Malcolm D. Lee had some of the worst news that a director of a Hollywood film could take. Receiving a phone call about two of his stars of Soul Men – Bernie Mac and Isaac Hayes – passing away a day apart, the word should’ve shaken his world. But today, the comedic director sits down with The Urban Daily to talk about his latest project, explains why he’s different than his cousin Spike and has some stern words for BET.
The Soul Men filmmaker has never really had to compete for family attention. The cousin of Spike Lee has stood on his own two with a series of films that have their own legacy within black culture. From The Best Men to Welcome Home, Roscoe Jenkins, the boy knows funny. And with his newest debuting in theaters today, the director/screenwriter has quite to say about his work, life and love for, not only the game, but the players too.
The Urban Daily: You have some hype about this film. How did you become a part of the film?
Malcolm Lee: I heard about the script through my producing partner. He sends me a lot of scripts. I’m terrible about reading them, because most of them are not for me. They’re not really my sensibility. So, he said, “No, I think you’ll really like this.” I was in the midst of finishing Roscoe, so I didn’t see the need to start something new. I was very tired. He sent me another version and still, I was only mildly interested. I wasn’t thinking about new material, but then Bob Weinstein – from New Dimension – came to my cutting room and offered me the film. He said, “I think you’d be the best person for this.” You know… the whole spiel… So, I said let me read it and I read it, ended up liking it. I thought that it had Bernie’s and Sam’s voices and their intonation. It’s very funny… R-rated funny, which I liked also because it’s about the original Bernie Mac. It’s full of the word ‘motherfucker’ which you know Sam and Bernie say better than anybody in the game. They should really patent the word. It was also about soul music, which I love. In this case, I got to dig in the Stax library, which a lot of artists that – some of which are celebrated, some not – but they had great music. I was happy and excited to use those songs in a time period that I’m most fond of.
TUD: They really were singing too. Was there any apprehension on the part of either Sam or Bernie?
ML: Are you kidding me?! Actors think they can do everything. Most actors you ask, “Can you do this?” and they say yes, everytime! …Especially after they’ve got the part! They’ll say anything to get the part. We did some voice tests to see what their range was, definitely wasn’t taking their word for it. Sam had a very good range… and so did Bernie. They could both go from a high falsetto to a low, Isaac Hayes kind of sound. Any movie like this, where actors are not in their comfort zone, you wanna give them the most time they need to feel comfortable. It made it seem like they were the really old-time soul singers. They worked it out with no apprehension whatsoever. Especially in the beginning, they’re kind of flat at the start of the movie and their routines are off, but by the end… it’s a celebration.
TUD: You were able to tell the story without forcing it down people’s throats. Is that because you keyed in on the screenwriting? Or was it how you put together your shots?
ML: When I break down a script, these are the elements I like: great characters, great story, good dialogue and Soul Men had all of those things. On the set, when you’re dealing with an African-American film, in this case a comedy, it can go a lot of different ways. I think Tropic Thunder could have been a really serious minstrel show, but it kept things in the tone of irony. The audience was laughing with us, not at us.
You just want to make sure you’re being true to the script. Even if it does have some over-the-top moments, which we have with the gun going off, the velveteen rub, you know… certain things like that. The music industry is going to have over-the-top people because they love their music or their celebrity. The personalities you encounter are going to be a certain way. Like Lester (Affion Crockett) – we made him a character like that because he was a perfect juxtaposition to them. They’re grounded and they’re old school – he’s the new jack. He’s ignorant, using the n-word like it’s nothing, taking their music like it’s normal. For me, it is about that balance. It has to be a comedy with a certain pace, certain rhythm, but at the same time it has to have my sensibility.
TUD: There’s a moment when Isaac Hayes walks out in the film with Bernie Mac. After you got the phone call about their passing, did you feel that art was imitating life or the other way around?
ML: We didn’t add the tribute until the premiere passed. That’s the only thing we changed at the end of the movie. There was an effort to tighten it right down ’til the end, to get it in the best rhythmic shape it could possibly be. There was a week to two-week period where I didn’t want to think about it [the film] at all. We were dealing with death, sickness and mortality. We wondered, “Are people going to take to it?” If we came out the week when they both passed, I don’t think it would’ve been received very well.
The kind of movie that Bernie left us with was one of an indelible performance. It showed the level he had reached as a performer. Not just a funny man, but as an actor and he gets to show a lot of range: the dramatic side, his funny side, the raw uncut side of Bernie that we came to love back in the nineties. This was a return to who he was.
It’s funny that the young folks will remember Isaac as “Chef from South Park.” He was an actor, an activist, cared about his family and left us with great pieces of music. At the end of the film, we tribute both in song with Ike’s rendition of the Jackson Five’s “Never Can Say Goodbye.” His version was just as incredible. He played the majority of the instruments in it. They’ll both be sorely missed…
TUD: Your family is heavy in the movies. How come Spike and you don’t trade-off – you do something serious and he does a comedy?
ML: All of Spike’s work has humor in it. Mo’ Better Blues, Jungle Fever, Do The Right Thing – they all had some funny elements to it. But he has his sensibility and I have mines. I would love for him to do a comedy, but it’s difficult. When I wrote Roscoe Jenkins, I said that this is a comedy. I’ll branch out eventually, hopefully soon, because there are certain people that I want to work with.
TUD: Do you think more writers across the board should be more political in this age of Obama; that they should take a position to help the black community?
ML: A piece like Charles Stone III’s “Wassup 2008” makes me smile. It’s funny and poignant. I do feel a sense of responsibility to my community. I want us not to showcase flat, one-dimensional characters.
TUD: I only ask because black writers and filmmakers seem to boycott putting anything worthwhile on BET. And after 30-some-odd years of existence, they’re only now just putting on their first scripted television series…
ML: Just from what I know, BET under Bob Johnson meant that you were just out to make money. He got a bunch of videos – no matter how foolish or degrading they might be and pushed it. He did have all that social commentary and news back in the day, but it’s nowhere near that level now. He showed his ass when he endorsed Hillary [Clinton] – talkin’ ’bout ‘we owe her’ and all this. We don’t owe her nothing! BET should be called ‘Black Video TV,’ you know? Because it’s not black and definitely not entertaining.