WAITING TO EXHALE (1995)

  • Director: Forest Whitaker
  • Writers: Terry McMillan and Robert Bass, based on the novel by McMillan
  • Starring: Whitney Houston, Angela Bassett, Loretta Divine, Lela Rochon, Gregory Hines, Dennis Haysbert, Mykelti Williamson, Michael Beach, Donald Faison, and Wesley Snipes
  • Accolades: 2019 Slate Black Film Canon
  • Where to Watch: Buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

There’s nothing really wrong with a movie where a bunch of ladies are friends with each other, drink a lot of wine, complain about men, and then either get together with or don’t get together with various men. This is fairly aggressively not my thing, but I’m not like morally against it or anything. If Waiting to Exhale tweaks this basic formula in any way whatsoever, it’s by having an almost entirely Black cast yet still setting its story among upper class suburbia. The central characters are all Black women who rail against men for leaving them for white girls, while at the same time living in extremely nice houses in the Phoenix area. For me, that by itself isn’t really enough to sustain my interest in something like this, but for a lot of people I’m sure that it probably is.

Waiting to Exhale was maybe a somewhat unconventional choice for the directorial debut of actor Forest Whitaker, a straightforward woman-centric studio drama, the sort of movie that used to get made constantly but these days has a tendency to go straight to Netflix. It was a big hit at the time, even getting described by the Los Angeles Times as “a social phenomenon.” Though the ladies in the movie deal with their share of problems, Roger Ebert thought its appeal was probably escapist: “women in the audience can it enjoy it while musing ‘I wish I had her problems.’” 

Its story centers around a quartet of female friends over the course of a year in Phoenix (the movie both starts and ends on New Year’s Eve). Savannah (Whitney Houston) is a TV producer who moves from Denver to Phoenix after a series of failed relationships, only to get involved with a married man (Dennis Haysbert). Angela Bassett plays her friend Bernadine, whose husband (Michael Beach) leaves her for his secretary (an uncredited Kelly Preston), setting off an acrimonious divorce. Robin (Lela Rochon) is an insurance executive who just can’t find a man on her level who really respects her. Gloria (Loretta Divine) is a slightly older single mother whose 17-year-old son (Donald Faison) is about to travel overseas after graduation. She despairs about being alone until a cute widower (Gregory Hines) moves in across the street. They are all living in this state of tension, “waiting to exhale” once they find the right guy, the movie would have us believe. More than once do we watch one of them stare at a guy and breathe out, in case we didn’t get it.

Whitney Houston was, at the time of this movie’s release, one of the biggest stars in the world. This was her second big role, after The Bodyguard, for which she recorded a best-selling soundtrack that included “I Will Always Love You.” She was asked to do the same for this movie, but decided to produce a soundtrack of “strong female voices” instead, with a series of original songs written by someone named Babyface. While none of the songs was a mega-hit on the level of “I Will Always Love You,” the soundtrack still included five separate top ten hits, one by Houston, but also including artists such as Mary J. Blige, Toni Braxton, and Brandy. As someone who was mostly familiar with Houston’s acting career through her subsequent hit The Preacher’s Wife, I was kind of surprised by her willingness to swear and do sex scenes in this movie, though after listening to her later in her life I suppose I shouldn’t be. The whole thing is extremely 90s, which given its position right in the middle of the decade and featuring one of its biggest stars is hardly surprising. At one point Giancarlo Esposito, playing Gloria’s ex-husband, shows up and tells her he’s gay. She is shocked to hear this, apparently thinking he was just from the 90s. 

One of the more memorable aspects of the movie is the way all four of the women elucidate their own inner monologues in voiceover, often at odds with their exterior actions when it comes to men. We watch Robin trying to seduce a co-worker in sexy red lingerie, while on the inside she both acknowledges he’s not in her league and rationalizes her own actions. Later we hear Savannah in a very similar situation, noting that she finds the guy she’s waiting in bed for annoying, but “my body needs this, and it can’t hurt to get my feet wet. Well, not just my feet…” The other most memorable bits all involve Bassett, who has by far the showiest of the four roles. She gets to go big in some screamy arguments with her ex, destroys his possessions, and dramatically sets his car on fire then walks away while calmly lighting a cigarette. A put-upon firefighter then shows up to tell her that in Arizona, you’re not allowed to burn anything in your hard except for trash. “It is trash,” she spits in reply.

In the end, Waiting to Exhale’s ambitions are not particularly wide-reaching. Gloria gets her guy. Savannah realizes that her guy isn’t going to leave his wife and dumps him. Robin decides she doesn’t need a guy right now. After her divorce proceeding, Bernadine meets a civil rights lawyer (Wesley Snipes, in probably the most low-key role I’ve seen him in) who recently lost his wife, but they decide to just hold each other rather than sleep together. YouTube lists the movie as a comedy, but it isn’t particularly, nor is it a hard hitting drama except for those times Angela Bassett yells at a guy for leaving her for a white woman. But it does give you a slice of experience that maybe doesn’t always show up on screen. 

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