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Ed Note: It's a Lee Family Day! Come back later for a piece on Spike. For now, here's one on his cuzzin'.
Quentin Spivey appears onscreen 15 minutes into The Best Man. He is giving a club performance on guitar. In the audience is Harper Stewart, who has come to New York from Chicago to assume the titular role for their mutual friend, NFL star Lance Sullivan. Sullivan, a serial cheater, is marrying Mia, a woman he erroneously believes has been virtuous before he met her. Harper is the main character in The Best Man, and, as played by Taye Diggs, is an incredibly handsome leading man. But Quentin Spivey is the kind of supporting character any actor would love to play. He’s charming, roguish, talented, rich and like catnip to women. The film is not on his shoulders, but he’s got one hand holding it up, the same one he’ll use to rob it later.
Malcolm Lee’s 1999 debut is a pointed deconstruction of the male ego, and Quentin is its id. Watching The Best Man again last night, I was surprised how little time he is onscreen. My memory had given him a much bigger role in this ensemble. Taye Diggs’ Harper is the star, and the crisis in The Best Man hinges on whether Morris Chestnut’s serial cheater, Lance, will find out that Monica Calhoun’s Mia is less virtuous courtesy of a one-night stand with Harper back in the day. Until the film’s big showdown between Lance and Harper, Quentin is in the background, tossing off one liners and exuding a coolness that upholds his character’s reputation as a suave lady’s man. Even Lance, who gets more football groupie ass than the ladies’ room toilets at an NFL stadium, comments on Quentin’s way with the women. He’s so memorable to me because Quentin doesn’t let his reputation go to his head. He won’t rub it in so much as smile as if to say “you already know, so why belabor the point?” Like Don Cheadle’s Mouse in Devil In a Blue Dress, Quentin Spivey is a star-making turn that went absolutely nowhere for his portrayer, Terrence Howard.
In a film with such unrealistically beautiful Black actors as Nia Long, Sanaa Lathan, Diggs and Chestnut, the then-unknown Howard commands your attention by underplaying Quentin. He’s a movie type, to be sure, but one you know personally. I bet, if you’re a man—Black or otherwise—you will recognize all the characters in The Best Man. One of them may even be you, or, in the case of Quentin and me, the guy you secretly wish you were. Yes, he is one charming motherfucker, and if my words bear more than a hint of outrageous man-crush, I inform you that I am not only toning down my love for this character in this piece, I am also tempering it with the sad notion that I could have grown up to be Quentin Spivey. For the first time in the Black History Mumf sub-series of “When I Grow Up,” I chose a character I had a shot at becoming—and I fucked it up.
Briefly the plot: Harper Stewart is a first time novelist whose roman-a-clef, Unfinished Business, has been selected by Oprah for her book club. He’s also been chosen to be the best man at his ‘boy’s wedding. His girlfriend, Robin, is more worried about meeting Harper’s friends than meeting Miss Sofia, especially since many of them were the inspirations for characters in Unfinished Business. Robin is specifically unnerved by whomever inspired the Kendall character in the book. Kendall is the Harper character’s true love, an ideal that Robin can’t possibly emulate. Robin plans to fly from Chicago to NYC after Harper, to give him a few days to reconnect and to plan with his ‘boys Quentin, Julian (Harold Perrineau from Oz) and Lance. Lance is the betrothed, Julian is henpecked to death by his snooty girlfriend, Shelby (Melissa DeSouza). And Quentin is heir to the Spivey hotel fortune, yet more content wandering around aimlessly than dealing with the family business.
The Best Man’s women include Jordan (Nia Long) a driven TV executive dying for a scoop on Harper’s book, the aforementioned snob Shelby, and Mia, Lance’s fiancée and, forgive me ladies, his personal doormat. Jordan had an almost one-night stand with Harper back in college, brought on by Stevie Wonder (tip: he makes the panties go POOF and disappear, guys) and called off when the CD player skips and destroys the mood. Mia also has a history with Harper, though the CD didn’t skip when she got with him, and nobody knows it but Harper, Mia and Quentin. And anyone who has read Harper’s book, which, courtesy of Jordan’s underhanded dealings as a TV exec, has fallen into the hands of every one of Harper’s friends. Including Lance, whose ass-backwards though decidedly male delusions about Mia’s life before him are about to be shattered when he gets to a certain chapter in Unfinished Business.
Jordan has some Unfinished Business of her own with Harper, wanting to pick up where the CD interrupted them. Harper is down with that, conveniently forgets that Robin exists. Jordan, despite her powerful and potentially interesting role as a TV exec, is way too preoccupied with getting her cooch serviced by Harper than being a fully drawn character. (To her credit, Long is excellent in the role, and Lee gives her a great dressing down of Harper.) Mia is totally committed to Lance, naively because she knows he needs Dick Control Meetings. Mia and Lance are both delusional, but Lee is much harder on Lance. Lance, like the GOP, uses God to justify the evil that he does, comically praying and trying to force the atheistic Harper to join him in accepting God’s glory. While Lance is realistically drawn, and well played by Chestnut, Lee can’t resist having some fun at his expense.
After reading Unfinished Business, Julian figures the Harper-Mia angle out, but Harper won’t commit to answering because Julian can’t keep a secret to save his life. Harper can’t seem to either, as his characters are so thinly veiled that Robin need only look at Jordan to see who she is in the novel. Lance need only read about how the baseball player’s girl in Unfinished Business seeks out his best friend to use Chris Rock’s “Get Some Dick For Free When Your Man Cheats” card to realize what, and who, went down. Lance reacts accordingly:
|I love that Lee uses D'Angelo in this scene.
He tries to throw Harper off the roof of his bachelor party suite and calls off the wedding.
Only Quentin can diffuse the situation, a situation he knowingly instigated by calling to the carpet Lance’s unreasonable beliefs about his fiancee’s sex life before him.
|God doesn't want that, B!
His “God doesn’t want that, B” comment to Lance forces Lance to rethink murdering Harper. Howard delivers the line dead seriously, but you can’t help but smirk at Lance’s “devotion” to a God whose laws he openly violates.
The Best Man belongs in the same genre as love jones, but with a twist. In love jones, the slam poetry characters may be a tad too bougie for ‘hood rats who prefer their movies like Belly, but one can’t deny The Best Man’s goal of calling out male hypocrisy. Malcolm Lee hasn’t inherited his cousin Spike’s inability to write fully realized female characters, but he balances out his thinly drawn females by doing their job for them. After Lance’s fiery reaction to the truth, he asks Harper if Harper is calling him a hypocrite. Lee’s screenplay says yes, even if Harper doesn’t. Lance’s request that Harper read the Biblical passage about adultery is fucking ridiculous—Mia was nowhere near married when she slept with Harper AND you can bet your last money Lance is going to fuck around regardless of what ring is on his finger. For all his machismo on and off the football field, Lance has the unmitigated gall to call off a wedding (and beat the hell out of his best man), because his fiancée decided, well before they were to be married, that what was good for the gander was also good for the goose.
Even so, the real villain of The Best Man isn’t Lance, it’s Harper. Credit goes to Diggs for messing up his pretty boy mug with a black eye for the last 20 minutes of The Best Man, but he deserves it. Another Mia, Mia Wallace, said in Pulp Fiction that men were “worse than a sewing circle,” and Harper’s refusal to let sleeping dogs lie is an indictment of that male phenomenon of one-upmanship. Sure you can play football and are a big star, but I had your girl, so nyaah! Harper tries to play the victim, but after his second botched attempt at getting to Jordan, she hands him the truth on a silver platter:
“You wrote the book. You aired your dirty laundry. No matter how hard you tried to disguise it, it was YOU! You got me all fired up saying that my life was empty and we could have been great together! That was you, okay? Not me. YOU.”
The silver plattered truth leads me back to Quentin Spivey. He knows about Harper and Mia but enjoys watching Harper sweat as the truth gets closer to being exposed. It is he who, through his desire to call out fakers, instigates Lance’s paranoia about Mia. Most cheating men freak out when the thought of them being cheated on pops into their head. Before the shit hits the fan, Quentin and Harper have a conversation about Quentin’s father:
Harper Stewart: Hey, is your pops still trying to groom you for the hotel management business?
Quentin: Yeah, for the last 20 years? I'm just not trying to hear all that stuff, you know? Dealing with complaining-a guests, unions, and payrolls, and all that...
Harper Stewart: Yeah, too much like a real job, huh?
Quentin: You know what, nigga? Fuck you. You're my judge, right? That's your job. You judge me.
Harper Stewart: No, I'm just playing, man...
Quentin: No, nigga, you... it's just amazing how you've always analyzed everybody else's shit and then you don't do the same thing for your own self.
Harper Stewart: Will you chill?
Quentin: No, because you've done dirt too, motherfucker, and you're doing more dirt! That's right. You're fucking Jordan tonight, remember? Jordan. See, you ain't any better than the rest of us, got it? Your shit just ain't caught you yet.
Your shit just ain’t caught you yet.
Quentin’s honesty, combined with his attitude, demeanor and overall suaveness, puts him in the sights of my character idolizing. A lot of people who have seen The Best Man tell me that Harper reminded them of me. Outside of his writing, I have no idea why this is so. Revealing other people’s dirty laundry ain’t my style; I’d prefer to smirk at you and watch as the truth blows your ass up. My Mom told me as a kid that I had a tell that let her know when I was lying. She refused to tell me what my tell is. Mom was probably full of shit, but I’m not risking it! Her statement made me a dreadful liar, so I tend to either shut up or just tell the truth. I clean up nicely, and I tend to do with my voice what Howard does with his here. Even his dialogue sounds like me.
Why I didn’t grow up to be Quentin Spivey, despite all the signs pointing that way, is when I was 14, I was surgically robbed of every single ounce of my self-confidence. Like my vision and the color of my left eye, it has never come back. Watch how, even in the face of imminent ass-kicking by Lance, Quentin’s unflappable demeanor never changes. His eyes say “nigga you ain’t gonna do shit.” That confidence transfers over to Q’s dealings with women—he’s a dog but a lucky bastard because a) he’s open about it and b) women love confidence. Professionally, I’m a diva (remember: Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network is White Odie the Programmer). Personally, I can’t push myself to a state of pure Spiveyness because I can’t commit to accepting the way I look. My inner Quentin knows this.
Malcolm Lee’s message for Lance, delivered by a jarring jump cut to a sex scene at a crucial moment in the film’s wedding scene, is “get over it dude. It happened, and you can’t change the past.” If only I’d listen. Until then, I’ll just have to live through Terrence Howard.
Ladies, has this ever happened to you after too much Colt 45?