The Vue at Leeds Light refused to sell me a ticket for the film showing I wanted as it had ‘gone from their computer’. Given that they regularly run 20 minutes of ads, I don’t think it was unreasonable to ask for a ticket 20 minutes after the recognised start time. Later I realised that I could have bought a ticket for any screening and then switched auditorium. To be fair the tickets are only £4.99 so I plonked a fiver down for my second choice, Night School. I chose it on the reasonable grounds that I’d enjoyed Girls Trip directed by Malcolm D. Lee and starring Tiffany Haddish and the two are together again in Night School. The real star of the film is, however, Kevin Hart, who I knew much less about – OK, nothing at all. My research reveals that he has been a very busy stand-up and film and TV comedian/comic actor who on this film is also a writer and producer. I don’t watch US TV or mainstream films, otherwise he would be very familiar. Comments on Night School from critics and audiences suggest that most of Hart’s antics in this film have been seen before. The ratings for the film are generally low but it has still made a lot of money – $84 million at the time of writing, with the UK and Australia as major overseas markets.
I enjoyed the film but I feel it has one major weakness – it’s far too long at 111 minutes and could lose 10 to 20 minutes quite easily. The problem is in the opening sequence which takes too long to introduce the narrative disruption – and therefore delays getting into what is essentially the ensemble piece which makes the film work. As various commentators have pointed out the film attempts to meld two different but connected narratives. The first sees Teddy (Kevin Hart) as a successful salesman who has wooed a beautiful and highly successful interior designer to whom he is about to propose, but in the process he has put himself into severe financial difficulties. When disaster strikes Teddy finds himself in debt, with no job and no chance of getting another because he left school without qualifications and now he can’t get the high-powered job he needs without passing a GED test (which employers will accept as an alternative to a high school diploma). To get this he decides to go to night school – at the same high school he attended twenty years earlier. The narrative about his romance and the one about his learning difficulties with formal tests don’t really fit together. The night school introduces Tiffany Haddish as Teddy’s teacher and a varied group of misfits as his classmates. There is even a pantomime villain in the form of the school principal who Teddy insulted when they were high school students together.
The night school story seems to me to be well-written and sometimes very funny. It’s a familiar generic narrative but Hart and Haddish and the others make it work. The ‘second chance’ that night school offers easily fits the Hollywood dream promise. Interestingly, although this is an African-American film, the night school student group comprises three white and three black students and one Latino (the story is set in Atlanta). The students are there for different reasons (including one in prison doing the course via Skype). Tiffany Haddish plays quite a different role from the party girl in Girls Trip, although she does get at least one action sequence.
What struck me most of all was that this film is in many ways quite old-fashioned and draws on decades of similar comedian-led narrative escapades in which the hapless central character works hard and is defeated many times, but eventually succeeds, wins the ‘girl’ and defeats the authority figure (here the school principal). Kevin Hart is short (with a high-pitched voice when his fears are exposed), but he offers a character who is ‘smart’ and attractive on the outside but damaged by a sense of failure beneath. That’s perhaps the modern aspect of the narrative – otherwise it seems to me very familiar from the comedy vehicles of my childhood, the films of Norman Wisdom in the UK in the 1950s and early 1960s that were massively popular.
I was going to add the trailer for the film, but it includes many of the jokes and ‘explains’ the whole film in ways that mean that you may feel that you don’t need to see it. It undersells itself. Why can’t Hollywood make trailers? Still, I think Night School confirms the promise of Girls Trip in showing that African-American cinema can justify a wide release in the UK – and that’s no bad thing.
I enjoyed Girls Trip. I didn’t get all the jokes and I didn’t recognise all the cameos of music performers, but then I’m not part of the demographic targeted by the film. I watched the film because I thought that perhaps this would be a breakthrough of some kind for ‘popular’ African-American cinema. So far, it looks like it will be, since its opening weekend in the UK saw it at No 5 in the chart with £1.56 million (including previews) from 345 cinemas. After three weeks it has a box office of $95 million worldwide. For a film with an estimated $19 million budget, that’s good business. There are several possible explanations for this success, but first here’s an outline of what the film offers.
I’m guessing that the relevant genre mix derives from films (none of which I’ve seen) like The Hangover (US 2009) and its sequels. Those films dealt with a group of male friends let loose on a weekend in a ‘party city’ with the sequels including some darker elements along with comedy. The more recent Bad Moms (2016) shares some elements but is essentially a female-centred ‘domestic comedy’. More importantly, perhaps, is that The Hangover and Bad Moms were both successful as ‘R’ rated comedies (’15’ in the UK), allowing a level of sexual innuendo and ‘bad’ language beyond the norm for comedy films. Girls Trip is similarly ‘R-rated’, but its four central characters are forty-something African-American women (the actors’ ages range from 37 to 47) who became close college friends as ‘The Flossy Possy’ in the 1990s. Now they are scheduled to meet up after several years at the New Orleans ‘Essence Fest’, the annual music festival for African-American women hosted by Essence magazine. (As the poster above illustrates, Girls Trip isn’t exactly subtle – and this poster was banned in the US, I think – but at least the women get to ogle the men.)
The plot revolves around Ryan (Regina Hall) who has become successful with her husband, ex-NFL star Stewart. The couple have a best-selling book and TV appearances and Ryan has an all expenses paid trip to Essence Fest where she hopes to land a big TV deal that will make her the next Oprah. Sasha (Queen Latifah) is a journalist whose career has stalled. Her future may depend on scooping celebrity scandal at Essence. Dina (Tiffany Haddish) is a party girl who has just lost her job and Lisa (Jada Pinkett Smith) is a seemingly uptight single mother. (Pinkett Smith is also in Bad Moms.) These roles easily set up a range of narrative possibilities and the ‘inciting moment’ comes a little way into the narrative when it is revealed that Ryan and Stewart’s marriage is less than solid and the exposure of the rifts during Essence could scupper the TV deal. Ryan needs her Flossy Possy for support but everything the other three women do, consciously or unconsciously, threatens to undermine her.
As well as the mechanics of the plot and the performances of the leads, Girls Trip has two other important attractions in New Orleans itself as location and the music festival with its galaxy of stars of hip hop, rap and other forms of Black music. This even includes the music of acts like Chaka Khan and Kool and the Gang who old people like me remember. All of this is marshalled into a hectic narrative of action set pieces and girl talk by Malcolm D. Lee. Lee is representative of one of two major strands in popular African-American cinema. His run of hits began with The Best Man in 1999 which he has turned into a mini-franchise and he has also participated in other series with Scary Movie 5 (2013) and Barbershop: The Next Cut (2016) – the latter series is the only one I’m familiar with (see Barbershop (2002) but it seems clear that Lee’s interests lie in comedy with both melodrama and action elements. Lee’s main rival is Tyler Perry who has been releasing his own, almost ‘one man’ (he writes, produces, directs and stars in) productions through Lionsgate at the rate of two a year since 2009. Perry has confounded critics and become very successful. Both these filmmakers have been successful in addressing a mainstream African-American audience with only marginal interest by white audiences as distinct from the work of Denzel Washington, Spike Lee, John Singleton and more recently Barry Jenkins who have been recognised by critics and whose work traverses both African-American culture and generic Hollywood concerns.
The main difficulty in discussing this work from a UK perspective is that most African-American films (i.e. with a direct focus on Black culture) struggle to get a (wide) UK release. UK distributors, when they do take these films, often restrict them to urban areas where they think there is a significant Black audience, but even then, they don’t really seem to know what they are doing. I think Tyler Perry’s work is only available on DVD in the UK. It is this history which makes the success of Girls Trip so important. I watched it in a Cardiff multiplex in an afternoon showing with a mainly white audience of younger women who certainly got more jokes and more references than I did, partly, I imagine because they knew the music stars and contemporary African-American celebrities better than I do. It should still be around in UK cinemas so I’d recommend Girls Trip as an alternative to superheroes (though it does include some fantasy sequences). One other interesting observation is that apart from the UK the only significant overseas market for Girls Trip so far is South Africa (as it has been for earlier films from Perry and Lee). It seems odd that France in particular has not received these titles.