This review is dedicated to my English 201 instructor from college, the women I’ve loved and love who’ve remind me with their grace to try and be the ‘best man I can be’, and the men I consider brothers that make the emotional investment in this film possible.
‘The Best Man’ **** (out of 5)
Starring: Taye Diggs, Morris Chestnut, Harold Perrineau, Terrence Howard, Sanaa Lathan, Nia Long, Melissa DeSousa, Monica Calhoun
Written and Directed by: Malcolm D. Lee
In the summer of 1999, I had an English literature class at the local community college that had a major effect on my tastes. Up to that point, I was unaware of the works of prominent African-American authors like Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Zora Neale-Hurston, and for me, most importantly, Raymond Carver (not an African-American author, but introduced to me during the same unit).
My instructor, an African-American woman young enough to relate to, was also wise enough to expose her class to something different- and I’ll be forever grateful for it. In particular, I took to Raymond Carver’s short story collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, a brilliant amalgamation of conversations among real characters that helped illuminate me to the world of adult conversations, love, and honesty.
How does this relate to 1999’s “The Best Man”, a moderately successful, relatively obscure film geared towards African-American audiences? Quite simply, it’s the closest thing to Raymond Carver’s work that I’ve seen on film, and that’s a great compliment to pay. Coincidence or not, the main character of Harper Stewart (Taye Diggs) is a writer as well, and references to Hughes and Wright are in the film. Harper has just had his first novel published, has a beautiful girlfriend (Saana Lathan), and seems to have it all together. He’s nervous about commitment and the reaction to his book, which serves as a fictional interpretation of his young adult life. Harper is certainly justified in his worry, as he doesn’t pull any punches, and once the real versions of his characters read what he’s written about them, he has to face his mistakes and be, literally, the best man he can be.
The film centers around one whirlwind weekend that has the four main characters reminiscing in advance of Lance Sullivan’s (Morris Chestnut) wedding. Lance is a pro footballer, engaged to Mia (Monica Calhoun), who has stood by him despite his egregious lack of fidelity. My guess is that Mia doesn’t even know the half of it. Lance is a classic alpha male- he’s so strong in body and belief, but cannot make the connection between his steadfast conviction and keeping it in his pants. So, like many men, he’s a ‘dog’. Harper is a ‘dog’ in a different way- he’s sneaky in his selfishness, and takes those that love him for granted. Quentin (Terrence Howard) is a knowing, world-weary ‘dog’- he’s been around the block, has known his share of disappointments, and brings balance to this group of friends. Howard’s turn here (the first I was exposed to him) lends gravity to the film- he’s the one who knows what’s going to go down once the dirty laundry is aired, because he’s already gone through the maturation process that the other three haven’t. Murch (Harold Perrineau from ‘Lost’) is the spineless ‘dog’. He clearly lacks the confidence to stand up for himself, and therefore doesn’t have what he really wants.
If it sounds like a traditional setup, it is. However, it’s not lazy. As I mentioned before, Carver’s influence is present, intentional or not. It’s never more evident than the poker game our main group shares, and the way the characters interact. What is said during this particular scene provides deep insights into gender roles, relationships, sex, religion, honesty, and loyalty- all within a 10 minute scene. The men may talk crudely, but the truths are clear. These men are good, caring people, but have done selfish things. No amount of aggression can keep the powerful truths from coming out, truths that Harper’s book give away. It says something for a film that might be seen as a traditional rom-com that instead says something about really becoming a man.
Without giving away everything, let’s just say that eventually the shit hits the fan. By then, we’re so invested in the characters that the reactions from all involved seem justified. Lance must face the music in the most powerful way- in the moment that should be his greatest, he’s finally humbled for his indiscretions. Perhaps it’s Morris Chesnut’s performance, or maybe the script is that good, but in that moment I felt both a satisfaction and a sadness for his character’s punishment. Quentin is finally rewarded by the film for being the ‘cool, level-headed’ one that leads the characters towards the truth, Murch grows a pair and gracefully moves on from his overbearing, confidence-sucking girl, and Harper? He’s forced to be self-reflective, to recognize the good in his life, the need versus the want, and to not take things for granted. All of the character arcs, including the females, make sense in their conclusions. It’s something that can only happen when a filmmaker cares enough about the characters. Most adults have been through similar life events and the emotions that go with them; this movie respects its audience enough to challenge them with specific thoughts about manhood, relationships, change, and the like. It’s rare for that to happen, but it’s what Carver’s book did, and what this film does as well.
Sure, there are some problems with the film. For whatever reason, the script requires these characters to have the most bombastic and presidential names, insisting that they say those full names over and over for the first quarter of the film. It’s overtly obvious that Malcolm Lee thought it necessary to establish these people as successful, professional, driven individuals to distance this film from others released in the same vein. Unfortunately it comes across as awkward; they’re the kind of names little girls give to tea party guests. Harper Stewart. Jordan Armstrong. Lance Sullivan. Julian Murch. Shelby. Robyn. Mia Morgan. Candace. There’s something…off about that. As well, the perfunctory and impromptu proposal by our lead seems oddly misplaced, especially considering his apparent understanding of the situation; I’m not sure that a humbled character like Harper should be leaping back into the fire he just escaped.
Obviously I forgive the film that minor slip. It’s important to note that this cost 9 million to make in 1999. Considering that many of the cast members have continued working since then, many successfully, and considering this film’s appeal why not revisit the characters? It’s a good opportunity when it normally wouldn’t exist for a romantic comedy, and I’m looking forward to seeing how these characters have progressed 15 years later when “The Best Man Holiday” comes out.