(for all Mumf pieces, go here)
“My name is Cupid Valentino
The modern day Cupid.”
-Andre 3000, “Happy Valentine’s Day”
Happy Valentine’s Day! It's late, but I'm just making this under the wire. I hope you are cuddling up with your sweetheart. Mine, unfortunately, is a long way from the Fortress of Odietude tonight. As Pepe Le Pew would say, "Le Sigh."
Last year, I was going to write a piece on Waiting to Exhale on Valentine’s Day. Three days prior to the debut of this piece, Whitney Houston died. I paid my respects at the Mumf and tabled the idea of revisiting Terry McMillan’s adaptation of her bestselling novel. Instead, I did my annual Mumf TV piece on Everybody Hates Chris on February 14th. I did do a brief capsule on Exhale during my Top 50 Black Movies Sight and Sound List later in the year; it was number 44.
Fast-forward to this year. I ordered Waiting To Exhale from Netflix because I loaned my DVD copy out to someone who didn’t give it back. The same thing happened to my love jones DVD, leaving me high and dry at the Mumf on Valentine’s Day 2009. True to my Netflix luck, they didn’t send me Waiting To Exhale today. Instead, they sent Pinky, which is interesting since I sent them Pinky so I could get Waiting to Exhale. I guess Ethel Waters liked my Cabin in the Sky piece so much she didn’t want to leave my Cabin on the Street.
Amazon Instant to the rescue. This afternoon, I was able to watch Waiting to Exhale for the first time since 1995 when I saw it at a Loews Theater in Secaucus, NJ. I remember that screening vividly: I was the only guy there of his own volition. Every other guy looked as if he were under duress from his excited looking girlfriend. The sistahs came out because Waiting to Exhale had been both a bestseller and a topic of conversation amongst women. I read the book on the recommendation of a colleague I worked with, and I found it to be an entertaining, if episodic, piece of “You Go Girl” empowerment. McMillan’s prose flowed quickly and enjoyably. Unlike most men, I’m not below “chick flicks,” so I felt comfortable as a dateless man sitting in the auditorium. And then it happened…
A woman who looked like this showed up.
After the film, I exited the theater behind a group of sistahs who were raving about how much they enjoyed the film. In the cold light of the lobby, one of the women turned around to find me walking behind her. I didn’t know her from a can of paint, but she knew me, and not by name. She just “knew” I was a trifling-ass man. Without warning, she started yelling at me.
“You niggas should be dragged out in the street and shot!” she began. “I bet you treat your woman like shit, just like those muthafuckas in this movie!”
“Do I know you?” I asked her.
“HELLLLL NO! I don’t KNOW you!” she responded. “But I do know your type! Just look at you!” (I had on jeans and a t-shirt, so on that day, my type was actually SLOB.) “You PROBABLY got yo’self a WHITE GIRL!! Somebody oughta KICK…YOUR..ASS!”
Her girlfriends were looking at me as I’d dated their screaming cohort. I must have looked like a deer in headlights, because I had no idea why I was being assaulted. Then I realized—it’s THIS MOVIE! It’s too bad Waiting To Exhale preceded the whole How Stella Got Her Groove Back debacle, or Sistah Girl would have used McMillan’s infamous “hot sauce in your asshole” threat.
People were looking at us. Afraid this woman was going to pull some Vaseline and a razor out of her purse, my brain asked me “fight or flight?”
“Huh?” I asked my brain.
“Either kick this bitch in her head before she cuts you,” said my brain, “or RUN LIKE HELL.”
To this day, I don’t know why this woman specifically went after me. But Waiting to Exhale is constructed to make Black men look like shit, and to remind women of every bad bruva they ever encountered. Granted, Exhale doesn’t let its female characters off the hook either--their bad choices do not absolve them from blame—but this film knows who its core audience is, and it caters to them in grand fashion.
Before Exhale, director Forest Whitaker had one film under his belt, the very unfeminine Bokeem Woodbine starrer Strapped. Working from a script by McMillan and Rain Man scribe Ronald Bass, Whitaker turned out a well-directed 40’s women’s picture, albeit one with sex and language the Hays Code would not have allowed. Everyone smokes in this film, and there are scenes where cin-togger Toyomichi Kurita allows the smoke to filter into the light source, casting the actors into huge plumes of Newport smoke. Had all things been equal in old Ho’wood, George Cukor would have directed something like this, with Dorothy Dandridge, Ruby Dee, Ethel Waters and Lena Horne in the cast. I was surprised just how old-fashioned Waiting to Exhale was visually, with its wipes, fade outs and dissolves. Phone conversations are done on split screen (and are at times fall down funny), and female voices narrate most of the film. Men appear in the film mostly as reactive agents rather than developed characters. The women have moments of divine clothing glamour.
For the four women who populate McMillan’s novel, Savannah, Bernadine, Robin and Gloria, Whitaker cast two known commodities and two lesser known actresses. The Sex and the City parallels are here, but this precedes that show by several years, and these characters aren’t drag queens played by actresses instead of men. Savannah, the group leader of sorts, is Whitney Houston in her follow-up to the massively bad The Bodyguard. Bernadine, the most memorable and popular character in the book, is played by Angela Bassett in full on James Cameron heroine tough mode. The fine character actress Loretta Devine plays the thick, insecure Gloria and Mumf favorite Sunshine (aka Lela Rochon) plays Robin, the film’s most actively sexual character.
Like the book, Waiting to Exhale presents itself as a series of vignettes and episodes propelled by the passage of time. We begin and end on New Year’s Eve, and throughout the year, the four characters deal with problems, successes and failures. The first New Year’s Eve is a series of mishaps, with Savannah mumbling “I can probably get home in time to make Dick Clark” after a botched blind date becomes an awkward three’s a crowd scenario. The divorced, lonely Gloria sits at home while her 17-year old son (Donald Faison from Scrubs) goes out instead. Robin is out, to quote Buckwheat, “wookin pa nub in all the wrong places.”
The extremely wealthy Bernadine spends her New Year’s Eve receiving an announcement from her husband. Said husband is played by Michael Beach, the most hated Black man in Black movies. When you see Mike, you know he’s going to be trifling and shiftless. Beach tells Bernadine he is going to his company party with his White mistress rather than Bernadine. He’s leaving her for the mistress too. “I’ll be back in two weeks for my things,” he tells her.
This sequence is fiercely acted by both Beach and Bassett, and it leads to the scene you paid to see if you rented this movie. Bernadine loses her gaat-damn mind, tearing a Mens Warehouse sized amount of clothing and shoes out of Beach’s closet, tossing them into his car, dousing them with gasoline and setting them ablaze on the street in her lily-White neighborhood. I remember women cheering as Bassett defiantly struts away, cigarette in hand, car burning in the background. Whitaker frames it for maximum audience stoking. Even I was into it!
“Burn his shit up, Angela!” I yelled from the audience.
Let’s stop here for a minute. This scene is pure “don’t try this at home” fantasy bullshit. In real life, instead of walking away from a burning car, Bassett would have been dragged toward a different car, one with flashing lights on it. This would have occurred after a Rodney King-style ass beating by the cops. “Crazed Black Woman Starts Fire in Rich White Neighborhood” the headline would read. “Ass beaten,” would be the subheading. Michael Beach and his White woman would be dancing the Hucklebuck in the driveway as they hauled Angela Bassett to jail.
I point this out because most of Bassett’s role is played realistically and straight. She’s furious for most of the picture, and her less theatrical actions carry real pain and weight. Bassett acts the hell out of Bernadine, even in preposterous moments of revenge like selling whatever she didn’t torch at a garage sale for one dollar. The Waiting to Exhale soundtrack even has a song about her character on it, sung by Mary J. Blige. Bernadine suffers the most in Waiting to Exhale, and Bassett brings her A-game. Her two scenes with Wesley Snipes late in the picture are some of the best work both actors have done.
Houston is surprisingly good here too. As Savannah, she’s the voice of reason when her friends get out of hand. Her taste in men is pretty terrible, though. Savannah hooks up with the single Lionel, a gorgeous hunk of chocolate who can’t fuck, but her heart belongs to Kenneth (Dennis Haysbert). Kenneth is married, and for some reason, has Savannah’s mother as an ally. Mom is an OVERDONE PLOT DEVICE MADE HUMAN, a character who stresses how no woman should be without a man. She’s quite ridiculous and ghetto, talking about food stamps with curlers in her hair and demanding Savannah run off with a married man so she won’t be lonely. I could have done without Mom’s unintentionally hilarious phone calls, but Houston does her best with them.
Houston also gets some hilarious zingers, delivered with maximum comic effect. Lionel is a minute-man who likes to roar during sex. Houston’s facial reactions to this cracked me up. “Now I’m the groundskeeper at the damn zoo,” she says after her one minute of Lionel sex. This is the same guy who screwed up her New Year’s Eve, yet there she is in bed with him. And women wonder why men do the shit they do. Because you let us!
Houston’s drama scenes are equally good, with her takedown of Haysbert a highlight of her dramatic acting. During it, Savannah calls herself an asshole, a word that could describe each of these women at several points in Waiting to Exhale. Still, she learns the film’s lesson about using married and/or worthless men to stave off loneliness. It’s not worth it, the film tells us.
Sunshine, I mean Robin, has the worst taste in men. She dates a drunk crackhead played by Bubba from Forrest Gump, a married man played by Leon, and a co-worker played by Wendell Pierce. All of them are no damn good. Pierce, like Lionel, can’t fuck either, but rather than roaring, he calls out Destiny’s Child lyrics instead. “Say my name, say my name!” he yells as he pathetically humps away on a far-from-impressed Rochon. Robin’s post-coital dialogue with him is a beautiful piece of honesty, and their sex scene must be seen to be believed. Unfortunately, his work ethic is as bad as his pipe-laying, so Robin fires him. Rochon’s last scene with Leon, while similar to Houston’s married man putdown, is less effective, but she too learns her lesson about using married men to stave off loneliness.
Gloria is the opposite of all her friends. Rather than run after countless men, she substitutes this need by smothering her only son with maternal attention. Tariq is 17, which means the last thing he wants is this attention. Tariq’s dad shows up once every two years to spend time with him, and Gloria attempts to seduce her former husband every time he shows up. This time, he tells her he’s gay, a fact the immature Tariq doesn’t handle well. Devine and Faison antagonize each other in ways I could see in any mother-son relationship, including my own.
Gloria feels her thickness is the issue that drives men away, and I liked how Devine’s body language reflected this in her scenes. Paying attention to this detail has a great payoff when Gloria meets her new neighbor, Gregory Hines. Hines tells her his late wife was a big woman, and that he likes the thick girls. Devine’s reaction as she walks away is both pure comic gold and the wonderful rebirth of her body confidence. It’s my favorite scene in the movie.
A note about the film’s score: It’s by Babyface and is at times distractingly trying to sell you the soundtrack, which is also produced by Babyface. There are a few meta moments when we see Houston onscreen and hear her singing on the soundtrack. The big hit of hers from this film is the dopey yet catchy Exhale (Shoop Shoop). We do get to see Houston sing a few bars of Roberta Flack’s cover of Stephen Bishop’s Tootsie song, It Might Be You, but other than that, this Savannah is no singer.
I put this movie at number 44 on the Top 50 list I did last year, so I think it’s a very good example of its genre. Still, Waiting to Exhale is probably not the best movie to run as a Valentine’s Day feature. A film filled with sexy Black men who can’t or won’t do right will only bring down the hammer if you watch it with your lady. Of course, if you’re a good man, Waiting to Exhale will make them appreciate you even more, and you might get lucky no matter how ugly you look. You’re welcome.