The Best Man (1999)

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By Cynthia Fuchs

PopMatters Film and TV Editor

Someone I know organized an opening weekend group to go see The Best Man. As he reasons in the invitation he sent out to several friends, “Hollywood” pays attention to opening weekend box office receipts, and he’d like to ensure that this film’s receipts make an impression on the powers that be. You don’t see this kind of effort made for just any movie. No one feels the need to get out the vote for Three To Tango, Julien Donkey-Boy or the latest white-folks-getting-married picture, no matter how dim their profit-making prospects might seem. No, the movies that attract this kind of activist approach are movies like Daughters of the Dust and Waiting to Exhale, the movies that the industry calls “black.”

What this term indicates is ambiguous — it can mean that the casts or crews are black, and/or the concerns are “black” (an ambiguous and often meaningless notion that rightly frustrates anyone involved in making and marketing “black films”), and/or most importantly, the target demographic — sometimes known as the audience — is likely to be black. But even if the concept is uncertain, the bottom line is crystal clear: movies that make money get made again (and again). And in this context, the person who sent out the invitation to see The Best Man understands his role as a black consumer dynamically: he intends to influence what culture will be available for black people to create and consume.

While this intention is surely commendable, not to mention shrewd, The Best Man is also being pitched by a parallel method. Writer-director Malcolm Lee and the actors have been busy on the promotional circuit (talk shows, print interviews, TV spots), asserting the film’s “universal” appeal. Of course, this claim is always more political than actual (perhaps especially when made for white movies). “Universal” is most often used in the industry as another word for “white,” but sometimes, it means “cross-over.” And it was only a short time ago — 1986, when Malcolm Lee’s cousin Spike released the extremely profitable She’s Gotta Have It! — that universal or cross-over came into common use regarding “black” films. Still, the importance of race and racism in media production and promotion cannot be overestimated: when was the last time you heard a movie starring Tom Hanks or Meryl Streep called “white” or saw on the news that such a film “crossed over” to black or Asian viewers?

On one level, the claim that The Best Man is “universal” means that it doesn’t deal in street slang or ‘hood business. On another, it means that the film portrays events and characters that might be familiar to anyone of a certain class (or more precisely, anyone with access to television or magazines, where the upper middle class is the predominant image and imaginable goal). Lee’s movie delivers these potentially stock events and characters with a mix of irony and respect, and trusts his young performers — who are, without exception, excellent — to convey what the dialogue doesn’t spell out.

The plot is simple and complicated at the same time. At first glance, it looks like Harper Stewart (Taye Diggs) has everything going for him. He has a great Chicago apartment, an about-to-be-published novel that’s been selected for Oprah’s Book Club (read: instant celebrity and much income), a devoted and patient girlfriend named Robin (Sanaa Lathan), and his best friend’s wedding to attend this coming weekend. But Harper has issues. And they’re close to the surface, as demonstrated in the movie’s first five minutes, when you see Harper and Robin celebrating the Oprah news: they lounge in an elegant freestanding bathtub, surrounded by candles and champagne and rose petals. He leans back into his beautiful lady’s body, and sighs, contented. Until, that is, Robin lets slip that she’d like to stay like this forever. Bzzzt! The alarm going off is clear in Harper’s suddenly wide eyes. She hasn’t even mentioned the c-word (commitment), but already the man is sweating bullets.

This scene sets up The Best Man‘s predominant theme, male fear of commitment. And it’s not just a set-up for making the guys look bad: this is a serious examination of what it means to commit, to trust, and to make yourself vulnerable. Needless to say, this isn’t a subject that comes up often in movies not about or aimed at women. Indeed, most pictures about weddings target women, what with all the crying, family feuding, and stressing over dresses and menus. Refreshingly (and more or less true to its “universal appeal” claims), The Best Man‘s interest in the guys doesn’t preclude women viewers with its attention to loyalty and propriety, a smooth Stanley Clarke score, a built-to-sell soundtrack (including a duet by Lauryn Hill and Bob Marley, and new tracks by Maxwell and the Roots), and attractive bodies in designer clothes.

While he’s stewing over this dilemma, Harper also worries that an advance copy of his novel, the ominously titled Unfinished Business, will fall into the hands of the friends who figure in it so prominently. These friends are the groom, Lance (Morris Chestnut), who has just signed a $5 million dollar contract with the New York Giants; the supersweet bride Mia (Monica Calhoun) who used to be a writer for Harper when he edited the college newspaper; Murch (Harold Perrineau Jr.), a way-too nice teacher who’s bullied by his materialistic girlfriend Shelby (Melissa DeSousa); Quentin (Terrence Dashon Howard), a self-styled player who’s currently playing guitar at a club downtown; and Jordan (Nia Long), a BET producer for whom Harper carries a smoldering torch.

Because Harper is facing a crisis — when Lance finally reads the novel, he’ll learn what everyone else who’s read it (which is everyone in sight, apparently) already knows, that in college Harper had a one-night with Mia — the film maintains a low-grade tension throughout the requisite lunches, fittings for wedding attire, and of course, the bachelor’s party (where most of the guests are football players, and where the booty-shaking seems as much a function of pleasing stereotypically “male” moviegoers as making a point about the male characters’ intricate and unself-conscious conditioning by a go-team culture). And because Harper is also considering finally acting on his desire for Jordan, the possibility that he’ll cheat on Robin also thrums along in the background.

The film’s most troubling aspect is its lapsing into facile stereotypes to fill in key moments and transformations, as when Murch meets his dreamgirl at the bachelor party, a stripper who’s only doing this to pay for college, where she’s getting straight A’s, thanks very much, or when Shelby gets her comeuppance by hooking up with the relentlessly self-absorbed Quentin, or when Lance forces Harper to pray with him to gather strength to go through with the wedding (in a scene that’s part Three Stooges abuse-comedy and part easy-targeting of bible-quoting football players). Using Lance the star athlete as its chief example, the film seems to want to dismantle the tired double standard that governs heterosexual relationships, that men’s “indiscretions” are somehow less odious than women’s, because men (and their dicks) are only responding to provocations from females.

This focus on the men’s exchanges leaves the women with the mostly thankless task of helping to develop the complex desires and expectations that seem to drive Murch, Harper, Lance, and Quentin. As the ambitious, thoughtful Jordan, Long is particularly up to it, such that her scenes with anyone tend to seem like they’re about her more than them. It could be that since she’s the sole unattached woman on the scene, by definition she can’t be limited by her designated partner’s development needs (despite a couple of attempts to attach her to Harper via flashbacks and exchanged longing glances). Or it could be that Jordan is the character here most in need of her own movie.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/best-man/