Exhaling and inhaling: was the movie fair to black men and black women? – ‘Waiting to Exhale’

Exhaling and inhaling: was the movie fair to black men and black women? – ‘Waiting to Exhale’ – Panel Discussion

It was among the biggest Black movie events since The Color Purple hit the silver screen in 1985. Waiting to Exhale, the movie based on the best-selling novel by Terry McMillan, sizzled across the countly to rave reviews by most Black women and trepidation by many Black men. Dozens of women joined together to view the movie in groups and then had discussion parties afterward.

To assess the effect that the movie has had on Black male-female relationships, Ebony asked critics and supporters of the controversial film to express pro and con opinions. In addition to seasoned author-experts, we also asked a college student to represent the younger generation.

AUDREY B. CHAPMAN Therapist and Author of Getting Good Loving: How Black Men and Woman Can Make Love Work

Waiting to Exhale has touched a nerve in the African-American community. Not since the opening of the movie The Color Purple has there been so much discussion about the state of relations between African-American men and women. As a therapist who works every day trying to help individuals improve their opportunities to find and keep fulfilling love relationships, I welcome the heartfelt and thoughtful discourse about the silent war that continues to divide African-American men and women.

There is a heap of unfinished business in our communities about what it is exactly that keeps our men and women locked in angry, hostile relations. Waiting to Exhale presents a one-sided view of this issue by presenting a dilemma solely from the view of Black women. Without a doubt, Black women are facing tremendously difficult times in their attempts to love Black men. Yet, I heard pain in the voices of the many Black men who discussed this movie with me. Unfortunately, they felt that, once again, they were being made scapegoats for the persistence of a problem they didn’t create.

I believe that the timing of the movie was particularly troublesome to Black men because of its debut so soon after the Million Man March. It seemed like a dash of cold water on the faces of Black men so soon after they had dared to hope that their image had been uplifted for a nation so used to seeing Black men as a negative. The men in the movie were, by and large, depicted as self-centered, drug-abusing, faithless and immature. And while it is fair to say that many Black women have experienced men of these types, it certainly would be unfair to say that these men represent the essence of African-American manhood.

What the movie attempted to do was present what I call a slice of life, and, in so doing, the images are easily distorted and misunderstood. I think that author Terry McMillan and the creators of the movie were trying to show the loving bonds existing between Black women that ultimately serve to sustain them through love’s many trials and tribulations. Ultimately, Waiting to Exhale was a woman’s movie with a woman’s point of view.

Waiting to Exhale touched women in places that they had forgotten–places that were still sore and painful. The movie dug up old memories for women of partners who had rejected them, cheated on them or lied to them while promising to love them forever. I hope the movie reminded the female audience of the importance of taking care of one’s self first.

As a therapist, I only wish that Bernadine, Gloria, Robin and Savannah had been shown making better choices for themselves. While their collective wit and spirit was often touching, the decisions they made about the men in their lives could easily have caused some women to feel that the situation is sad and hopeless. I wish too that sex had not been the mainstay of these women’s relationships with men. Sex is indeed a vital part of loving, but it is not the essence of the emotional intimacy that must be present for a relationship to have fulfillment and staying power.

There are many Black men and women mho come together every day and form healthy and loving bonds upon which they build a future of love and commitment. If only Waiting to Exhale could have shown just one such couple, I would have been happier. It is a shame that so few motion pictures show Black men and women relating to each other in positive ways. We can only hope now that the popularity of Waiting to Exhale will encourage Hollywood to show the breadth of life in our community and give us all a break from the “drugs and violence in the hood” movies that we have had far too much of.

It’s also my hope that the interest in Black male/female relationships will not die as the glow from the movie fades. Bringing our men and women closer together is a critical issue for our community. The very future of our families and children depends on it.

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON Professor, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Author of Between God and Gangsta Rap: Bearing Witness to Black Culture

Like the lusty Terry McMillan novel on which it is based, the film Waiting to Exhale provocatively explores the fleeting joys and poignant heartbreaks that dog women hungry for love. Contrary to all the controversy about Black men’s alleged bashing at the hands of the film’s female characters, Exhale calls attention to the silly mistakes some women make in their quest for meaningful companionship. Simply said, the film is not so much about how terrible the guys are; it’s more about how “sisters” must be responsible for their own happiness. The film’s clear message is that women should honor the desire for intimacy while taming the desperation for love that turns them into fools or finger-pointers.

The film’s insistence that women should take charge of their lives offers a viable alternative to unhealthy coping strategies where affairs of the heart are concerned. Exhale’s female characters push past harmful habits of self-pity and self-debasement to embrace liberating practices of self-examination and self-affirmation. Equally important, the women learn to love and support one another in a fashion that accents the beauty and value of female friendship. Such bonds of mutual nurturing lend a political meaning to affection between women, transforming ties of intimacy into the basis for a vital, feminist community.

As Exhale successfully shows, a network of female friendships, no matter how small, can help save women’s lives. Through the dying art of conversation, Exhale’s female characters confront the ugliness of their lives and name the hidden forces that drive them to seek solace in men’s arms before they search for it in the mirror of self-reflection. Their poor choices of men have as much to do with the women’s lack of understanding about themselves–about their own needs, desires and interests–as it does with the men’s inherent flaws. In this light, Exhale is more interested in highlighting the tortured condition of the female psyche, and how women can help one another regain their balance, than it is in pinpointing the wretched irresponsibility of some Black men.

True enough, the males mostly take their lumps in Exhale. But the bruising that men endure in Exhale is negligible compared to the shamefully stereotypical treatment Black women have suffered in recent Black male-directed films. (For that matter, many Black male parts in films directed by Black men are painfully underdeveloped or senselessly exaggerated). Besides, the fact that Exhale was intelligently directed by Forest Whitaker, and that the film’s superb soundtrack was orchestrated by Kenneth (Babyface) Edmonds suggest that Black women may be more willing than Black men to share power and perspective with the opposite sex.

More significant than any discussion about male-bashing is how Exhale humorously but skillfully undresses the myth of Black male sexual prowess. On the surface, such a gesture appears to kick the props from underneath the last symbol of cultural superiority–besides dominance in sports–that Black men seem to enjoy. But what Exhale’s take on the failed politics of Black machismo accomplishes is to potentially free Black men from the prison of sexual performance, encouraging them to pay more attention to the delicate and demanding art of making love. It may sound trite, even corny, but such distinctions are not lost when sweetness more than sweat is the measure of genuine intimacy.

It is in the difficult domain where sexual and social intimacy collide, where love of men and female friendship demands discrete recognition that Exhale fails to help us navigate a problem the film barely touches on, but that is certainly the backdrop against which it has been viewed. How do Black women help to protect one another from the exploitative behavior and beliefs of some Black men, even as the embrace them as sexual and emotional peers m pursuit of social equality for the race? Echoes of the Million Man March, with its powerful but flawed rhetoric of Black male responsibility, and of the O.J. Simpson case, with its conflicted appeal to racial justice and solidarity, unavoidably bleed into the frames of the film, and reverberate in the minds of its Black viewers.

It is a measure of the raw nerve the film has touched in many Black communities that we ask too much of it. But such demands also indicate how paltry has been the artful, complex treatment of Black women’s lives on the silver screen. Waiting to Exhale is a landmark film not because of the pedigree of its achievement–it is a good, not a great, film. It is supremely important because it presents four trouble-in-love, middle-class “sisters”–neither martyrs nor mammies, neither Jemimahs nor Jezebels–whose stories reflect the lives of millions of real, but largely invisible, Black women.

Undeniably, a signal accomplishment of Exhale may be its notice to Hollywood executives of the profitability of perceptive portrayals of a neglected but influential group; its greatest importance within Black communities may be its contribution to a crucial dialogue about why too often Black men and women are in each other’s beds, but at each other’s throats.

BEVERLY GUY-SHEFTALL Director of Women’s Research and Resource, Center, Spelman College, and Editor, Words of Fire: An Anthology of African-American Feminist Thought

What accounts for the enormous popularity of the film version of Terry McMillan’s provocative novel, Waiting to Exhale, which, fron my vantage point, contains so many problematic female and male characters and racial/ gender stereotypes? What I hear most frequently, particularly from Black women, is that the book and movie provide an authentic portrait of contemporary Black male/female relationships! Many Black women insist that they’ve had similar experiences, that the characters are familiar, and that they find heartwarming the friendship between Savannah, Gloria, Bernadine and Robin.

Many of my women friends left the movie having been entertained but disturbed by what we saw and the underlying messages. I don’t know any Black women whose only reason for living is to be alluring and have men in their lives. listen again to 35-year-old Robin: “I’m desperate. I haven’t been out with a man now in over a month. I’ve been trying to convince myself that I’m still a good catch, but I can’t pass a mirror these days without staring at myself All I do is look for new flaws, trying to forgive myself for not looking 24 any more and apologizing for being a six instead of a ten.”

I am also disturbed by the marked differences between the book and film. Though Robin collects Black dolls and quilts in the book, she only collects men in the film version. The women in the film “assess” men, primarily on the basis of their performance in bed, which reinforces old stereotypes of Black men as studs, bodies to be used.

I was also bothered by the skin-color politics of the film. The overweight characters in the film, including Gloria and Robin’s date, Michael, are darkskinned, whereas the “beautiful” women are lighter-skinned and thin. These color distinctions are not in the book version.

One of the most disappointing aspects of the film version was that the women were portrayed as apolitical, without racial consciousness or ties to the community. There was no mention of Black women on the Move, a self-help organization (whose members include Bernadine, Savannah and Robin), which sponsored (in the book) an Achievement Awards luncheon, a Black Family Survival Project and Sisters’ Nite Out. It also gave scholarships, free legal advice, helped women on AFDC, and sponsored workshops on issues such as single parenting, sexual harassment, stress and incest. The organization was concerned about gangs and crack in the Black community, and criticized professional Blacks who were only concerned about BMWs, landscaping and annual trips to Hawaii. On film, Bernadine, Savannah, Gloria and Robin don’t read or appear to care about their professional development, what’s going on in the world, or the problems which ail the Black community. Savannah’s love of Black art (from the book) is not mentioned, for example. Nor is Bernadine’s decision to give some of her divorce settlement money to the United Negro College Fund, the Urban League, the NAACP, and needy children in Africa. The women drink, smoke, have sex, socialize and plot how to punish or ensnare wayward spouses and boyfriends. Their racial consciousness is expressed in the narrowest of ways–open hostility toward White women who snatch Black men.

Despite charges of man-bashing, there was an attempt to balance the portraits of Black men in the film. They are womanizers, crackheads, deceptive and unreliable on the one hand–familiar constructions of Black manhood. They are also decent, responsible and “good catches,” especially the characters played by Wesley Snipes and Gregory Hines. Again, there is a disturbing message in the film which is not a carry-over from the novel. The only healthy love relationship in the film is the one Wesley Snipes (James Wheeler), the civil rights attorney, reports about his White wife, whom he loves and supports as she dies of cancer. When I reread the novel after seeing the film, I was surprised to learn that the marriage was on the rocks and that james was contemplating divorce. One wonders why in the film the only love that a Black man openly expresses is for a White woman.

While it is tempting to suspend our analytical selves when viewing movies by African-Americans, particularly when they deal with subject matter which we rarely see on the screen, it is imperative that we go beneath the surface and discuss the racial/gender politics of all we see, even when we are the producers of those images. I would like to see a film which tells another story about professional Black women and men. It would not reinforce dominant cultural definitions of beauty, Black manhood or Black womanhood. It would attempt to capture the complexity of our lives and provide alternative images of what it means to be Black and coupled. It would locate us within our communities which are under siege and in dire need of progressive solutions. I’d like to think that we would see these narratives as entertaining and worthy of discussion as well.

NICOLE L. WALKER Junior Northwestern University

Long after the radio station stops playing the soundtrack, after the book falls from the upper notches of the bestseller list, after the movie slides from the big screen to videotape, we will still be here.


When every comparison has been drawn. when every contradiction has been discussed, when every criticism has been distilled, we will still be here.


After the Exhale parties end, the talk shows turn to more titillating topics, and the Black woman’s struggles in life and love cease to be in vogue, we will still be here.

Waiting to e ale.

Well, the waiting stops here.

Although I have many problems with Hollywood’s adaptation of Terry McMillan’s novel Waiting to Exhale, the movie is on target about one key issue in women’s lives, the Prince Charming fallacy. On this issue the movie remains loyal to the book’s moral: Ladies, if you are waiting for that special someone to sweep you off your feet and to take your breath away, you will be waiting forever. The search for true happiness and peace must start within yourselves.

As a 20-year-old Black woman, I am guilty of waiting. And so are most of the women who are close to me. I don’t believe there is one woman who has not put herself on hold, at least once, in order to satisfy some man. We have all walked in the shoes of Bernadine, Savannah, Gloria or Robin at some point in our lives although some of us don’t like to admit it. Most of us have done things that violated our principles so that we could keep our men.

It is ironic that so many women can shake their heads and smack their lips in shame at the naive, forever-duped character of Robin. But those same women fail to realize that they have bought into some of those same lies that men often shell out to keep us complacent and to buy themselves more of our precious time. They will often exclaim, “But it’s different for me!” when faced with the ugly truth that they, too, are guilty of waiting.

And how many times have we played the role of Bernadine, the faithful, loving, devoted mate who defers her dreams to support her husband’s relentless pursuit of his goals? How many times have we forsaken our own aspirations because we have been trained to place the needs of our families, our husbands, our men above and beyond our own needs? How often are we guilty of plunging wholeheartedly into the pursuits of our men, failing to focus on ourselves, forgetting to formulate our “B” plan just in case his “A” plan falls through? How, often do we give all the physical, financial and emotional support to our men without getting back any support? How often do these things happen to you?

Of course, we all claim to be Savannah, the Superwoman of the movie. The no-nonsense Black woman in total control of her destiny. Of course, she has the little slip-up with Kenneth, her married ex-boyfriend, but all good heroes have their flaws. She’s not going to end up high and dry like the rest of her friends. So in her Black-woman-in-control manner, she calmly gives Kenneth the pink slip, cleverly remarks “This drink’s on you,” then coolly dumps the drink on his lap and struts away, collected as ever. Whew, if all breakups could be this classy!

If Savannah is the ideal woman, then Gloria must be the reality. We live in a world filled with Glorias. Many of us are fed up with the Prince Charming fantasy, fed up with disappointing dead-end relationships, fed up with hurt, fed up with heartache, fed up with waiting.

Fed up with being fed up.

So we lock ourselves in emotional prisons. We close our hearts to love and life. We become automatons moving through our daily routines. We go to work, go to class, pay our bills, take care of our kids, wrap ourselves in the monotony of our lives. Or we retreat to the comfort of our television, our food, our alcohol, our drugs, our sex, our dead-end relationships in an effort to fill the emptiness in our hearts and lives. Or we resign ourselves to thinking we will never find men capable of loving and respecting us, and instead turn to God for solace.

The motion picture and the novel, Waiting to Exhale, both have enjoyed tremendous success because these four characters, Gloria, Savannah, Bernadine and Robin, represent all of us. Waiting to Exhale is our message to men and to everyone. We are ready to stop giving men the burden of making our lives complete. We are ready to be the authors of our own joy and serenity. We are ready to live our lives for ourselves.

We are ready to exhale.

COPYRIGHT 1996 Johnson Publishing Co.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group