Film Reviews

Groove's thang

The timing couldn't be better for How Stella Got Her Groove Back. The dog days of summer are upon us, and few prospects could be more welcome to asteroid-weary moviegoers than a light romantic comedy that includes a trip to Jamaica as part of the package. Director Kevin Rodney Sullivan may push this fluff-enriched tale of a fortyish stockbroker (the ever-resourceful Angela Bassett) and a man-child half her age (the truly spectacular Taye Diggs) well past its 90-minute welcome mark, but moviegoers aren't likely to complain. This is escapism, pure and simple. And few know the power of such purity better than Terry McMillan.

When her Waiting to Exhale overwhelmed the bestseller lists (on its way to its inevitable hit-movie reincarnation) several years ago, it presaged a seismic cultural shift that had been a long time coming. The African-American middle class has finally arrived at the mainstream. In need of a voice to supplement Oprah's, it has found one in Terry McMillan. If that voice is closer to Rona Jaffe than to Toni Morrison, then so much the better--as far as McMillan's fans are concerned. The novelist-screenwriter's strength is her ability to confect a fictional universe removed not only from the purview of white racism but from the far subtler oppression of black identity as well.

McMillan's novels are about women with man trouble. This universal theme has attracted no small number of white readers as well. But to her black female core audience, such tales offer the ineffable luxury of problems whose solutions never cut so deeply as to draw the sort of blood (their own) African-Americans have long wearied of having to mop up. If this bespeaks a certain superficiality, then the McMillan faithful will surely say, So much the better. McMillan actually has a younger man in her life. But that's not why her book has been read so vociferously. What McMillanites want is to get their own groove back through fantasy. And fantasy is what the movies, as no other known form of cultural expression, are ideal for providing.

Whoopi Goldberg's performance in Stella provides a perfect example of McMillan's allure in action. Next to John Travolta, Goldberg is the most omnipresent fixture in the Hollywood firmament. But she has paid a price for such visibility. Simply put, Whoopi hasn't appeared alongside this many black people in a movie since The Color Purple. Her wisecracking Eve Arden-styled best-friend role here is scarcely fresh, yet it allows her to exhibit more genuine acting skill than she has since The Player. In other words, she doesn't push any gesture or line-reading in her usual ever-so-slightly overdone manner--the better to differentiate herself not only from white co-stars but from the notion that her role "represents" anything in particular about black life for the benefit of white spectators. In much the same spirit, she declines to ostentatiously get down in word and deed. Whoopi's just there, every bit as much as Angela Bassett is there, and both she and her fans are the better for it.

Bassett breathes a lot easier here than in her recent turns as Tina Turner in What's Love Got to Do With It, and as an enraged wronged wife in Waiting to Exhale. She's every inch as glamorous as Whitney Houston in The Bodyguard or Diana Ross in Mahogany, yet Bassett never descends to being a demonstration model for fantasies so removed from ordinary experience as to approach science fiction. And part of that has to do with the way her part is written. A pivotal moment comes fairly early on in Stella, when, having just met the object of her affection for the remainder of the film, Bassett asks whether he's a rapper. He isn't, but the kick comes in the question itself--the implication is clear that if he were, she wouldn't have anything to do with him. We've come a long way from the 'hood and its overwhelmingly narcissistic displays of black maleness advanced as the be-all, end-all of African-American consciousness. At the same time we're somewhat off to the side of the (relatively) everyday world of last year's surprising hit Soul Food and the rural exotica of the even more surprising hit Eve's Bayou. Stella deals with nothing more than the pleasant daydream of any number of women in their 30s and 40s--both black and white.

It's familiar territory, trod most memorably 42 years ago in Douglas Sirk's All That Heaven Allows. "But Carrie--he's your gardener!" a shocked Agnes Moorehead (playing the Whoopi role) told a troubled Jane Wyman (the Bassett part) on hearing of her attraction for the young and studly Rock Hudson (the Taye Diggs slot). But times have changed--along with the stars' complexions. This time out, the family accepts the stud without much of a fuss. And why shouldn't they? And why shouldn't you? It's just a movie--and for black (and white) audiences, the ability to say that simple phrase is reason enough to rejoice.

How Stella Got Her Groove Back.
Directed by Kevin Rodney Sullivan. Written by Ron Bass, based on the novel by Terry McMillan. Starring Angela Bassett, Whoopi Goldberg, and Taye Diggs. Opens Friday.

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David Ehrenstein