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Malcolm D. Lee on Making the “So-Called African American Movie Mainstream” and Landing ‘Space Jam’

After hitting No. 1 at the box office with ’The Best Man’ in 1999, the director teetered turning down Will Smith — twice — before going back to his original mission. ​​

On the Warner Bros. lot in the summer of 2019, a soundstage housing a basketball court flanked by greenscreens hosted four-time NBA MVP LeBron James, who — while talking to the occasional cardboard cutout of Daffy Duck — played against a small armada of local collegiate athletes wearing motion-capture suits. The cheering fans on the sidelines included Batman sidekick Robin, murderous clown Pennywise and Game of Thrones’ White Walkers, with CG spectators like King Kong to be added later. At the center of this Warners-sponsored fever dream was Malcolm D. Lee.

During the course of a career that established him as a go-to director of studio comedies, Lee, 51, is taking his biggest swing yet with Space Jam: A New Legacy. From 1999’s The Best Man (and its sequel) to 2017’s Girls Trip, his goal, he explains, “has always been to make the so-called African American movie mainstream.” Buoyed by one of the world’s most famous athletes, a beloved film franchise and a century’s worth of studio IP from Looney Tunes to DC Comics, Lee’s newest venture couldn’t possibly be more mainstream.

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But directing wasn’t an early career aspiration for Lee. He grew up in Brooklyn, the son of a schoolteacher and a medical records administrator, and did not see filmmaking as something open to him. This changed when his cousin, Spike, 13 years his senior, moved into the basement of the family brownstone while he pursued an MFA from the film school at NYU. Remembers Malcolm, “I didn’t really think that somebody in my family or somebody who was Black could do that.” He began helping on his cousin’s student productions and later did assistant work on 1992’s Malcolm X and 1995’s Clockers. Before heading off to college himself — first Georgetown then NYU for a graduate film degree — Lee had come to the conclusion that he wanted to be a filmmaker.

“Spike would always mention how powerful film was, particularly when it came to African American perception around the world and even in the United States,” he says. It is this ethos that carried into his first feature, The Best Man. Black men in movies, he says, “were either abusers or misogynists. Or even if they’re educated, they would be very stiff and devoid of cultural specificity, checking their Blackness at the door.” Taking inspiration from one of his favorite films, The Big Chill, and his Georgetown friends, The Best Man follows the interpersonal drama of college buddies in the lead-up to one of their weddings. Produced by Spike’s 40 Acres and a Mule, the cast included Terrence Howard, Morris Chestnut, Taye Diggs, Nia Long, Sanaa Lathan and Regina Hall in her feature debut.

“There is a sense of really direct communication,” recalls Hall of Lee’s openly collaborative directing style. “His temperament has always been that way — ‘Let’s talk.’ “

Despite the fact that mid-’90s features like Waiting to Exhale and Soul Food had primed Hollywood for The Best Man — as “portrayals of African Americans that were just regular people,” says Lee — he still fielded the requisite outlandish requests from studio execs, like, “Hey, can we find a cameo for Babyface or P. Diddy in this?’ ” Notes producer Will Packer, who would go on to work with Lee on Girls Trip and Night School: “I remember at the time thinking, ‘Oh God, we hope it works.’ This was a time when maybe we get one or two [films about the Black experience] per year, and they all have to work — otherwise, next year, we get half that.” Released in October 1999 via Universal, The Best Man debuted at No. 1 at the box office, with an opening weekend of $9 million on its way to an impressive $35 million.

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Regina Hall, Jada Pinkett Smith, Queen Latifah and Tiffany Haddish in Girls Trip. Courtesy of Universal Studios

Unsurprisingly, studios began approaching Lee, hoping to cash in on the goodwill of the zeitgeist. He says, “As the filmmaker who was living in your parents’ basement and not making any money, you’re like, ‘All right, this is great, I’m being courted by Hollywood.’ ” He turned down several offers and passed on writing a rom-com for Whitney Houston and Will Smith because producers would not allow him to direct. “I’m an auteur. Whatever I write, I’m directing,” he explains of his thought process and democratically says of the decision: “I wouldn’t call it a mistake, but it was a little shortsighted.”

Universal was itching to work with Lee, who was hard at work writing an ensemble dramedy that he describes simply as a “life movie.” It was around this time that Lee saw John Ridley’s animated series of satirical shorts, Undercover Brother, which followed a 1970s Black secret agent and poked fun at everyone from conservative politicians like Alan Keyes to white rappers. The rights had been picked up by Universal, and, with the 2001 writers strike looming, the studio and production company Imagine Entertainment wanted to get the project moving quickly. Lee’s point executive at the studio, Scott Stuber (who now heads all original film at Netflix), began lobbying him to direct the project that had Eddie Griffin attached to star and a screenplay from Ridley and Michael McCullers.

Hitting a wall with his own script, Lee found it hard to say no. “Scott said, ‘Would you do it over your own movie?’ Not realizing I was being drawn into a trap, I was like, ‘Well, I’d have to consider it,’ ” Lee says with a laugh. “That was all he needed to hear.” Within the month, he was directing Undercover Brother.

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Girls Trip had color and freshness and music and an edginess to it that people wanted to embrace,” says Lee (shown here on set) of the comedy. “Kudos to Black American women who were like, ‘Oh, I’m in for that.’ ” Michele K. Short/Universal Studios

The director hoped the movie would be a subversive satire on racism in line with the original animations, but the studio, Lee says, “wanted to make a Black Austin Powers.” He remembers, “Before I realized what I was in, there was no turning back.” Still, he chalked it all up to a well-won learning experience: how to direct a straight comedy, how to make a bigger-budgeted studio movie (Undercover Brother was nearly three times the budget of The Best Man), and most importantly how to go about picking projects.

After Undercover Brother underperformed with $41 million in box office returns, Lee wanted to go back to smaller films that, he says, “I knew I could control.” He turned down an opportunity on another Smith-fronted project, this time the rom-com Hitch (“I love Will Smith; I’m dying to work with Will Smith,” he assures). The reception to his next movie, a 2005 coming-of-age roller skating story called Roll Bounce at Fox Searchlight and Fox 2000, was again not one he hoped for, and into the 2010s, Lee noticed that Hollywood began divesting from Black films: “After a couple of movies that don’t perform — including my own, like Welcome Home, Roscoe Jenkins or Soul Men — they say, ‘Oh, Black movies don’t do well, so don’t make them.’ ” Instead of releasing films fronted by Black talent in relatable stories that can draw Black audiences to theaters, Hollywood began casting POC stars in ensembles of blockbuster franchises, like Fast & Furious. The thinking is, he surmises, “If we want to get the African American audience, we can cast one of, quote, their stars.”

Lee readily admits that, back then, his career was not in its best shape. “I said, ‘What’s my brand?’ ” he asked, taking stock. His answer: “Best Man. It’s time to tackle that [again].” The Best Man Holiday (2013) opened at $30 million, nearly unseating Marvel’s Thor: The Dark World for the top spot, and a triumvirate of comedy hits followed, with Sony installment Barbershop: The Next Cut and back-to-back Universal comedies Girls Trip and Night School. It was while on vacation in 2019 in Hawaii with his wife, Camille, that Lee got a call from producer Jamal Henderson about possibly directing Space Jam.

A follow-up to the Michael Jordan-fronted 1996 touchstone had been in the works since the original grossed a massive $250 million at the worldwide box office. When a Jordan-led sequel didn’t materialize, the studio cycled through several ideas for follow-ups starring talent like Jackie Chan (Spy Jam) and Tony Hawk (Skate Jam). All of the development on the various Jams came to a halt after 2003’s Looney Tunes: Back in Action starring Brendan Fraser bombed.

It was more than a decade later, in 2014, when it was first revealed that James, coming off two NBA championships with the Miami Heat, would star in Space Jam. Long compared to Jordan on the court, James, who was 12 when the original came out, agreed to the remake after filming his acting debut in Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck and making a serious move into the entertainment space with his production label, SpringHill Entertainment. At the time, Lee’s agents asked the director if he would like to be put up for the movie. “I’m a basketball purist,” says the lifelong New York Knicks fan, who imagined that his basketball movie would be a far more grounded homage to the game. “Bugs Bunny playing basketball? No thank you,” says Lee. But, five years later, sitting on a beach in Hawaii, Space Jam came to him.

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“If we have a 7 a.m. call, he was always there, but he would be up at 2, getting his basketball workout in,” says Lee of working with LeBron James during Space Jam’s three-month shoot. Courtesy of JUSTIN LUBIN/WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT.

Before taking the job, he sought counsel from all corners of the industry, including Ron Howard, who told him, “Here’s an opportunity to do something different.” Weighing heavy was a personal lesson Lee had gleaned from his years in entertainment: “A lot of the time, you’ve got to get on the train that’s moving.”

Yet A New Legacy already had a conductor: Writer-director Terence Nance (HBO’s Random Acts of Flyness), who was set to make his studio feature debut on the movie, was a few weeks into principal photography when he exited. The studio and producers, who saw the film as a sports comedy of the commercial tentpole variety, wanted a more experienced hand.

Lee— who had relocated to Los Angeles for filming, staying a brisk three-minute drive from the Burbank lot — had four days to meet the cast, connect with department heads, and review animatics and VFX work on the $120 million-plus shoot before his first day on set. Maverick Carter, James’ longtime business partner and a producer on the movie, was amazed by Lee’s “incredible ability to get ready for anything with very little prep time,” including watching the original film, which Lee had skipped when it first came out. He is a Jordan fan despite the fact, Lee says, “he always beat my Knicks” but in the mid-90s the director was more concerned with “trying to be the next Orson Welles.”

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Malcolm D. Lee

Space Jam, with a plot that sees a retired Jordan playing basketball in a bid to free Looney Tunes characters from an alien amusement park owner, was never a critical masterpiece. But it became a commercial success, with $187 million in domestic receipts when adjusted for inflation. And, fueled by ’90s nostalgia, it has become a cultural phenom. The soundtrack was certified as six times platinum, with hits from the likes of Seal and the R. Kelly anthem “I Believe I Can Fly.”

The 2021 version follows James as he tries to connect with his video game-loving young son. After they become trapped in a digital universe where all Warners properties are housed (enter the Looney Tunes) by a rogue AI, the two have to face off on the court to escape. Lee says that working on a project as massive as Space Jam can often equate to creativity by committee. “Have you seen the number of writers on this movie?” (There are six.) And, he adds, “that’s not all of them.” The movie’s father-son dynamic acted as his North Star. “The narrative about Black men being fathers, it’s been so bastardized,” explains Lee, who has three sons of his own. “I felt like this is something where I can be additive.”

In exchange for directing a project with a lightning-fast liftoff and shooting for 58 days straight at one point, Lee enjoyed a freedom that surpassed anything he had experienced: “It was like anything goes, basically.” Can the Droogs from Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange be cheering courtside? You bet. What about Road Runner racing the war rigs in George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road? Of course.

When asked about the studio moving its 2021 slate, including Space Jam, to a day-and-day release on HBO Max, the director says, “I never had a movie that’s going to have this kind of global reach. I wanted to have that full experience.” He was told only 20 minutes before the public announcement. “I thought it was premature,” but, he says with a sigh, “it’s a business.”

Some two decades and 11 studio movies on, Lee — who recently wrapped filming an NBC pilot, the family melodrama At That Age, and is gearing up for a Best Man limited series on Peacock, both produced under his bicoastal Blackmaled Productions banner — is well-practiced in the Hollywood ebb and flow. He doesn’t dwell but doesn’t forget. “Don’t just go for the shiny brass ring and don’t dismiss something that could be an opportunity,” he says of advice he would offer his younger self. “I’ve done both,” he says, pausing, “a couple of times.”

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Space 2021: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures. Space 1996, Looney: Warner Bros/Courtesy Everett Collection. Jordan: Mitchell Layton/Getty Images. Chan: Jeremy Bembaron/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images. Hawk: M. Caulfield/WireImage. Woods: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images. James: Mike Lawrie/Getty Images. Nascar: Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images.

A version of this story first appeared in the July 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.