Waiting to Exhale: Forest Whitaker’s Stylish Melodrama Starring Whitney Houston and Angela Bassett

The huge, crossover success of Waiting to Exhale, based on Terry McMillan’s best-selling novel, shows how ignored the black-middle-class had been on screen, particularly its women members.

Until the mid 1990s, black women were cast in limited roles in mainstream movies: Anna Deavere Smith as a White House aide in The American President, Whitney Houston in the trashy romance The Bodyguard.

Forest Whitaker, an good actor-turned a good director, makes Waiting to Exhale in the vein of Douglas Sirk’s glossy 1950s studio melodramas (Written on the Wind, Imitation of Live), with four heroines who are all beautiful career women: Savanna (Whitney Houston), Bernadine (Angela Bassett), Robin (Lela Rochon), and Gloria (Loretta Devine). Waiting to Exhale takes an old-fashioned soap-opera formula and refurbishes it for the glitzy age of talk shows and tabloids.

McMillan’s and Ronald Bass’s script serves up romantic fantasies while using the language of self-empowerment. However, as David Ansen has noted, despite the film’s efforts to celebrate self-sufficiency, the women define their identities exclusively in relation to men. When they are in one another’s company, the women are spontaneous and interesting, even when they are talking about sexual frustrations.

The men in their lives, however, are cardboard caricatures, unworthy of them. Even so, Waiting to Exhalemust have appealed to viewers’ primal instincts, for a scene in which the vengeful Bernadine sets the car of her rich husband on fire received a rousing applause from the audience.