Standup comic Tiffany Haddish is known for her fearlessly raunchy comedy routines (like this one about farting during doggie style sex), so it’s fitting to see her here, on the New Orleans set of Girls Trip, co-starring in a summer comedy that’s as rowdy as they come. The movie is about a group of college friends who meet up for the first time in five years to party for the weekend at the annual Essence Festival. Haddish plays the foul-mouthed and funny Dina, who spikes her friends’ fluorescent yellow cocktails with absinthe, hoping to make a wild night even wilder. The rest of her crew is as follows: Ryan, a career-obsessed self-help author played by Regina Hall; Sasha, a level headed gossip blogger played by Queen Latifah; and Lisa, an overly prudish mother of two played by Jada Pinkett-Smith. Also along for the ride is Kate Walsh, the only white woman in the scene, Ryan’s agent, and ditzy sidekick.
It’s a classic comedy set up: four of the five women aren’t privy to a secret that will soon lead to shenanigans — peeing on a crowd while ziplining over a Bourbon Street, blowjob practice drills with grapefruits and bananas, and unexpected penis popups. This sounds a lot like your average Sex and the City dynamic, except in this case, the women are all Black. And rarely — if ever — have we seen Black women anchor a film while being both raucous and raunchy. (The last time we’ve even had a major female-centred feature starring four Black women was Waiting to Exhale in 1995). In both white-male-dominated mainstream Hollywood and the still male-dominated world of Black film, Black women have typically been relegated to roles like the loud-talking sidekick, spouses of male leads, or the Mammie-ish stereotypes of Tyler Perry's Madea movies. With Girls Trip, a hilarious, quotable insta-classic with a rock star cast, we finally have the movie that will open the door for more Black women in big screen comedies.
As it is with stories about women, or people of color, and especially when it’s both, Girls Trip wasn’t an easy sell in Hollywood at first. “There were a lot of roadblocks and a lot of pitching and convincing, because we were asking people to invest tens of millions of dollars into a project that hadn’t ever been done before,” says producer Will Packer, a regular attendee of the Essence Festival who came up with the idea of a Hangover for Black women while visiting in 2013 with his wife. “There was no model we could point to and say, ‘Oh, look at this other successful movie with a similar theme and cast.’”
What Packer did have going for him is a recent rise of films and TV shows exploring the many facets of Black life. Just over the course of production, projects like Moonlight, Hidden Figures, Fences and Get Out were major box office successes and award season favourites, while on television, Empire, Insecure, Atlanta, and Queen Sugar have become must-see-TV. Before Girls Trip, Packer himself had emerged as a major player for Black film, producing movies like Stomp the Yard, Straight Outta Compton (nominated for a Best Screenplay Oscar in 2016), About Last Night (a remake of the 1986 original, swapping Rob Lowe and Demi Moore for Michael Ealy and Joy Bryant), and both buddy-cop Ride Along movies with big name stars like Ice Cube and Kevin Hart.
It was his idea to bring on Malcolm D. Lee as director, who helmed movies like Undercover Brother and The Best Man, a romantic comedy about a group of male college friends that got a sequel in 2013 — The Best Man Holiday, a box office smash that bested Thor 2 on its debut night, just in time to get Packer’s attention.
Authenticity was a key focus for the producer-director duo, so finding writers who could truly mine the realities of Black women’s lives — from their hair to their workplace struggles — was key. The pair hired Black-ish’s Kenya Barris and Tracy Oliver, who co-wrote Barbershop: The Next Cut with Barris as well as Issa Rae’s web series The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl. They’re the ones responsible for the plot’s over-the-top hijinks, reminiscent of movies like Bridesmaids and The Hangover but also more culturally specific, like that scarf Latifah’s wearing in the pre-gaming scene to preserve her edges, or the funny-but-too-real lesson Hall gives Walsh’s character about her usage of phrases like “turnt” and “girl bye.”
“I have a raunchy sensibility — I’m the girl that is not afraid of saying the word dick — but Black women have an added layer of respectability politics that white writers don’t have to worry about,” says Oliver. “In the back of my mind, I did sometimes say I think this is funny, but will it make Black women look bad? What are my mom and her church friends going to say? But we have the right to be as crazy and as wild as white characters get to be.”
"This is not a romantic comedy. It’s just a comedy. And Black women deserve that."
— Regina Hall
As far as casting goes, Packer and Lee scored an all-star cast, three household names with decades of film experience and one rising star. And it wasn’t difficult: Each of the cast members jumped at the chance to sign on to this movie, eager to finally see a film starring Black women who aren’t slaves, or background characters, or just trying to find a man (or get over one).
“Will [Packer] started talking to me about this idea while we were promoting Think Like A Man Too, and I was obsessed with the concept of something that would finally focus on Black women and friendship,” said Hall while sitting in an adjacent hotel room, trading her character’s heels for slippers. She was the first person cast, though she usually plays more of the stereotypical, but yes, gut-bustingly-funny accomplice (see her scene-stealing supporting role in Packer’s About Last Night). “How often do we see that? Never! And not only are they Black women, but they’re educated, they’re real, they’re a little older. There’s some relationship stuff in there, but this is not a romantic comedy. It’s just a comedy. And Black women deserve that.”
Next came casting Lisa and Sasha. Lee and Packer thought of Jada Pinkett Smith and Queen Latifah, respectively, who hadn’t been on the screen together since their 1996 indie action thriller Set It Off. At one point, Latifah started interviewing me, curious about my job as a journalist, since she plays a gossip blogger who dreams of writing about something more substantial. Having a bit of backstory would help her get into her character’s mind, she said; after all, this is one of the few times we’ve ever seen a Black character like Sasha on the big screen, so Latifah was adamant about getting her right.
“If audiences have never seen something happen, they don’t know it exists,” Latifah said. “A lot of what happens in this movie has happened in my life with my real girlfriends, but non-Black audiences don’t stop to think hey, Black women take vacations too! We all do the same things! I just want people to finally see us: Four beautiful Black women, turning up and living life.”
Pinkett (who, despite her dowdy character, emits a kind of glow in person that can only be described as regal) added that while yes, this is a comedy meant to make us laugh, it can also uplift us, too. “Girls Trip is necessary because we understand all the different thresholds that we go through that are unique to Black women. We’re dealing with our spouses, our bodies, our mothers, our kids, suppression and oppression. We provide that understanding for each other in real life, so I think it’s important to give Black women that gift of understanding in their entertainment as well.”
The fourth in the “flossy posse,” as the squad calls themselves in the movie, is Dina. While Lee admits that her role was actually the hardest to cast, when Haddish (from the since-canceled sitcom The Carmichael Show) auditioned, she was “the one that consistently made us all laugh.” And Haddish is truly really, really hilarious, both in the movie and real life: During our set visit, she had everyone doubled over as she told the story of inviting Pinkett Smith, her husband, Will, and his brother, Harry, on a New Orleans swamp tour during a break from filming. “I was like oh, I might get a Smith brother! Jada, we gon' be sisters! I better look cute!” Haddish joked during her interview. “I thought I was gonna hop in their SUV on the way there, but then they jumped in my car. I was like, let me get the Cheetos out the front seat! And I better drive carefully; Will Smith is in my car. The Smiths are like the Obamas!”
There’s a lot of hope riding on the potential impact of Girls Trip. (Especially considering that Rough Night, a movie with a similar girls-weekend premise that came out earlier this summer, was less-than-successful at the box office.) Variety predicts it will open to about $25 million, which is right around its $27.7 million budget. It’s important to note, though, that most films starring Black casts are often undervalued, turning out to be much more successful than the industry forecasted. (For example, in addition to outselling Thor 2 opening night, The Best Man Holiday earned $10 million more than expected in its first three days alone.) But Packer is hopeful.
“Hollywood is a famously reactive industry; when something works, they do it again and again,” he says. “So if this works, it will give that model to other filmmakers and creatives who can walk in and say ‘Look how well Girls Trip worked! I’d like to do something that’s in that vein.’ It’ll be much harder for studios to deny that there’s an appetite for movies like this.”
Nothing’s certain, of course. Maybe Girls Trip won’t be a box office smash. Though it’s doubtful: The two New York press screenings I attended were full of hoops, hollers, and standing ovations, it’s gotten mostly all positive reviews, Twitter is abuzz with eager attendees for the weekend, and I know at least a dozen Black women planning to buy tickets on opening night with their girlfriends.
This is a movie starring Black women, for Black women. But at its core, it’s simply a tale about friendship, love, and life. And hopefully, its lasting legacy will be that it shows the film industry, audiences, and the world of comedy that a truly funny story can make anybody laugh — no matter what the cast looks like.
“We’re finally in a really great age of multi-dimensional black voices that are being allowed to tell stories,” Lee says. “All of these projects have slowly been sending the message that everyone wants to see themselves onscreen. For so many decades in entertainment, there’s been a very narrow view of what it means to be Black in America. We’ve got a long way to go, but things are changing, and that’s encouraging.”
Girls Trip is released in the UK on 28th July.