Waiting to Exhale is a film that probably wouldn’t get made today. Back in 1995, we had more than one black female superstar at a time – we had two: Whitney Houston and Angela Bassett.Unfortunately, Bassett’s star has waned since her brief period as a bankable lead, and Houston’s life and career was overshadowed by her personal troubles and premature death. For a second, I thought we had Halle Berry, but soon after her Oscar win for Monster’s Ball, her career suffered from Hollywood’s inability to have a black female movie star. A movie like Waiting to Exhale wouldn’t have gotten the full studio treatment nowadays – it might possibly be released as a niche product, or if Tyler Perry got his hands on Terry McMillan’s popular novel, it might be produced (although Lord knows just what kind of mess he’d make of the thing). In a culture where we are constantly reminded is “post racial” mainstream films that depict middle class black people are scare (the same problem plagues television, too). For that reason alone, Waiting to Exhale should be held in some esteem.
***spoilers spoilers spoilers***
Taken from McMillan’s blockbuster novel, Waiting to Exhale tells the story of four women, each dealing with man troubles. Savannah Jackson (Whitney Houston), a TV producer who is having an affair with a married man; Bernadine Harris (Angela Bassett), a mother dealing with a messy divorce from a man who’s leaving her for a white woman; Robin Stokes (Lela Rochon) a young executive who is struggling with an aimless relationship; and Gloria Matthews (Loretta Devine), a single mother who pines for her ex-husband who has come out as gay. The women forge a friendship that carries them through their troubles.
There is something about female friendship – it seems to always have to happen in fours (Sex and the City, Living Single, Girlfriends, The Golden Girls). In these kinds of stories, often each woman represents some sort of archetype: usually the characters are reduced to the “smart/cynical” one, the promiscuous one, the naive/dumb one, and the lead. who is usually the most complex. In Waiting to Exhale, the script (written by Ronald Bass and McMillan), gives each woman a bit more shading, though they still fit into neat categories:
- Savannah’s the wry, smart one
- Gloria is the nice one
- Robin’s the female Casanova
- Bernadette’s the complex lead.
It works out well that Bernadette’s character is the best written one because she’s played by Angela Bassett – one of our greatest film actresses. It’s a great role, and she practically roars through it. The problem is that despite Bassett’s strong presence, the film loses its focus and becomes strangely bland and boring. Part of the problem is the serviceable, if ho-hum direction by Forest Whitaker (his second directing gig). Another issue the film suffers from is the episodic structure – it makes the story lurch forward clumsily, the little is done to make the sequences work. Also, despite the fact that we’re led to believe the women are best friends, the scenes that feature all four actresses feel crowded and Rochon feels crowded out.
The film’s centerpiece is a scene that has become a minor classic – one in which an angry and despondent Bernadette gathers all of her husband’s belongings and sets fire to his clothing. The scene is meant to be inspiring and feminist, and I understand the feeling of catharsis some audience members would get from watching a scene like that. In the setup, Bernadette’s anger overwhelms her, and in a rage, she tears through her husband’s walk-in closet, ripping down his expensive suits, all the while screaming out the various abuses he committed against her, including discouraging her from opening her own business as well as insisting their kids go to an all-white school so that they “won’t be improperly influenced.”
We’re meant to be satisfied as Bernadette marches away from her husband’s burning car. Bassett’s iconic steely gaze, catatonic at this point from her act of vandalism, is effective. But the scene works against everything the book is supposed to stand for: namely, pulling away from reductive stereotypes. Bernadette’s setting her husband’s stuff on fire confirms fears of men who portray women as angry and unhinged – particularly black women. The angry black women trope is a harmful stereotype, and it’s unfortunate that the film takes a break from its narrative to indulge in this disturbing imagery.
Aside from this moment, the most notable part of the film is just how sleepy it is. In her essay “Mock Feminism: Waiting to Exhale,” bell hooks critiques the film’s faux feminism as well as its bland, corporate tone. One of the sins of the films is that it’s “an utterly boring show.” Interestingly enough, the film was brilliantly marketed with an accompanying soundtrack produced by Babyface and headline by the film’s star, Houston. The album – a big hit, like the film – was also glossy, high class boredom. The songs were swathed in layers upon layers of pillowy synths, strings, so heavily produced it felt airtight, almost hermetically-sealed. If a film could be seen as elevator music, then Waiting to Exhale is it.
But despite all of these problems, I can’t say that there weren’t moments that I enjoyed. I thought Devine was lovely – though I do wish that people of size weren’t condescending to so much. In her scene with Gregory Hines, Devine’s movements – even her walk – are filmed to accentuate her curves, and a flatulent horn punctuates her mincing walk. That Devine is gorgeous and a catch is obvious and established – there is no need to bring unnecessary attention to her size.
Unfortunately, despite the potential charisma meltdown of the cast, its biggest name – Whitney Houston – is the weak link. As Savannah, Houston imbues some of her natural smirky humor, but when it comes time for emoting, Houston’s a blank slate and moves through her scenes like a statue on casters. The music videos that were spun off from the film – “Exhale (Shoop, Shoop)” and “Count on Me” (a duet with CeCe Winans) prove that Houston is a strong presence in front of the camera, but she needs to be singing (or at least lip syncing) to be compelling. But when she’s called upon to recite lines, stand on her marks, and react to other actors, she fails to impress and cannot transcend her celebrity.
Because the tag line of the film is “Friends are the people who let you be yourself… and never let you forget it” one would assume that the scenes with the four women playing off each other would be the strongest. But the film doesn’t explore female friendship all that deeply – we understand that the women are friends, mostly through hugs and meaningful looks, but there isn’t much history to the friendships. And as mentioned before, the styles of acting are so diverse that the result feels like oil and water. Where there should be an easy chemistry, instead we have stiff and unconvincing playacting.
Even though the film has a high opinion of itself, it’s very much a standard Hollywood pic. No time is this obvious then in the film’s conclusion, where each character’s story is neatly wrapped up. Bernadette’s rancorous divorce ends with a $1 million settlement, Savannah ditches her married man and finds respect for herself, Gloria gets a wonderful man, and Robin (the least interesting character) accepts her pregnancy and happily decides to raise the child as a single mom. The four share a New Year’s together in the desert of Phoenix, as they toast each other and their bright futures, the soundtrack blasts Houston’s duet with Winans, “Count on Me,” which is an anthem of female friendship – but again, the sentiment in the song and the film is as deep as a puddle.
I wish Waiting to Exhale was a great film because if it was, then more films featuring black female characters wouldn’t be so rare. The film’s success (over $80 million at the box office) fooled many into thinking that a shift took place in Hollywood, and black female-fronted films would become more prevalent. Like 1996’s The First Wives Club, Waiting to Exhale gave the industry a brief moment to pat itself on its collective back. But it’s clear that instead of shepherding a new dawn for progressive mainstream film, the success and goodwill of Waiting to Exhale is responsible for a film like The Help.