're in a time when comedies have not been working as of late in the theatrical marketplace. This one happens to be fronted by four black women, but it’s original storytelling and has universal themes.”
If the film’s impressive 89% Rotten Tomatoes rating is any indication, “Girls Trip” is fun for all.