Despite His Legacy, We Deserve A Better Version Of “Waiting To Exhale”

Loretta Devine, Whitney Houston, Angela Bassett and Lela Rochon

Recently, for the first time ever (seriously), I read Terry McMillan’s Waiting to exhale and saw the film adaptation directed by Forest Whitaker. The story follows four black friends in their thirties: Bernadine (Angela Bassett), Savannah (Whitney Houston), Gloria (Loretta Devine), and Robin (Lela Rochon). While the book delves more into the financial and familial aspects of their lives, the 1995 film zooms in on the love and loss the women experience.

Based on how I see people talking about it (especially women and Black women online), I feel like I’ve ticked off a movie on a community-curated list of must-see movies. I watched documentaries and video essays on the history of cinema and Waiting to exhale it is never bred despite its cultural impact. Lately, the film has had a resurgence in popular culture, from the phrase “good man Savannah” making the rounds on TikTok, to the renewed focus on Whitney Houston’s legacy via the new biopic, I want to dance with someone, with Naomi Ackie. Plus, costume designer Judy L. Ruskin’s keyhole dress (worn by Robin in the film) has gained renewed interest (and tutorials) in tandem with the 2022 cut-off trend.

This month marked the 27th anniversary of the film’s release and 30 years since the debut of Terry McMillan’s best-selling novel, a novel which made Zora Canon’s list of the 100 greatest books written by African American women, and was firmly in the era that emphasized “the power of self-esteem.” In honor of the anniversary and New Year’s Eve reflections featured in both the book and the film, I wanted to talk about what worked and what didn’t work in the film, and how McMillan’s story could be retold again to better embody the richness of the novel and reflect the experiences of Black women in the 1990s, now that some time has passed.

Waiting to exhale (1995)

We tear off the patch. While I enjoyed the movie overall and enjoyed the book even more, Waiting to exhale it wasn’t a great film, even for its time. It’s a poor fit, and some elements have aged more poorly than others. From a technical point of view, the editing missed several errors (including visible block tape) and led to less-than-smooth transitions between scenes. That alone doesn’t mean it’s a bad movie, of course: you can find mistakes in multimillion-dollar franchises, and this one was the directorial debut of actor Forest Whitaker, in a feature film that has received wide release, no less.

First pressing of 'Waiting to Exhale' by Terry McMillan.  Image: Doubleday.
(double day)

Other than the technicalities, the story is clunky and cuts the flesh off the narratives of half the main cast – Robin and Savannah – to such an extent that I could combine the characters into one fully formed female with more screen time than the two-dimensional characters that have arrived on the screen. It’s a shame because while Robin was the worst character for most of the novel, she ultimately grows up with you. I can’t say the same for the movie. The characters of Gloria and Bernadette remain mostly intact, but they were also the strongest in the novel (and closest in age to the author). Also, because they have the most stability in their lives (and are much more mature), there isn’t as much reliance on inner monologue as with Savannah and Robin, which is hard to capture well in a movie with four main characters.

Before reading the oral history of Waiting to exhaleI was under the impression that this was one of those rare Black adaptations optioned and shot at the time the book came out, so the script was based more on author’s notes and an early manuscript. In reporter Aramide Tinubu’s interviews with the cast and crew, however, she learned that the buzz came after the book’s release and that this was a film that everyone wanted to be a part of. But something was lost in Ronald Bass (who went on to adapt another McMillan book) and McMillan’s adaptation of his novel. Most of the highs and a lot of the lows were actually transferred to the screen, but the nuance was lost in translation.

Savannah and Robin talk in the pool.  Image: 20th Century Fox.
(20th Century Studios)

What I liked Waiting to exhale it was the casting (half of Black Hollywood is in this movie!), the performances and the score. This isn’t exactly a hot shot, but that score is beloved and is as much of a love letter to women of color as the film intended to be. In addition to Whitney Houston (why of course), Toni Braxton, Aretha Franklin, Brandy, TLC, Mary J. Blige, Chaka Khan, Patti LaBelle, Faith Evans, CeCe Winans and more lent their voices to the soundtrack. While Babyface was the primary producer and wrote many of the tracks, it was the first soundtrack to feature all female performers. The soundtrack perfectly captured the beginning of contemporary R&B that was born in the late 80s.

Despite the many technical and narrative flaws in the 1995 film, I like that it exists. For one thing, it was one of the last black films in a time when that term was more narrowly defined. The 80s and 90s marked the decline of black cinema in Hollywood, and I’m not even speaking in terms of quality, but quantity. While it was great to see black actors (mostly men) cast in roles that weren’t explicitly black in the 00s and ’10s, it got harder and harder to find mostly black movies unless you got the BET channel or I could stand more than one Tyler Perry production.

The story serves as both a time capsule and a snapshot of the late 1980s and early 1990s, with timeless themes of self-esteem, love and friendship. We all have these four women in our lives, and many of us want to admit that we’re dealing with these same relationship struggles. While societal pressure has eased somewhat overall thanks to the adoption of a bastardized form of feminism, racism, the internalization of anti-Blackness, fat phobia and homophobia (all of which are further explored in the novel ) have changed even less. Plus, there’s still social media and a larger world where we’re trying to challenge ourselves and find happiness.

That Waiting to exhale the remake it would seem

Loretta Devine, Lela Rochon, Angela Bassett and Whitney Houston sit near a couch, laughing in a scene from
(20th Century Studios)

It might be blasphemous to proclaim it, but I’d like this film to be remade in the 1920s. I’m not talking about the series that ABC was developing as of 2020, and it was said to focus on the children of the characters, but something that focuses on these four women at this point in their lives. This could be a single film, or better yet, a four-part limited series event – that way each of the main characters has plenty of room to adequately tell their story. Think Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Lifebut good and without the time jump. Waiting to exhaleThe story of fits the mold quite well and would allow the story to be split into four seasons because the events begin on New Year’s Eve and finish the next.

And most of the original cast could return as supporting characters in a remake. Whitaker is best known for his acting and could play Robin’s father as he suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. With the exception of Savannah’s mother (whose voice has become memeified), all of the main characters’ parents (except Gloria, who was always alone) are missing from the film adaptation. In addition to the important plot elements those characters could have fleshed out, it’s frustrating because Savannah’s mother encourages her to make bad decisions in the name of traditional living and because she needs money from her.

Starletta DuPois as Savannah's Mother in
(20th Century Studios)

I’m not saying it’s unrealistic or unimportant to the story, but there was no balance between Savannah’s mother and the other parents because they didn’t make it into the film. In McMillan’s novel, Bernadette’s mother represents the high life of retirement and old attitudes, and serves as a support system to help raise the children as Bernadette struggles through a nasty divorce. Robin’s parents are also old-fashioned and are struggling to make up their minds to get more help as her father’s disability worsens. They hate Russell too, like everyone else. Russell needs more scenes too, juxtaposing him with the men Robin has casual sex with, both to show how terrible this man is (and not just because of drugs) and to show how Robin, like many women, struggles to cut it. loose.

A smaller story element that wasn’t fully realized in the book, but could help anchor another adaptation, is the role of the women’s club in town. In the book, it was mostly used as a thing women did occasionally and gave them an excuse to check up on each other when there wasn’t impending disaster. It made sense to cut him from the film, but if each character had more time and was more three-dimensional like in the book, it could be more fleshed out. All of the characters live in a white area and the club is a source of community building and networking. There is an element of class there waiting to be explored.

You can’t fully capture Bernadine’s iconic scenes of Angela Bassett lighting that car on fire or Savannah dropping her drink into the man’s lap (both sound like Avatar: The Last Airbender characters), but with so many pointless remakes, there’s no reason why this shouldn’t be considered, especially since it could add value to the story. This story deserves the opportunity to not only live up to the book, but reflect on more than 30 years later.

(featured image: 20th Century Studios)

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