“Welcome to Atlanta, y’all,” producer Will Packer said as he welcomed Regina Hall and Jada Pinkett Smith to the stage.
The producer and two of the stars of his latest project, “Girls Trip,” hosted an exclusive red carpet screening event at SCADShow in Midtown last week. Alternately hilarious and touching, striking strong notes of empowerment and sisterhood — with the occasional blue streak thrown in at just the right moments — the comedy (out in widespread release on Friday) is set in New Orleans.
But they couldn’t not invite Atlanta to the party.
“This means so much to me. Any time I make a movie, they know, if it’s a Will Packer movie, we gotta come to the ATL,” Packer said. “It’s an amazing time to be in the A right now. We have brought projects that make Hollywood go, ‘How is Atlanta the No. 1 market, beating New York? Beating L.A.? ‘Straight Outta Compton’ — a movie about Compton — the No. 1 theater in the country, where? ATL!”
The capacity crowd roared at Packer’s allusion to the 2015 hip hop drama’s local box-office triumph — Regal Atlantic Station was tops in ticket sales during the movie’s opening weekend — and seemed more than ready to boost the “Girls Trip” bottom line as well. So eager was the reception that many folks may need to see it again, as raucous laughter may have drowned out some of the lines.
An interview with Packer, Smith and Hall the next day at the St. Regis was a little more subdued, although punctuated with moments of celebration as Packer read early reviews on his phone.
“I’m proud to be a part of it,” said Packer, who also served as producer for Atlanta-filmed movies including the “Ride Along” buddy comedies and ensemble piece “Almost Christmas.” “I’m proud to sit next to these ladies.”
Hall and Smith are joined in the film by Queen Latifah and Tiffany Haddish as a quartet who were inseparable in college and soon after and are determined to reunite on the road. Hall’s character, Ryan, is a successful author and lifestyle coach whose brand is built on her picture-perfect marriage to Stewart, played by Mike Colter. Ryan’s keynote address at the Essence Festival, which draws hundreds of thousands to New Orleans each year, is just the event to bring the squad back together.
Amid the revelry, though, emotional fault lines among the ladies are exposed. Has Queen’s character, a celebrity blogger named Sasha, let go of a past hurt? Does Haddish’ character, an outrageous party girl named Dina, have her breaking point? Is Ryan’s marriage really so perfect?
“There’s a bit of all of that in real life,” Hall said. “We’re always striving to be what people perceive us to be. There’s always a struggle between what people think of you and who you really are. You have to live with what is right and true for you.”
Pinkett plays Lisa, a divorced mom who’s gotten so prim and straight laced that her friends are nearly as desperate to get her to let loose as they are to enjoy the weekend themselves. It’s not a spoiler, if you’ve seen the trailer, to say that they’re most definitely successful.
“That particular scene was just like, yes! I can build on this for sure,” Smith said, referring to a flat-out hysterical bathroom break scene. “I really like to do things that I’d never done.”
“Girls Trip” may make you cry with laughter, and it might also make you cry, period. As rollicking as it is for much of its two hours and change, its poignant moments are powerfully resonant.
“People are ready to see women in movies like this,” Smith said. “Black women are ready to see themselves in movies like this.”
For Packer, who not only met his wife Heather Hayslett at the Essence Festival years ago but would later propose to her on stage during a subsequent festival, “Girls Trip” is something of a love letter to the event that brings together powerful women, and to the women themselves.
“I met my wife when she was on a girls’ trip,” he mused, adding that the movie offers something for everyone.
“Whether you are a black woman who has been to Essence or a white man who doesn’t know what Essence is,” he said, “this is a movie that is the definition of empowerment.”