On a busy night at BOA Steakhouse in Beverly Hills, the cast of The Best Man sat on the edge of their seats, listening to Malcolm D. Lee sell, shot-by-shot, what he envisioned a sequel to the cult classic would look like. The cast actually needed convincing.
“At first I thought: why?” Sanaa Lathan admits. “Why not just write a new script, a new idea?”
But after that night, there was zero hesitation. “When Malcolm was finished, we all said: You write it, we’re on board.” That was two years ago. And here we are, celebrating the crew that sealed the ‘90s with The Best Man Holiday.
It’s been 14 years since The Best Man hit theaters. Fourteen years since Taye Diggs smiled in a bubble bath. Since Lathan’s choker necklaces. Since Nia Long’s poster was hanging in every boy’s bedroom and before Morris Chestnut could show off a six-ty seven-pack (the 44-year-old lost 30 pounds for the film). When we left off, Harper Stewart (Diggs) was on the verge of fame with his debut novel, Unfinished Business, which revealed an affair he had with his best friend Chestnut’s fiancé (...idiot). Harper’s girlfriend, Robyn (Lathan), wants to be together forever, but faces the sexual obstacle course set up by Jordan (Nia Long). It’s all the jealousy, sex, and love you could ever hope for in a romantic comedy about a book. Lucky for us, that juicy core remains in the sequel.
Lathan, who describes Regina Hall as one of her best friends and who has kept in touch with Melissa De Sousa, Nia Long, and Diggs over the years, says getting back together was easy. “The chemistry that was there in the first one was the reason we all bonded and stayed friends.” But Lee needed more than just chemistry to make the movie—he needed everyone able and willing. “It’s kind of amazing that nine people, nine black actors in this business, almost 15 years later, are still thriving in their careers. The fact that none of us are crazy, or at least too crazy, well, we wouldn’t have been able to do it otherwise,” she says.
Of all the stars in the original Best Man crew, Sanaa Lathan has arguably spread her wings widest in the business—though she’s upsettingly still not quite a household name. Popularly known as “the tomboy from Love & Basketball,” Lathan, who who’s been acting professionally for 17 years, has since been cast in sci-fi, action, and animated film and TV roles, as well as theater. “From the beginning, I’ve always looked for something where I can step outside my comfort zone,” Lathan says. And that’s including Love & Basketball. “It was the hardest role I’ve ever played. I had to learn how to play basketball in six months! It was no joke.” And she was playing for some pretty high stakes.
For Lathan, landing roles beyond romantic comedies dominated by black actors, such as Love & Basketball, Brown Sugar, The Best Man, and The Wood—all similar films with a sort of company of actors (this is Lathan and Digg’s fourth movie together)—took dedication and effort. “It may look all fun and roses and glamorous, but the actual business of acting is no joke. It’s a beast,” she says.
Rejection comes with being an actor, and Lathan is no exception. “There have been so many roles that I wanted that I haven’t gotten,” she says. Though some were directly influenced by her race. “Plenty of times my agent will read a script and say, “What about Sanaa for this character?” and they’ll say, “Well, we don’t see her as black.” But the truth is there is nothing culturally specific about the character. It’s about people’s minds being open or not.”
Would it be easier if Lathan were white? “Well, I’ve never been a white actor, so I can’t say,” she laughs. “Let’s put it this way: If I were constantly complaining and worrying about what is wrong with being a black woman in this business, I wouldn't be in the business for so long, I wouldn’t have been able to survive. I’m sure there a lot of white actors who’d love to be in my position.”
After realizing the value of her experience in the industry, Lathan decided to take matters into her own hands, developing a script with Lionsgate Codeblack based on Flyy Girl, a book trilogy with a big influence in the African American community by Omar Tyree, in which she will be starring and producing. “This is me trying to have a little more control.”
This struggle seems to be getting somewhat of a spotlight treatment in ++new HBO series, Mr. Director,. The network has teamed up with TV director and showrunner Salim Akil for the docu-style comedy, which will focus on the path to becoming a top director in black Hollywood. Ultimately, Lathan says, “black audiences are just hungry to see more black characters. You don’t have a choice to see a movie that has you in it or someone like you in it. And what does that do to you, you know what I mean?”
The Best Man Holiday satiates the appetite for more movies with a predominantly black cast—Eddie Cibrian, who plays Long’s boyfriend, is the sole white star, and even gets playfully teased for it. There’s also the nostalgia effect. Not to mention that everyone truly looks like they’re having a blast. “We basically regressed to teenagers during filming,” Lathan says. “We would get into deep conversations and just act silly.”
One of the best scenes of the movies, and also the most fun to film according to Lathan, is when the boys present a choreographed dance and lip sync New Edition’s “Can You Stand the Rain.” The reactions seen in the movie were real because it was the first time the girls were seeing the dance. “It was funny because they were really nervous! The week before, every chance they had, they’d be in the corner practicing, whispering 5,6, 7, 8. It was an ideal scene for Diggs, who Lathan says is always, always singing. “Like, everything. He’ll just come up to you and sing how are you this morning! He’s one of those hyper-active little boys who’s always physically messing around and having fun,” she says. As far as Terrence Howard goes, who’s already known to be quite the musical character, Lathan reveals most of his funny lines were him ad-libbing. “He’s like a mad scientist. Step in his trailer and you’ll find him at an electric piano, guitar, or creating literal sculptures. You kind of have to be on your toes with him.”
It’s those behind-the-scenes moments where the real reunion took place. “We should have been filming a ‘making of’ reality show,” Lathan says. “It felt like camp. It was too much fun.”
And to think, they needed to be persuaded.