Classic Soul Cinema: The 20th Anniversary of ‘Waiting to Exhale’

Released on December 22, 1995, Waiting to Exhale is based Terry McMillan’s acclaimed 1992 novel. This enduring movie about four friends remains as fresh as when it was released 20 years ago, and marked the directorial debut of Oscar winning actor Forest Whitaker.

Waiting to Exhale centers on the individual lives of four women: Savannah (Whitney Houston), Bernadine (Angela Bassett), Robin (Lela Rochon), and Gloria (Loretta Devine). Savannah is a successful television producer who holds fast to the belief that Original Cinema Quad Poster - Movie Film Posterssomeday her married lover will leave his wife for her; Bernadine abandons her aspirations of running a catering business to take care of her family and support her husband (Michael Beach), who  leaves her for a white woman; Robin is a high-powered executive who has problems finding a decent man after she dumps a no-good dude named Russell (Leon); and Gloria is a single mother and beauty salon owner who struggles with being single while her ex-husband, who is the father of her son, comes out as gay. Ultimately, she finds love with her new neighbor, Marvin (Gregory Hines).

There was a great air of excitement when this movie was released since many people had read the book. Many wondered if the movie would be just as good as the book, and they were not disappointed. On the movie’s opening night, hundreds of people—predominantly black women—stood in lines across the country waiting to see the movie. Having seen it myself on opening night, I recall that this film had many “talk to the movie screen” moments, such as when Bernadine’s husband told her in the coldest way that he was leaving her just as they were about to go out for an evening, plus the cheers in the audience when Bernadine punched the lights out of his white girlfriend when she interrupted her husband’s business meeting.

Other “talk to the movie screen” moments include when Robin has sex with her over-the-top  and overweight boss, prompting one woman in the audience to yell “Ugh!;”  an excited Gloria making sure that her new neighbor Marvin notices her walking sexily back to her house; Wesley Snipes’ surprise appearance, which caused many women in the audience to scream with delight; and of course, who can forget the classic moment when Bernadine sets fire to her husband’s car, clothes, and shoes?

The movie brilliantly captures the hardships of what many black women endure. But through it all, the one thing that remains constant is the tight bond and friendship between these four women, which helps them cope and get through their personal issues.

Waiting to Exhale easily entered the number one slot at the box office in its first weekend showing, grossing $14.1 million. In total, it garnered $67.05 million in North America and $14.4 million internationally, for a total worldwide gross of $81.4 million.

Waiting to Exhale movie sceneWhat also added to the film’s success was its soundtrack, which was one of the best and most successful soundtracks ever released. Produced by Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds, the soundtrack featured all black female artists singing songs which relate to the movie characters’ plights, such as the film’s lead single “Exhale (Shoop Shoop)” sung as usual with amazing skill by the late great Whitney Houston; Mary J. Blige’s “Not Gon Cry;” “Sittin’ Up In My Room” by Brandy; Chaka Khan’s take on the classic, “My Funny Valentine;” “Hurts Like Hell” by Aretha Franklin; and “Count On Me” by Houston and CeCe Winans. The soundtrack went to number one on both Billboard’s pop and R&B charts in the winter of 1996.

In the Spring of 2011, Angela Bassett confirmed that a sequel to Waiting to Exhale was in the works, with all four female principals signed on to star and Whitaker returning to direct. The sequel would be based on Terry McMillan’s novel Getting to Happy. Unfortunately, after Whitney Houston’s passing in February 2012, nothing more was said about the sequel.

Regardless as to whether a sequel ever materializes, Waiting to Exhale shines on as a classic film showing the importance of true friendship during difficult times. Its durability is evidenced by a comedienne who recently told her audience that when she found out her husband was cheating on her, she took all of his credit cards, his jewelry, and his beloved record collection and burned them in one heap, saying she had an “exhale” moment.

—Stephen McMillian

Journalist, actor, filmmaker, dancer, performer, writer, poet, historian and choreographer. That’s Stephen McMillian.

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