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Waiting to Exhale [Movie Review]


Waiting to Exhale is a classic from the 1990s Black film canon. Based on Terry McMillan’s 1992 bestseller, the film was released in 1995 directed by Forest Whitaker and featured an all-star cast of female leads which included Angela Bassett, Lela Rochon, Loretta Divine, and Whitney Houston. The film was significant at the time of its release because it was a story centered on a group of not just women but specifically Black women and at the time such movies were few and far between.


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Show Notes

Waiting to Exhale follows the romantic lives of a group of four female friends in Phoenix, Arizona. Savannah (Whitney Houston), a television producer, is relocating to Phoenix in search of a fresh dating pool after some failed relationships in Denver. The move also offers an opportunity to be closer to her college roommate / best friend Bernadine aka Bernie (Angela Bassett) who is married with children. Rounding out the group are Robin Stokes, a beautiful sidechick who is an executive at an insurance company and Gloria “Glo” Matthews a single mom who owns a beauty shop.

I was a kid when Waiting to Exhale was released and remember Black women, for the most part, liking the movie while Black men hated it. Or at least that was the way it seemed from ComicView and other outlets for Black social commentary. Admittedly, Waiting to Exhale doesn’t portray some of the Black men in the most positive light. But, I think people overlook just how messy the lead female characters were as well. Quite honestly, excluding Gloria and her love interest, everyone else is a dumpster fire.

Beginning on New Year’s Eve, we get a brief glimpse into everyone’s situation.

She doesn’t go into detail but from Savannah’s failed relationships she now has a list of qualities she’s looking for in a man. It isn’t as long or as unreasonable as Chilli’s but the moment she comes into contact with men the list goes out the window. Savannah says the cliche right things about what she’s looking for in a man and relationship but in reality, she’s willing to settle for a man. And at that just about any man, as long as he’s handsome and has a pulse. Because the men she dates are handsome and probably look good on paper but have nothing to offer with regards to what she needs in a relationship. Integrity, compassion, blah, blah, blah and all of that be damned. Savannah prays for God to send her a man and then gets specific about wanting a good man after dating a few duds. But then the men she chooses to date are highly unlikely to have been sent from God.

For example, Lionel, the guy she dated that brushed his teeth with her toothbrush was nasty and had boundary issues. He was way too comfortable and instead of saying something to him about his questionable behavior she let it slide and just sat there looking at him in disgust. Listen, unless we are in the woods for some reason and cut off from civilization with one toothbrush between us with which we have to brush our teeth to avoid plaque and tartar buildup affecting our hearts. Don’t Use My Toothbrush. Taking that and the moments that followed into consideration, part of Savannah’s problem seems to be that she doesn’t advocate for her needs in relationships with men. She should have sent Mr. Yuck Mouth on his way because who knows what other random women’s toothbrushes and whatnot he’s been putting in his mouth.

Bernie’s world is turned upside down when her husband of 11 years informs her that he’ll be spending the evening at his office party with the special lady in his life. And just to be clear it’s not her. It’s obvious that there have been issues in their relationship but it seems like instead of dealing with the problems they’ve both been trying to keep up appearances.

John wasn’t obligated to stay with Bernie but it was wrong to use their relationship as a monkey bar. He used Bernie to build the foundation of the life he wanted and then held on to her until he was sure he wanted a more serious relationship with his mistress. Based on Bernie’s complaints during her rant she wasn’t happy in the marriage either. She’s an intelligent woman who has a business degree but has allowed herself to be limited to the role of John’s secretary. Bernie has helped John to build himself and his company up while putting her dreams of starting a catering company on hold. We don’t know what the conversations might have been that led to this arrangement. But, Bernie agreed to go along with it so she has also played a part in allowing herself to be the background to John’s foreground.

Even for people who haven’t seen Waiting to Exhale, I’m pretty sure they’ve seen a clip or heard of Bernie committing arson by having a meltdown while piling her now estranged husband’s clothing into his BMW and lighting it all on fire. Something I never paid much attention to until Angela Bassett mentioned it in her book was the $1 garage sale. Gathering John’s stuff to light it on fire was the more over-the-top dramatic scene. But, selling all of that expensive stuff for a dollar was downright diabolical. I think in moments of anger people have probably fantasized and others have written songs about smashing windows or keying a car. But, who the hell thinks of selling all of someone’s prized possessions for a dollar apiece?

I want to take a minute here to talk about Michael Beach. I’ve always felt that Michael Beach upset someone around 1988 and as revenge, they decided to passive-aggressively blacklist him by typecasting him. As a result, Michael Beach played the trifling Black man in several classic Black movies. First, he was flipping over desks and standing in the way of progress in 1989’s Lean on Me. In Waiting to Exhale he plays Bernie’s husband, John Harris Sr. who acts like the wronged husband because she gets upset when he tells her on New Year’s Eve that he’s leaving her. Then he was all kinds of inappropriate with the equally trifling Cousin Faith in Soul Food. For a good decade anytime you saw Michael Beach playing a character you just knew there was a good chance the man was going to cheat on somebody or aggravate you in some way.

To be quite honest, I don’t dislike Robin but she’s my least favorite of the four because she just seems so vapid and shallow. But, I liked her storyline because I thought that out of all of the guys Michael (Wendell Pierce) was the most clueless but also had the best personality. I feel like Pierce really hit his stride with The Wire but showed some early promise here. Yet, again there’s this situation of one of the female characters being faced with a relationship situation where her needs aren’t being met, and instead of saying something she just goes along to get along. The difference here though is that Michael cares to some degree and talks to her about what she’s looking for and wants from a relationship. And based on honest and open communication they’re able to connect and make some progress.

Troy, on the other hand, is just gross. I would guess he’s supposed to be in his 30s or 40s but seemed like a not-so-young dirty old man. First of all the man smokes and he uses drugs which should be deal-breakers. Then he invites you to meet his mother and family after knowing each other for all of three days. And on top of that, he shows up to your house seemingly intoxicated on a rather warm sunny day wearing a leather vest but no shirt? Obviously, the man has no sense. Leave him alone. And don’t even get me started on that tired Russell.

There’s also the issue of Glo closing herself off from possibly finding true love while being willing to settle for meaningless moments in passing with her ex every few years. She stays home alone and has turned her son into the surrogate man in her life. He’s a bit annoying and some of that is immaturity because he’s a teenage boy. But some of it is a matter of her making him the center of her life and him thus not taking other people’s feelings into account before opening his mouth. Glo also has moments of selfishness where she attempts to hold her son back from what would be great life experiences out of fear of him growing into having a life independent of her.

During the conversation where Savannah and Bernie first meet up, Bernie says, “It’s amazing what can happen when you give a man control over your life.” I think it’s a pretty deep quote when you look beneath the surface of the words. These women give the men that they date a lot of control over their happiness and sense of identity. They allow the men to dictate the terms and direction of the relationship rather than it being a collaborative effort that they discuss and decide on together. The women are passive and hope that the men will pick up on the hints of what they want and care enough to give it to them. But to begin with they’ve picked men who have shown themselves to be selfish and self-absorbed. They’ll be waiting a long time for a man like that to value their needs as much as he does his.

The thing that I love about movies and tv shows centered around groups of women is the dependability of female bonds and friendship. It’s socially more acceptable for women to be vulnerable with each other so they end up having more honest and open relationships where’s there’s less fronting and posturing. Bernie and Savannah are both embarking on new journeys in their lives and they’re a bit scared. Bernie will have to navigate divorce and being newly single with two kids in tow while Savannah is in a new city and challenging herself professionally in her new role as a producer.

I’m not saying that people should never date someone else’s ex because past a certain age there would be nobody left to date. But, the odds of your dream man or woman being married or otherwise in a committed relationship and still being open to testing the waters by seeing you on the side are slim. If you aspire to build a relationship based on trust and honesty you’d be starting on the wrong foot by lying, keeping secrets, and sneaking around to see someone. And having been hurt by your husband cheating on you, I think it’s selfish to then turn around and become some married man’s mistress no matter how temporary.

I like that the women support each other but they’re also honest and give each other good solid advice without being self-righteous or judgemental. I agreed with Glo for politely calling out Bernie for messing with a married man as well as Robin sharing her personal story with Savannah to show her that she was being strung along by a married man that was never going to leave his wife. I did raise an eyebrow at Savannah’s mother encouraging her to continue seeing Kenneth despite her knowing that he was married. But, I understood when she shared her misguided efforts as being out of fear that Savannah would end up old and alone.

I think a major point of Waiting to Exhale is women holding back on pursuing what they want in life and their relationships. Or trying to make someone else, whether that’s a husband or children, the source of their happiness and fulfillment. At various points in the movie, the women “exhale” but its often in the midst of or following what will turn out to be a fleeting moment with a man. There’s this build-up of finally I’m with this man and we’re having a moment and I’m now going to pin as much of my hopes and dreams on him. And quite often the man hasn’t done anything of note to indicate that he wants such responsibility or is even going to be around for any length of time. And then they’re sad when they inevitably end up disappointed.

Through a year of experiences and support from each other, the women come to realize that what they were looking for in men was something they should have been trying to build within themselves. Exhaling as they move through life in pursuit of the goals and aspirations that will make them feel fulfilled. Working on developing a sense of self-esteem that makes them feel confident and secure in themselves so they fully appreciate their self-worth. And then only giving their time and attention to men who value them as a whole and care about their needs.

I LOVE the visuals of Waiting to Exhale. It’s always a pleasure to see Black people of various shades and sizes well lit and nicely dressed (for the time). The film was directed by a man but I’ve learned from interviews that a lot of care was taken with the physical presence of the women and making sure that they looked and felt good on film. And might I just add that Angela Bassett who according to her book had been through some relationship issues shortly before filming began was flawlessly beautiful throughout Waiting to Exhale. So the next time you’re dating anyone who tries to make you feel like you’re less than by comparing what you don’t have to what others do, feel free chuck the deuce at them and know that better things and people are on the horizon.

In addition to being a dope movie with regards to story and visuals, the soundtrack was FIRE. This was one of those movies where the soundtrack was put together from a collection of songs that fit the feeling of the film rather than just cobbling together a bunch of random songs. “Sitting Up in My Room” still goes hard and I love the video.

Usually, with my movie reviews, I try to select films that have some relevance to Black history and/or culture. I also like them to have a bit of depth so there’s enough substance to discuss rather than just rehashing favorite moments from the film. I selected Waiting to Exhale as the movie to discuss for May several months ago but began to have second thoughts that it might be a bit too simple. But rewatching the film and viewing it from the context of the time of its release, I feel like it was a good choice.

It might have you in your feelings at points but it’s not a super heavy or sad film. You can watch Waiting to Exhale and feel pretty upbeat by the end which I think is a great option for right now. If you’re a man and you’ve never seen it I recommend giving it a shot with an open mind. If you’re a woman who hasn’t seen it in a while or has never seen it I think you should give it a watch as I’m pretty sure you’ll enjoy it and might pick up some new things that you might not have paid attention to before.

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