Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Waiting to Exhale

Waiting to Exhale
first seen @ Roosevelt Field Mall, Garden City, NY

I happen to be black. As a result, being a movie fan can sometimes be an exercise in frustration, because the few films with black stars and/or themes that permeate the mainstream tend to conform to a very narrow preconception of the black experience in America. This has begun to incrementally change within the past decade or so, and I try to support the films that appear to be quality, but one aspect in particular appears to have stagnated completely, and this has been a major pet peeve of mine: the dearth of mature black romantic films.

The overwhelming majority of black romantic comedies tend to be of the lowbrow variety - bawdy jokes and two-dimensional characters in the silliest of situations. There's nothing inherently wrong with material like this, but when it's all we get, time and again, that's a serious problem. Almost no one is willing or capable of making a black romantic drama on a grand scale. Love him or hate him, Tyler Perry has valiantly attempted to fill this void, but he seems to stick to a comfortable pattern with his films that he may only now be beginning to break. Still, I have difficulty seeing him make something comparable to, say, Shakespeare in Love or Moulin Rouge.

I remember the excitement over Terry McMillan's book Waiting to Exhale, although I never read it. When the film came out, though, I decided to take a leap of faith and see it, as a show of solidarity more than anything else (it was directed by a black man, Forest Whitaker). I was working out on Long Island at the time, and I saw it opening night at the theater at the Roosevelt Field Mall (it's now the AMC Loews Roosevelt Field 8; I'm not sure if that's what it was then).

The place was packed, and there was a strong vibe of eagerness present. I was certainly looking forward to seeing Angela Bassett, whom I adored in What's Love Got to Do With It and Malcolm X. From the beginning she was fierce, and the crowd responded with enthusiastic whoops and hollers, particularly in the famous car-burning scene.

Of course, I got caught up in it as much as everyone else - with a pumped-up crowd, it's hard not to - but I also recall a sense of detachment to the film in general that had nothing to do with its quality. I didn't think it was man-hating, but it was hard not to squirm a little in the presence of so much estrogen-fueled righteous rage.

I freely admit, most contemporary chick flicks are not my thing, though naturally, there are exceptions. I think Exhale is as much about friendship between women as it is "looking-for-Mister-Right" - indeed, I think a comparison between this and Sex and the City could provide some useful insights. But Exhale is more relevant to me as a mainstream black romantic film that found a wide audience, a feat that has been duplicated so rarely as to be almost non-existent - and that's sad.

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