RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Thanksgiving weekend is one of the busiest times of the year at the movie theaters. The movie "The Best Man Holiday" has actually been out for a couple of weeks, but still landed at Number 4 on the box office charts this weekend. It's a sequel to a hit from 1999, "The Best Man."

NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates reports that both movies feature African-American casts, but director Malcolm D. Lee doesn't want to call them black films.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: The first movie brings college friends together for a wedding.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE BEST MAN")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Good to see you guys.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: How are you?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Alright.

BATES: Reviewers compared it to another cult favorite, which left Malcolm D. Lee both flattered and irked.

MALCOLM D. LEE: I remember Entertainment Weekly said, you know, here's a "Big Chill" for the black audience. And it's like: Why's it for the black audience?

BATES: Lee insists the things his characters did - growing up, branching out, settling down - were not race-specific.

LEE: I always tell people with the first "Best Man," in 1999 when it came out, that I wrote the right script at the right time. You know, it was an opportunity for people to see African-Americans as just people.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE BEST MAN")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: So what happened? I mean and you called me earlier, what happened?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Oh, girl. The caterer's tripping, the florist screwed up the order, and Mama still hasn't found a dress.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Well, girlfriend, don't worry about it. Superwoman is here.

DARLENE DONLOE: It's so refreshing to see yourself onscreen and to see yourself in the way that you actually live your life, not the way Hollywood or society thinks you live your life,

BATES: Critic Darlene Donloe believes both "The Best Man" and its sequel also pulled in non-black moviegoers because they were intrigued with the middle-class black life they saw onscreen. "The Best Man" made about $30 million in 1999 and the sequel made more than that on its first weekend alone. So, Donloe says, it's a mystery to her why there aren't more films like this at the multiplex.

DONLOE: They always think: Well, that's a fluke, it can't happen again. But yeah, it happens again. Well, it can't happen again till the next time it happens.

And then is it a fluke again? Well, and how many times is it a fluke?

BATES: Lee has kept it current in his "Best Man" sequel. One of his old friends has become famous as a real housewife of somewhere or other. There's also a cable TV executive and a bestselling writer, and an NFL superstar who is hosting the group over the Christmas holiday.

One night the dinner conversation at his home - a vast marble slab of prefabricated luxury - centers on sexting.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE BEST MAN HOLIDAY")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: You remember back in the day, you wanted to see booty, you had to either cop a Playboy magazines or get late-night cable?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: And now porn is just on your Smartphone.

BATES: But it's not all winks and spit-takes. The friends experience infertility, financial trouble and life-threatening illness. In other words, Lee's characters are not preoccupied with being black.

LEE: But I think in particular for African-American audiences it is rare for them to see a movie with characters going through the struggles that these characters are going through.

BATES: In fact, race arises only once, when one of the friends introduces her current boyfriend who is white to her former crush. Taye Diggs is Harper and Harper cannot resist imitating the new guy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE BEST MAN HOLIDAY")

TAYE DIGGS: (as Harper) Brian McDaniel, I like to ski in Vermont.

NIA LONG: (as Jordan) Shut up, Harper.

DIGGS: (as Harper) I like dating chocolate girls.

BATES: This is what's happening in real life for many black women, Lee says: they would prefer a black mate but are opening their minds to loving whoever loves them.

Lee is most concerned, though, with portraying black men in a light he recognizes. He named his production company Blackmaled, that's B-L-A-C-K-M-A-L-E-D, for a reason.

LEE: That's a negative term, you know, blackmailing someone. And I think that's how black males are also portrayed.

BATES: So he's providing some alternate images from the swaggering or surly ones often seen in popular culture. In "The Best Man," for instance, Harper dumps his cool persona in public when he realizes the true love of his life is walking away.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE BEST MAN")

DIGGS: (as Harper) Robyn. Robyn.

SANAA LATHAN: (as Robyn) Go off me.

DIGGS: (as Harper) I need you. I cannot do this alone. Please don't leave me now.

BATES: Lee hopes the men in his films will encourage his brothers to push away from the narrow definitions of black masculinity that are so prevalent.

LEE: You know, not only are black males blackmailed from the general public, but also they blackmail themselves into thinking that there's a certain way that a black male must be and how he must behave in order to be really black.

BATES: In this case, Malcolm Lee's vision of what black really is has been raking in a lot of green.

Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

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