Director Malcolm D. Lee (The Best Man Holiday, Barbershop: The Next Cut) and his cast have hit the ball out of the park with Girls Trip, a movie we all didn’t know we’ve been waiting for! Girls Trip is simply comedy filmmaking at its funniest and finest and anyone who sees it as part of their summer fun (or anytime thereafter) should count themselves very lucky. Despite Lee’s excellent track record as a filmmaker, I went in not expecting too much. It seemed too much to hope for that a comedy featuring an ensemble of not only women, but black women, would be made with the care and attention it deserved in order to be culturally sound and genuinely funny. However, I was proven oh so wrong in the best way. Everything about Girls Trip is top quality, including the laughs. We are talking belly laughs to smart, sexy comedic set-ups. The characters, dialogue and settings portray a narrative and cultural authenticity sadly lacking in all too many commercial movies of late.
Latifah, Hall, Pinkett and Haddish play longtime friends Sasha, Ryan, Lisa, and Dina respectively. They’ve lost touch with each other as a group and individually have lost touch with themselves in one way or another. In college, when they had plans to conquer the world, they called themselves the Flossy Posse. Now, most are stuck in unsatisfying jobs and/or relationships and the support system that they once represented for each other has disappeared. Ryan is a famous author and life coach whose agent, Elizabeth, played to the hilt by Kate Walsh (Private Practice, 13 Reason Why) books her for an appearance at the upcoming Essence Festival. Ryan sees this as the perfect time to reconnect with her girls. She rounds them up for a road trip. Dina is the loud, as real as they come friend who can’t keep a job and does not care to keep a man. Then there is Lisa who is a gun-shy divorced mother of two who hides behind dowdy hair, dowdy clothes and an uptight personality. Sasha is also a “writer” -- a morally and literally bankrupt celebrity gossip journalist.
Lee, in a separate interview, has stated that he wanted the audience to feel like they were right there in the middle of the action. Indeed, it feels as if you are on the journey with the ladies as they make their way through NOLA, something achieved with a lot of hand held camera work and GoPro cameras. You are with them as they literally fly over the heads of onlookers just as you are with them as the bump their way through the crowds. Costume designer Danielle Hollowell’s choice of candy-bright colors evokes the spirit of New Orleans at its good-time best. Speaking of candy, there are plenty of treats for the eyes in Mike Colter, Larenz Tate and Kofi Siriboe as well as the stream of cameos which include Morris Chestnut, William Levy, Maxwell, Ne-Yo and Common, among others. Siriboe’s character Malik, who helps Lisa get her groove back, makes quite the entrance in the film. In classic cinematic meet cute, Malik and Lisa’s eyes lock as they first see each other across a crowd. As Siriboe, a vision in black, comes into focus, there were literal screams throughout the theater. Siriboe is THAT beautiful and the scene was shot that darn well!
In Girls Trip, Lee artfully shows us the complexities of friendship. There are the resentments that simmer for years beneath the surface, the passive aggressive behaviors, the envy. These are phenomena that affect all types of social attachments regardless of gender, sex or anything else. When it comes to women, unfortunately, it is stereotypically viewed as a blemish exclusive to them. Lee expertly manages to shine a light on these issues and use them to full dramatic (or comedic) effect without sinking to the level of the tired “petty females” trope. He has stated that in the way in which he conceives characters, “No one is inherently good or inherently bad. Circumstances dictate a lot of things. We wanted to make sure that we made a film that had heart.” He elaborates saying, “Comedy can be great or whatever but the good ones are the ones that you can relate to that resonate with you.” Sasha, Lisa, Ryan and Dina do just that. Haddish, a relative newcomer in her most visible role to date, has gone way beyond resonating with audiences. She reverberates. One of life’s crazy paradoxes is how often it is that the person who gives the least about what anyone thinks of them, ends up connecting with the most people. Dina is one of those characters and Haddish fearlessly takes her on to fantastic effect. You can’t help but fall in love with a character who is so courageous. Haddish’s bravery as an actress is also admirable. Dina is a decidedly non-traditional female character and it is all too common for actresses to eschew roles like this in fear of alienating audiences or to take the role and play it so gingerly as to render the character meaningless. The gusto with which Haddish plays Dina is one of the most satisfying aspects of the film.
It is obvious that Lee took great pains to make sure not even the sets were gratuitous in any way. With the exception of the introduction, which sets each character up, the film takes place in New Orleans in the vicinity of the Essence Fest. However, there are numerous sets. From the hotel lobby to the seedy motel, to the luxurious hotel room, the stage at Essence Fest, the panels at Essence Fest, to the bar where the great Flossy Posse dance-off/brawl takes place, these girls keep it moving! It is a testament to Lee’s skill that each location feels organic to the story and to the characters. Using different physical locations is a plus to a keep a storyline invigorated. That is almost too obvious. The problem with that is in many films, characters are placed in settings that backfire and instead nudges the viewer ironically, out of the story because there is no logical reason for the characters to be there.
Finally, with all of the great things to be said about the film, there is also the fact that the actors and director give us black folks full of vulnerability not wrought from brutality or physically painful experiences but the type all people tend to experience from the everyday ups and downs of life. There is the Larenz Tate character Julian, an old friend of Ryan’s who might or might not be still carrying a torch for her. The thing is, Julian is just a plain nice guy who is also socially well-adjusted and extremely good looking. He’s a mensch! Seeing him on the screen brings into sharp focus that even with the increase in on-screen representation of the past few years, we still don’t often get to see uncomplicated all-around good guys played by black men. Additionally, the vulnerability displayed by the female characters is touching without veering into saccharine territory. Though Lisa, Sasha, Dina and Ryan are capable successful women, they are susceptible to all the same insecurities and emotional needs as any other woman on the planet. They are also ultimately unafraid to be honest with each other about those insecurities without buffering it with the type of combativeness and show of false pride that too often plagues portrayals of black women on-screen. Further, these ladies do it with style and they do in a way that makes you genuinely smile.