Like Star Wars, some movie releases are bigger than the actual film. They are touchstones. They are communal experiences. They are I-remember-exactly-where-I-was moments. And the opening night of the film Waiting to Exhale was exactly that. I can vividly remember, 20 years ago this week, rounding up my friends to hit the theater early because we knew it would be packed—or sold out.
In 2015, there are films that speak to the modern black female experience. In 1995? Not so much. So the idea of a film centering on professional, middle-class black women was exciting enough to be a jaw-dropper. And the film starred Whitney Houston and an all-star cast of black women? It was literally unfathomable. Grossing $88 million worldwide on a budget of $16 million, Waiting to Exhale showed Hollywood that black stories mattered—and could be profitable.
Everything you need to know about: Waiting to Exhale.
Pretest 1: This Oscar-winning actor first broke out in film at the age of 21 in 1982’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High. After a slew of high-profile acting roles, he went behind the camera and made his directorial debut with this film.*
Pretest 2: This actress from Exhale went on to direct a controversial television film on another actress featured in the film.**
Background research: Author Terry McMillan’s third novel sold over 3 million copies between its 1992 release and the release of the film, making it a runaway best-seller that sat at the top of the New York Times best-seller list for several weeks. The paperback rights alone sold for nearly $3 million, an unheard-of price at the time. The impact of the book can’t be overstated. When McMillan went on tour to promote the book, thousands of women showed up across the country. (In Oakland, Calif., police had to be brought in to control the throngs.) So when news of a film version was announced, anticipation ran high.
Why Waiting to Exhale matters: For baby boomers, there was quality, if not quantity, in the ’70s, with films like Lady Sings the Blues, Mahogany and Sparkle. Researching successful black films pre-Waiting to Exhale for Generation X will lead you to a list of hood films and crime-centered dramas, including New Jack City, Menace II Society and Boyz n the Hood. Although these films deserve their place in history, the women in these films were given short shrift in these male-dominated films. While there were a few early-’90s black romantic dramas that predate Exhale, including Poetic Justice, The Inkwell and Jason’s Lyric, these films were almost always coming-of-age stories that catered to a young audience.
OK, it was a landmark film. But was it any good? And does it hold up 20 years later? I cued up Waiting to Exhale last night, hoping that it would give me the same butterflies-in-the-stomach excitement I had on opening night. It didn’t. Houston’s acting is rote and wooden, and even Angela Bassett’s fire-setting antics don’t have the same bite they had at the time. Also, because the idea of single black women who can’t find a man has become a tired trope, it’s hard to watch beautiful, successful women pine away for unavailable and undesirable men. The men in the film (with the exception of an outstanding but small role for Gregory Hines) are one-note and not given much dimension or nuance. They are just no good—with little room for exploration on why they are who they are. Honestly? The Grammy-winning soundtrack, a tour de force completely produced by Babyface, holds up better than the film.
* Pretest 1: The director, who won best actor for his role in The Last King of Scotland, was Forest Whitaker.
** Pretest 2: This year, Angela Bassett made her directorial debut in the Whitney Houston biopic for Lifetime, Whitney.
Aliya S. King, a native of East Orange, N.J., is the author of two novels and three nonfiction books, including the New York Times best-seller Keep the Faith, written with recording artist Faith Evans. She lives with her husband and two daughters in New Jersey. Find her on Twitter and at aliyasking.com.