On screen, there are certain elements that are essentially tailor-made for the sensibilities of various demographics of black women, those things that make them want to swoop up their BFFs, throw back a few cocktails, and unwind through laughter, tears, and—yes—the occasional moment of erotic arousal via some eye candy. A few of those enticing ingredients include: veteran black powerhouse actresses who are beloved by black audiences but rarely fully appreciated by “mainstream” Hollywood; scenes in which those powerhouse actresses pretend to be best girlfriends and commiserate over work-life balance and confusing/cheating/corny paramours (and potential paramours); tall, dark, and handsome men who look as though they were plucked from Essence’s “Single Man of the Month”; and women recognizing their own potential and standing up for themselves in a climactic finale. Waiting to Exhale, How Stella Got Her Groove Back, ’90s sitcom Living Single, and modern-day sitcom Insecure are just a few of the movies and TV shows that belong to this beloved canon of black woman–centered storytelling, and they are some of the greatest.
Now, thankfully, we can count Malcolm D. Lee’s confidently conceived Girls Trip among the best of the genre—and among the funniest movies of the year, period. The broad comedy, about a group of lifelong friends reconnecting for an epic jaunt, knows exactly what its audience wants and gives it to them in spades: Queen Latifah and Jada Pinkett Smith reunited for the first time since 1996’s Set It Off? Check. The underrated Regina Hall taking front and center as a successful self-help author whose relationship with her pro-athlete husband is not as rosy as it seems? You’ve got it. And on the hot dude front, Girls Trip is generous, supplying us with a wealth of both old favorites (Larenz Tate, who for better or for worse inspired many a man of a certain generation to pursue spoken-word poetry) and new ones (Queen Sugar’s Kofi Siriboe). And it’s all set against the backdrop of one of the biggest and blackest annual events held in America: the Essence Festival in New Orleans.
Hall’s Ryan is asked to be the keynote speaker at the festival, riding high on the success of her book You Can Have It All and on the cusp of landing a huge Martha Stewart–like licensing deal with a fictional retail chain alongside her husband and business partner, Stuart (Luke Cage’s Mike Colter—have I mentioned that this movie has a lot of hot guys?). Sensing a perfect opportunity, she invites single mom Lisa (Pinkett Smith), gossip blogger Sasha (Latifah), and party girl Dina (Tiffany Haddish, giving the movie’s breakout performance) to head down to NOLA with her so they can relive their college years as the “Flossy Posse.” Following an impromptu singalong to “I’m Every Woman” on their all-female flight (this movie is as much a glorious fantasy as it is a comedy) and a spirited dance sequence in the middle of the streets with a second line jazz band blasting “Lovely Day,” the dramatic elements kick into high gear: Sasha receives a photo from a paparazzi source that shows Stuart making out with another woman in a club. And of course, that woman, the type of woman who makes a living modeling for Instagram, is at the festival this weekend, too.
You can probably see where this is going. The women want to confront Stuart (especially Dina, who, immediately upon seeing him in a hotel lobby, proceeds to break a wine bottle and lunge toward him), while Ryan wants to keep up the facade for both herself and her loyal readers, who have bought into their perfect-seeming marriage. The crisis brings the women closer than they have been in years, though not without some conflict first. And meanwhile, there’s no shortage of partying to do and trouble to get into—with bountiful celebrity cameos and musical interludes in the form of festival performances from black musicians, including Maxwell, Ne-Yo, Common, and Diddy (who brings a very overeager Dina onstage with him).
But Girls Trip also mixes things up by giving black female audiences something they aren’t used to getting (but didn’t necessarily not want) from this kind of film: loads and loads of raunch, on a level that might even one-up the dirtiest of the films of Judd Apatow and his acolytes. The easiest way to sum it up would be with one word: grapefruit. But that hilarious, shocking running gag is best left a surprise, so instead I’ll point to Lisa urinating—for quite some time—all over a street crowd when she gets stuck suspended midair on a zip line. Or an unexpected male full-frontal moment that feels like it lasts nearly as long. Or Dina giving a vivid, terrifying description of what she plans to do to Stuart’s nether regions after his cheating habits have been revealed.
In fact, many of the film’s most outlandish and funniest moments come from Haddish’s Dina. While all the women are perfectly cast and have even better chemistry, Haddish is allowed to let loose and steal the show, popping off perfectly calibrated one-liners (“All this NBA dick and she fuckin’ baseball players?!”) and nailing the more ridiculous physical comedy moments (again, grapefruit—you’ll thank me later for being so coy). This should come as no surprise to the appallingly low number of people who caught snippets of her on the recently canceled Carmichael Show or as the love interest of Jordan Peele’s character in last year’s Keanu—she’s electric in everything she does. But she’s not just comic relief, as her character points out toward the end of the film—in many interviews, particularly a 2015 episode of the now-ended podcast The Champs, she’s revealed that she had an incredibly difficult past life, and she possesses a compelling vulnerability that we can glimpse here. If the universe has any justice, Girls Trip will make her a star.
The film does occasionally dip into pure saccharine, and some jokes are dumber than others. (Ryan’s agent, played by a game Kate Walsh, can sometimes hit the “white lady who tries to be down with black people” trope a bit too hard.) But Girls Trip more than delivers what its audience is looking for. The women in the audience at my screening reacted not unlike the ones at my screening of Hidden Figures last year—with shouts of “Woo!” and “Yass” and audible grunts of approval. While that Oscar nominee is decidedly more wholesome than this romp, both films show sides of black femininity rarely represented on screen—one with brainy math whizzes and one with its actresses being unabashedly zany, silly, and crude. Women may or may not be able to “have it all,” but Girls Trip does.