Watching “The Best Man”: Old Movie, New Feminist Lens


Last night I watched The Best Man. What is significant about it is that watching the film with an eye towards representations of Black women, I knew that there were going to be major distinctions and differences that I would see now that I didn’t see before.

The first difference is in the opening when Sanaa and Taye are in the bathtub and she confronts him on his desires to take the next step towards commitment in their relationship. She gets upset, and gets out of the tub. The camera then remains on Taye’s character. This has the impact of forcing the viewer to experience the moment from his eye’s, not hers. This is important, because the focus of the camera tells us who the director thinks is important in a scene.

The second difference is that I noticed that the Black women fell into representations of “controlling images” that honestly could have come out of a Tyler Perry movie.

There was the “good Christian woman who deserved her man”: Mia/ Monica Calhoun.

There was the attractive Black woman, who was invested in her career more so on getting married, so she was seen as someone who “didn’t need a m an” and was “damn near a lesbian”: Jordan/ Nia Long.

There was the attractive, materialistic and shallow Black woman who emasculated her man/partner: Shelby/ Melissa DeSousa.

There was the attractive Black woman, who was smart and sweet, but held in a holding pattern by her gentleman friend: Robin/ Sanaa Lathan.

Needless to say, I enjoyed the movie but it was interesting that the Black women characters were very similar to the representations of Black women in Tyler Perry movies.

In the book Beyond the Black Lady Lisa Thompson helped me to think about how women in general were presented in the film, Nia Long’s character in particular. Thompson writes,

 ”The middle class black woman (or Black lady) represents a problem to be avoided; she is too indendent, too intelligent, and too self sufficient. The men declare her a threat and romantic outcast who resonates to them in the same register as “the lesbian”.

Thompson then goes on to connect the dots regarding how middle class Black women are represented in films during this era. She writes,

Popular African American romantic comedy like “The Best Man” and “Soul Food” consistently reward women who pursue tradtional female roles. They present the desperate social circumstances of professional black women as the result of misplaced priorities and aggressive personalities. In essence, these films uphold and further the cultural stereotype the black lady as cold, prim and passionless. They also, in light of bleak marriage rates for black professional women, send an alaringly conservative message and signal a backlash against the recent academic and professional successes that women have enjoyed.

So, “The Best Man”. Old movie, feminist lens.

Thoughts?

 

Comments

  1. Good post! I had never thought about the representation of Black women in The Best Man and also Soul Food, but now that you pointed it out, I can definitely see where the representations perpetuate stereotypes about career oriented Black women.

    In The Best Man, Mia, the sweet “good girl” marries the famous football player. Robin accepts Taye Diggs’ (forgot his character’s name) marriage proposal, even after he tells her he planned on sleeping with Jordan. And alas, Jordan, the career-minded woman, ends up alone. Also in Soulfood, the sister with the marriage and kids is Maxine, the stay at home mom. Terri, the lawyer, is cold and aloof, and her husband cheats on her. I feel like although Miles cheats on her, the audience is supposed to kind of sympathize with him, because Terri didn’t support this music career, and didn’t show him much affection, so therefore, it was her fault that he cheated.

  2. it was her fault that he cheated.
    ==========
    Girrrrrrl.

    Because I am suppose to assume that a human being is a lamp and they can’t control where they put their ‘personal areas’.

    Negro please. #eyeroll.

  3. Exactly! Cheating is never justified, just break up. I also don’t know how I feel about the advice Maxine gives Bird about letting a man be a man (in reference to Bird going to her ex-boyfriend to help Lem find a job). Like what does that mean? She seemed to reduce it to his ego when it’s more than that. The film perpetuated this notion of masculinity and manhood that relies on men being the main financial providers of their families, and if they can’t do that then they are not “real” men.

  4. I am not speaking from a morally superior position by any means. I have done dirt and have had dirt done to me.

    My point is that, even in those circumstances, human beings are never objects.

    Human beings are messy, contradictory…etc. These are the kinds of nuanced depictions of Black women I am invested in seeing.

  5. Oh I definitely agree! I always read and hear many Black people say they want to see “positive” media representations of ourselves, but I’m thinking, I just want to see real representations. I want to see us represented in all of our complexity, the good, bad and ugly. I understand why people only want to see the “good” represented, because when the “bad” and “ugly” are represented, other people believe that is all to Black people and Black culture. We will never be truly equal in this society, if all of our complexity can’t be represented.

  6. arieswym says:

    Now, I’m trying to think of a professional black woman that gets rewarded and isn’t seen as a problem.

    Eventually, maybe Teri in the TV version of Soul Food.

    Otherwise I’m drawing a blank.

  7. Ahhh, I think that The Best Man is one of the best black films ever made. I never thought about the representations of women in the film but after reading this post I now have a new perspective from which to view it.

    Damn, you know the older I get and the more I read it’s like being in the twilight zone. I am a Jordan/Terri, though I see myself in all my multifaceted glory, I realize that is how I am dealt with by the masculine other.

    True story; I just got out of two relationships in which both men had similarly harsh criticisms of me. Guy #1 took issue that my pov concerning politics did not agree with his own and whenever I would offer my opinion in one of our political discussions, no matter how sweetly I said it, it always resulted in a fight.Guy #2 took issue with me after I took issue with him telling me where I could and could not volunteer my time, after about 1 week of casually kicking it mind you. I found it interesting that both men,american born black men, not muslims, made reference to Muslim women, Guy #1 told me I needed to spend some time with some good Muslim women and Guy #2 told me that to him the epitome of a lady was a Muslim woman in traditional dress and he also spoke on black american women not having the proper “femininity training” because of slavery, I’m not sure how or why I kept our relationship going after this comment.

    Needless to say, I am just done. I am now alone, like Jordan/Teri, but extremely happy. I found the quote by Lisa Thompson just too on point because I have been accused several times in my life, once by my father and uncle, of being a lesbian.

    And yes I agree with you and Tasasha, I think that when people say positive media representations they mean, the idiosyncratic and complex, but we always seem to end up in these easily labeled boxes. I would’ve loved to see the relationship between Teri and Miles from Teri’s perspective, I mean he married her she must have been a lot more than the cold, power suited up bitch they made her look like. I’m sorry for leaving small novels in your comment section, but you have no idea how good these conversations are for my brain……

  8. Really TAE!?!?!?!?!?!?….Best Man…I don’t know Gina…I am more of a Love Jones/Eve’s Bayou girl….with regard late 1990′s negro films..

    What I do like about The Best Man, is that when Morris Chestnut came out of his face on some super patriarchal “I just need to bring home the bacon”, his boys didn’t let it stand, and one of them said…and I paraphrase…”That’s some old caveman shit dude”…

    Yeah. The sexism that comes with dating when you have a political awareness can be a bit surreal.

    Right now my work is on how public and privet markets impact how Black women see themselves…so In some ways I am aware of this on both a theoretical and a REALLY personal level. o.0

    Lisa Thompson’s book is genius especially for the film crit + Black women section and the section on Anita Hill.

    That is really interesting that a certain kind of Black Muslim woman femininity is held up as the standard,but then again that is the town.

    Queer Black Muslim women are some of this most radical folks I have had the pleasure of reading. o.0

    Honestly, Black people, Black middle class folks are some of the most conservative folks that I know. This isn’t innate, I think it is a historical response to racism. Like….if I “ACT” respectful, then I will be respected…kinda thing.

    Lorraine O’Grady’s essay “Olympia’s Maid” speaks to why Black girls, middle class Black girls can be really conservative. You may like that essay a lot, actually.

    Re the breakups. I hate the moments right after. But I just see it as God moving people around. Once I get over the loneliness and finding a new rhythm. I hope you find one too

    Girl never apologize for the comments. I Love them. It is one of the reasons why I blog. You all help me to see the assumptions that I make in my scholarly work that I need to flesh out. It’s like being in a cave with a flash light trying to dig my way out with a dictionary. o.0

  9. “Honestly, Black people, Black middle class folks are some of the most conservative folks that I know. This isn’t innate, I think it is a historical response to racism. Like….if I “ACT” respectful, then I will be respected…kinda thing.”

    Thanks for this pearl!

  10. Regarding to TAE’s Comment at 8:56pm on 3/18/2012

    “Guy #2 told me that to him the epitome of a lady was a Muslim woman in traditional dress and he also spoke on black american women not having the proper “femininity training” because of slavery,”

    What do you think he meant by that comment? I was blown away by that idea.

  11. @ Renina: Yeah girl, I really do think that The Best Man is a jewel of black cinema. All of the actors got chops, the story was great, and I thought the characters were rich not the stereotypical fare you usually find in films about us. I think you could take this movie and give it any type of cast; all white, asian, whatever and it would still be a solid film. Eve’s Bayou and Love Jones are the biz though don’t get me twisted.

    I am learning somethings about these brothas in the town, these black militant, righteous, enlightened brothas….and I am not pleased. I’m sure you would have some interesting insight on this. I think I am finding my rhythym again slowly but surely and this time I refuse to let it be thrown off by somebody who is just all off my beat, lol. I will def check out some of that reading material too, thanx 4 that

    @ Ms. World: Girl…..I was kind of blown away too. The way he broke it down to me was like my mother was taught by her mother who was taught by her mother who was taught by her mother who was taught by a slave, something like that. Basically he was stating that black women do not know how to be “properly feminine” because we were not raised to be so, because of the transgenerational effects of slavery. So I could see where he was going but honestly it was like a slap to my face, my mother’s face, my grandmother’s face, and right on down the line. The women in my life are PHENOMENAL and they have raised me well. They have raised me as proper as any woman could be raised. The women in my family are no joke and in a lot of ways I am a natural born feminist/womanist and very proud of it. Women in my family hold masters degrees, phd’s, own buisnesses, pastor churches, hold down classrooms and take care of home. I also come from a single parent household and my maternal grandmother lived the majority of her life as a divorced single mother, this same grandmother retired from the army as a full bird colonel. Honestly I think a lot of black men confuse masculinity with control/dominance and when a man encounters a woman who will not let him control her/dominate her she is not “properly feminine”. Crap. Such crap. These men are beginning to sound like crybabies to me

  12. @TAE

    Honestly I think a lot of black men confuse masculinity with control/dominance and when a man encounters a woman who will not let him control her/dominate her she is not “properly feminine”.

    Look at it this way, when we tell boys not to cry, we raise men who don’t know how to feel or Love. How you gone Love me, when you only want to figure out how to dominate me.

    Real spit. Of all my homies who are in heterosexual monogamous relationships, I only know of a FEW where the guy is comfortable being challenged by his lady partner. Not challenged like “No, we are not watching the game, but we are watching this movie”. But challenged to the extent that they are willing see their lady partner as someone with her own needs, with her own spiritual and intellectual autonomy, and her NEED to develop those dimensions of herself. This isn’t to say that they don’t struggle because they do. But it does say that there is something fundamentally different about the masculinity of these men, and their willingness to grow along with their partner.

    What is interesting is that I am cool with BOTH people in those relationships, to the extent that I see both of them as friends, not just the guy, not just the lady.

  13. How you gone love me, when you only want to figure out how to dominate me?

    That is the million dollar question girl. I’m not a bible thumper but I was raised on some holy ghost and some scriptures so I whenever I think about love I always think about the oft quoted passage in Corinthians. Love is patient, love is kind, and you know the rest.

    You are soooo right though, we are teaching little boys the opposite of love. I would imagine that fundamental difference in the masculinity of those few men you know is that they were taught or came into the knowledge of the true nature of love. Love at its core is the selfless cultivation of your partners spirit. Most men are raised to be ignorant of the spiritual and hyperaware of the flesh, like not being able to cry (a spiritual release)and being told to toughen up(a physical act)

    I’ve had a few conversations that have gotten me into trouble but my honest opinion is that men have been weakened by the lack of connection they have with their spiritual/feminine selves and I don’t say that to bash.

    Were these men good friends with these women before they became their lovers? That’s a magical thing right thurr. You really really need to visit the Bay sometime in the near future so I can take you out to lunch and talk your head off in person….you’re free to talk my head off as well of course

  14. Hi Renina & TAE- just want to say that I your dialogue in the last 3 comments.

    “How you gone love me, when you only want to figure out how to dominate me?”
    is indeed a mindblower and so true to the conversation especially between Black men and women. The more I think about it, the more it makes sense that idea (a man wanting to dominate a woman) is weighing down relationships between women and men, especially in the African-American community. I think some Black women really aren’t into being dominated and that really seems to piss off some brothers since they believe that is an integral part of performing their masculinity.

    I agree men have been weakened by the lack of connection to their spirtual/feminine selves. There is no way domination can equal love.

  15. I hear you all re domination, but I want to be add a caveat that I am talking domination spiritually, and not necessarily sexually. I say this because a couple of years ago I wrote a blog post and there were posts written at the Crunk Feminists blog about Jay Electronica and sexual domination and violence. Within that realm, the issue isn’t so much domination, but dominating someone without their consent.

    I also don’t know about a spirit self, being the the feminine self. I think that a lot of Black masculinity performance arises in response to White racism. I am also thinking about how in one generation ago Black men, in the blues were allowed to feel, to be visible feeling in Black popular culture. This isn’t the case now with Black pop culture today.

  16. “How you gone love me, when you only want to figure out how to dominate me?”

    Wow, that’s one I’m going to mull over for a while now.

    I’ve never even thought of the inability to cry as a weakness until someone close to me passed. I don’t particularly see it as a weakness in cultivating a meaningful relationship, but that quote got me thinking.

    Dominance is part of my pedigree that affords me the lifestyle I enjoy right now, its very logical that I would treat my loved ones the same way. *bung

  17. I’m late …. but I couldn’t help myself.
    I loved the Best Man when it came out, but even back then I never thought that Mia was being ‘rewarded.’ Lance wasn’t going to change, she would be continually hurt by his cheating, etc. It’s funny how concerned Blacks can be collectively worried about their image and being shown in a bad light, yet I don’t recall any criticism that two of four male leads were very sexually promiscuous. (And a third almost broke his relationship vows).
    And for some reason, my colorism lens are set to high today, but I keep noticing how much fairer all the women are then the men.

  18. Well, in a social system where Black women are stereotyped in films, Mia was certainly rewarded. Nia Long’s character was considered “damn near a man” because she was just as invested in her career as the male characters were.

    Black women who are pretty and want to work are typically punished in mainsteam films with violence and/or social isolation. This was suggested with with Taraji in Think Like a Man.

    Mens sexuality and women’s sexuality, for heterosexuals, are created in opposition to each other in mainstream media. So, a man is expected to be sexual, sexually aggressive toward women. Women are expected to be passive, sexually available, and never aggressive. So the idea of concerned Blacks being concerned with the promiscuous men doesn’t mesh. The term “ho’s” isn’t applied to Black men, but to Black women on the reg.

    Oh and trust. No one is every dark choclate in these films. Thats why I ride for Viola Davis going to the Oscars rocking a chestnut afro.

  19. So loving this conversation. I was in grad school when I saw that movie for the first time and I analyzed it to death – working on a sociology phd. I absolutely hated the characterization of the women, especially Mia’s character. I do appreciate that Lance was at least challenged for his sexist beliefs by a couple of the guys. But it was so interesting how race, class, and gender issues came together so clearly in that film: the good girl, how Lance was seen as a prize and not a “ho”, the woman with the successful career but no man. Funny how often I hear the “that’s why you ain’t got a man” line if I express a belief that goes against these stereotypes and funny how that’s considered the worst thing in the world as if “having a man” makes me a real woman. Sigh.

  20. Yas! What became clear to me as I watched it was that many of the stereotypes that I see in Tyler Perry films are smack dab in the best man. But if you really want to peep some differences, watch Eves Bayou with an eye toward how the Black women are constructed. It is uber fascinating. Welcome to the discussion.
    ~Renina

  21. And it is disturbing how those stereotypes Tyler Perry perpetuates become all the more powerful by infusing Christian/black church messages into his films. I will definitely have to re-watch Eve’s Bayou. And where is the writer of Love Jones? We need more of that.

  22. @CGDC
    Well. I have a lot of thoughts on Black women’s sexuality and money. I spent the last six months writing about it, lol.

    Here is an interview with the director of Love Jones: http://www.theroot.com/views/love-jones-director-remembers-beloved-classic?page=0,1.

    For me, this was key:
    TR: Is that why you seemed to disappear after Love Jones?

    TW: No. I intended to have a long list of credits, but I couldn’t get another movie. There has to be something that you want to do that a studio wants to pay for. I was never able to sync that up. I wanted to do ambitious films with more black people. You don’t get to do that.

    Some things came my way that I passed on, and I have no regrets. I continue my career as a screenwriter and I briefly directed videos — I was nominated for an MTV Video Music Award for City High’s “What Would You Do?” — and commercials, but I didn’t like them. Now I’m working on an adaptation of Invisible Life by E. Lynn Harris. We’ll see what happens.

  23. From a black males perspective.

    I think the portrayal of black women in “The Best Man” are somewhat accurrate you have many different facets of black women as you do men. A lot of the women commenting seem to think that most black men are threatened or intimidated by an intelligent, independent woman we are not! The traits that we find of putting in this woman is that she possesses the qualities to close to our own. I think subconsciously we see her as a opposite of what we have embedded in our DNA as a man. That is to procreate and have someone who’s emotional and mental makeup differs from your own. It is not that we don’t want to be challenge on certain fronts, but that you respect my place in this relationship as I will yours. It seems as though because of the lack of quality black men in the family black women feel it necessary to fill those shoes. The structure of the household has always been the man is the head now we seemingly what to change the dynamics of this relationship. You can’t de-emasculate a man then expect for him to be your knight in shining armor. You want respect him neither will he respect himself. I think men of this day in age simply want a woman who can balance the roles she has with more of the attention being toward a wife and mother. Your success in the business means nothing to us if you can’t maintain home! For men it is often times the opposite, we are expected to bring home the bacon and make sure all of the financial needs are met. That dynamic is also being challenged and slowly dying now it is often that both parties bring home the bacon which now adds a new parallel to the relationship. The level of respect is often lowered towards the man because she feels she can do without him financially so she overlooks what he provides in intagibles.

  24. @Reluctant,

    A lot of the women commenting seem to think that most black men are threatened or intimidated by an intelligent, independent woman we are not!
    ===========
    I think that it is important to speak for yourself, or speak based on your experiences. Some men and some women are intimidated by people because of their wealth, income, last name pedigree. It just is.

    You can’t de-emasculate a man then expect for him to be your knight in shining armor.
    ===========
    We have very different assumptions. I am less invested in emasculating or masculinizing Black men, in fact I find the violent ways in which Black masculinity is constructed to be harmful to Black men and the people who date them.

    Here is some more reading on my ideas:
    http://newmodelminority.com/2010/11/01/white-men-x-rap-music-x-black-masculinity/
    http://newmodelminority.com/2010/08/01/black-male-privilege-x-male-privilege/
    http://newmodelminority.com/2010/07/07/black-men-x-love-x-domination/

    Let me know what you think.

    ~R

  25. @Reluctant/John

    I was going through my archive last night building my link list for the “East Coast Creatives Newsletter” and I noticed that you have been a long time reader as I came across several of your old comments. People tend not to leave long comments on blogs so I understand how special they are. I am not sure why you posted under “reluctant” but to each their own.

    I find this statement interesting.
    “Who you lay down with is your business my intent was simply to say that I can’t see that someone can speak about the black man as you do and be in a loving intimate relationship with one.”

    There are a whole lot assumptions in this statement. The first one being that one has to have sexual relationships with Black men in order to care about them as a whole. This my dear isn’t the case.

    Conversely, there are people both men and women who like having sex with women, but they don’t Love/Like them. I know. Someone had to explain that to me slowly the first time, but when I saw it in action, I got it.

    I care about Black people across the board, and I am invested in the survival of little Black girls in particular because of the fact that they face the intersection of racism and sexism.

    People hold each other accountable out of Love. Trust. Besides, there are a million other blogs who could give a flying shit about the relations between Black people, across and within genders. This blog happens to be ran by a person who cares.

    I hope that clarifies my response, Mr. Long time reader.