Filmmaker's African-American 'Big Chill'

"Everyone's life is full of emotional periods, and I thought it was important to show that in a film," says first-time director Malcolm Lee, a cousin of well-known director Spike Lee.

He does.

His feature film, "The Best Man," which he also wrote, is a coming-of-age story about a group of young black professionals. They are reunited several years after college graduation for the wedding of one of their group, who has become a star professional football player.

When a thinly disguised autobiographical novel written by the best man gets passed around, revealing truths the group can't handle, old and new wounds surface.

The romantic comedy is a compelling, well-made story that will cross age groups and race lines. It is not, in the recent tradition of many black filmmakers (including Spike Lee, who was a producer for the film), overtly political. Malcolm Lee says that is intentional.

"This film is political in the sense that it's making a subtle statement about who black people are," the director says. "We are not all violent, lowlife criminals. There is a vast majority of blacks who are going to school, chasing the American dream. They are pursuing actual careers, not just jobs."

The film takes African-American filmmaking to a different place, exploring the intimate side of black life in a mainstream format, much like box-office successes "Waiting to Exhale" and "Soul Food."

For many of the young performers in "The Best Man," only one or two of whom have major film credits (Taye Diggs in "How Stella Got Her Groove Back" and Nia Long in "Soul Food"), the film is an opportunity to show the universal aspects of the black experience.

"We are at the point where we want to be represented for our strengths as well as our challenges," says Long, who plays a tightly wound TV producer eager to get her college friend-turned-hot-novelist onto her show.

Long says this does not mean turning a blind eye to problems still faced by African-Americans. "We live in a very racist society," she says, "but it's time to stress the universal issues."

She is philosophical about whether her career will be all that a white actress might have. "I believe God put us here for a purpose," she says. "If my purpose is to make it easier for the next generation of black actors, so be it."

It is perhaps not coincidence that this sentiment comes on the heels of Halle Berry's performance as the groundbreaking black actress Dorothy Dandridge in a made-for-TV movie on HBO that aired in August.

"Hollywood goes in stages," says cast member Terrence Howard. "It'll go three steps forward and two steps back." He suggests that improving the images of blacks in film happens in fits and starts. "There'll be relapses," he says, "but each time will be shorter."

"People are definitely ready for a different image of blacks," adds Morris Chestnut, who portrays the football star. "I know I am."

A recipient of the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame Award, Mr. Lee says his film is an expression of his desire to find positive role models for black performers. It deals with universal themes such as friendship, trust, love, fidelity, and betrayal. A longtime fan of "The Cosby Show," Lee says he does not feel that broadening the appeal of a film is a cop-out.

He points out that "The Cosby Show" was not overtly political, yet it fulfilled a purpose in its time (1984 to 1992). He says his film represents a shift, a maturing in Hollywood - and his enthusiastic cast agrees. "I don't think filmmakers should be less mature just because society's not ready," concludes actress Long.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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