Breathless

Waiting to Exhale triumphs with unforgettable characters

There is a scene from the long-awaited film version of Waiting to Exhale, tenderly crafted by director Forest Whitaker, that will take your breath away. Sitting in a hotel bar after being trounced by her soon-to-be ex-husband in preliminary divorce proceedings, Bernadine (Angela Bassett) is captivated by a man's love--for another woman.

She listens to the stranger's story of affection for his wife, and how it grew deeper with each breath over the years, even though she is now dying of cancer. Through her sorrow and pain over what she is losing, Bernadine clasps the stranger's hands and whispers in surrender, "Somebody once loved me that way."

From that moment forward, the audience, Bernadine, and her mystery man are swept into the arms of the purest warmth and passion cinematic love has offered. Once upstairs, he responds to her question of "What will we do with tonight?" with a plea: "Make it beautiful." He folds her into his arms, and sings her through the night with the longing of his breath against the nape of her neck.

That moment comes midway through Waiting to Exhale. Long before then, your eyes and heart will have wept from bouts of emphatic joy, sorrow, and pain. And long after this moment, what you know of loving someone, without regard to race, will have come full circle through this funny yet dynamically sculpted film.

Waiting to Exhale is author Terry McMillan's tightly told, 1992 chart-busting story of four professional African-American women with desires on hold. Over the course of a year, Bernadine, Gloria, Savannah, and Robin do everything in their power to prop each other up to overcome the callous hand they've been dealt in the name of "love." Surprisingly, Hollywood's familiar cache of negative black stereotypes has not been foisted upon McMillan's story. The characters emerge, with a few exceptions, just as they danced off Exhale's pages.

This story of female friendship looms on the big screen with all the vigor and verve of the women's collective efforts to survive--which is saying a lot to the three million readers of McMillan's book waiting to inhale this filmed version. Exhale's cast of beautiful, talented, professional African-American women is a true first for Hollywood. Yet the movie triumphs on a number of levels--the most important being that Whitaker, making his Hollywood directorial debut, bravely confronts the misconception that all black women must shake their rumps and wind their necks to be heard. Not here. Don't even bother looking for the kinky, twisted, and braided two-toned hair styles of music-video fame. And don't look for bitches and 'hos. When these women say "girlfriend," you quickly realize that the word has spiritual significance.

Girlfriend, Bernadine is played to a refined scream by Angela Bassett, previously seen in Vampire in Brooklyn, Strange Days, and What's Love Got to Do With It. But watching her here you easily dismiss every other role she's played. First seen in flowing coif before a mirrored dressing table, Bassett is an impassioned sight of motherhood and womanness. However, while preparing for a stodgy company dinner party with her husband John Sr. (Michael Beach of White Man's Burden), her card-house world tumbles inward. John has decided this is the best moment for their lives to part. His white female bookkeeper is the catalyst.

Savannah, played disconnectedly by songstress Whitney Houston, is a television producer escaping the "dead men" of Denver and settling into Phoenix with her old friend, Bernadine. Also along for the year's journey is the drop-dead gorgeous Robin, played by the beautiful, long-legged Lela Rochon. Robin has a penchant for sexual adventurousness, and another for finding the wrong man to satisfy it. Rochon's beauty is upstaged, however, by her gutsy awakening in this role.

Rounding out this foursome is the meaty, lovelorn beauty-shop matron, Gloria Johnson. Gloria, played right-on by Dreamgirls star Loretta Devine, is weighed down by a teen-aged son, Tarik (Donald Faison), the hope for a reunion with her gender-confused ex-husband (Giancarlo Esposito), and the pleasures of food.

In the novel, these ladies carried our hearts on the literary ride of the year. In the flesh, they'll have you pawing the big screen in hopes of a new girlfriend or a long-lost "sista."

After stewing for a few days over John's revelation, Bernadine sets a fiery pace for the stories told in Exhale. If you've seen the previews, then you know about the burning BMW. Bernadine's choice of fuels will have every cheating man across the land installing locks on their walk-in closets.

The universal power of this story is established immediately: Bernadine suffers from the raceless dynamic of a detached, passionless marriage. After helping to build John's business, she's been relegated to the role of being housed and wifed. Her talents, and her dream of opening a restaurant, have been rerouted into raising kids and looking good. In return, John can't hide his boredom with their life together: two kids, two cars, private school, and a house in the desert. When John asks, "Would it bother you if we didn't go to the party tonight?" and follows it with, "I'm still going, just not with you," it would take a chainsaw to cut through Bernadine's disgust. Over the course of Exhale, John embodies every warning that any mother has ever given to her daughter about "men."

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