LOS ANGELES—Some days can look pretty bad when you’re the one stuck in the middle of them. American director Malcolm Lee thought he was having a bad week this past August. His wife had just given birth to their second child, and their older child was having health problems. It became difficult for him to find the time to work on the editing of his latest film, Soul Men, starring Bernie Mac and Samuel L. Jackson. But nothing is so bad that it can’t get worse. He was just hearing back from a focus group about their reaction to the movie when he learned that Mac had died. The following day, Isaac Hayes, who appears in the movie and worked closely with Lee on the soundtrack, also passed away.
He took a few days off to deal with his grief and his family problems, but he eventually had to go back to the movie and examine how the two men’s deaths might affect the audience’s appreciation of the movie. “I said, ”˜Let’s look at the movie again,’ ” he says in an L.A. hotel room, “because I hadn’t watched it in its entirety since they had died, and we were talking a lot about death and mortality and there was a worry about how those jokes were going to play. I was concerned for about a week, and then finally I just said, ”˜Let’s test it again and see what we have,’ so that people could see that we weren’t making light of death or anything like that. There were some reshoot ideas that we had in order to enhance the jokes that were already there or to push the envelope further, but none of them were really necessary. Then we added a tribute [to Mac and Hayes].”
In the film, which opens November 7, Mac and Jackson play two members of a 1960s R & B group who drive across America to attend the funeral of the group’s third member. Asked to do a musical tribute, they have booked gigs along the way to shake off 30 years of rust. That called for Mac and Jackson to sing and dance through several numbers. Lee says that both men showed up prepared to perform.
“Their chemistry was paramount to making it work, but they already knew their characters and what they wanted to do and how they wanted to portray them. We get Sam and Bernie displaying talents that they haven’t displayed before, and not just the singing and dancing. Sam rarely gets the opportunity to play funny in his movies and Bernie was able to express the kind of pathos that he rarely got to show on-screen. I think it is vintage Bernie Mac. It think it is the Bernie that we were all introduced to on [the comedy series] Def Comedy Jam, the Bernie that is raw and unapologetic. I think this is some of his best work.”