They have a lot to smile about

It's the hit that's taken America by surprise, a black, middle- class feel-good movie with women in the leading roles (all of them positive). joined US audiences whooping or whimpering in the aisles

"Oh yes, that's right. Amen to that," cries a voice in the dark. "Yes, girlfriend, you tell it!", answers another. All the religious emotion in the air says we could be in a Harlem church, but this is a Broadway cinema playing the season's surprise hit, Waiting to Exhale, which stars Whitney Houston and Angela Bassett along with Lela Rochon, Loretta Devine and Wesley Snipes.

The movie is based on Terry McMillan's novel, which follows the troubled love lives of four affluent black women in Phoenix, Arizona. Its distributors, Twentieth Century Fox, say the film has already exceeded the studio's box-office expectations by a large margin. Whitney Houston's production company is planning a sequel and a television series.

McMillan herself says it's easy to account for the film's success among black women. "This puts a new image of African-American women on the screen. We've been whores, we've been crack addicts, we've been gang-bangers, we've been everything but self-supporting, self-sufficient citizens. This is the first movie that shows blacks as regular Americans with all the same problems."

Inside the Cineplex Olympia at 107th Street and Broadway, the largely female audience ripples with vocal responses. As with many audiences for this film, about 60 per cent of the seats are filled with African- Americans and only one viewer in five is male. Savannah (played by Whitney Houston) has just told her mother that she can complete her life without a man and the whoops of glee are immediate.

"Tell her, girl," shouts a young black woman sitting next to a man who looks more than uncomfortable. The cry came from Holly Francis, a 34-year- old teacher, and she's seen Waiting three times. "This is, at last, a story about people I know, dealing with the same troubles I've seen, and there's no gangsta shit and nobody gets shot. It has the most positive images of black people I've seen in a movie."

Across America black women have said the same thing. In many cities cinema managements say they have sold all their seats to a single buyer as people organise Waiting parties. "This is called `papering the house', and it's very rare," says Tony Null, the manager of a Houston cinema. "It's happened six times here since the film opened and I've never seen that before."

For minority film-makers, the success of what some call the first black "chick-flick" is a vital breakthrough. Waiting to Exhale has all-black stars and a black director in Forest Whittaker (he played the British soldier held prisoner in The Crying Game). The film had a budget of $14m (pounds 9m) - moderate for a Bruce Willis, but large for a black romance.

Before the film opened during the crowded Christmas period, the New York Times and Variety both forecast that a poor box-office showing would close doors for a generation of black film-makers. "Because of the big budget and all the black actors involved, we knew this one was a test," says Deborah Chasen, who runs Whitney Houston's new production company. "If Waiting failed to make money, we knew the studios would not support another mainstream black movie for a long time."

Now the situation has changed. "You could say we're getting a lot of telephone calls," says Chasen. "Hollywood now realises there's a black middle- class who can make a financial success out of a black movie which is not set in the 'hood and doesn't involve drugs or guns."

Waiting to Exhale has provoked a different response among men. Some black males say the movie should be boycotted. "The movie has no positive images of black men," says Garry Arthur, a community lecturer in Chicago who has taken his case to the newspapers and the Oprah Winfrey Show. "I ask Americans to boycott this movie because it does violence to African-American men. The film tries to suggest that a healthy, regular African-American male would not be interested in the black female."

Some black women have lent support to Arthur's campaign. "The film portrays African- American men as selfish, stupid louts interested only in pleasing themselves and chasing white women," says Selimah Nemoy, a lawyer from California. "The black women in the movie are educated and beautiful, but they are portrayed as clueless harlots whose lives revolve negatively around men."

Nemoy is especially bitter because Waiting to Exhale is seen as a breakout opportunity. "It's tragic that, for the first time, Hollywood's reins of power are turned over to an African-American author and director and this is the self-defeating trash they come up with."

Among women that seems a rare reaction. Five weeks after its release, Waiting to Exhale is becoming a crossover success. At a cinema on the smart Upper West Side last weekend, the seats were again packed with women - but most were not black. The movie's theme

of "trouble with men" seems to have wide appeal.

"This movie would not be so successful if its audience was just the limited demographic group depicted on screen," says Bob Harper, president of marketing at Twentieth Century Fox. "Our exit surveys show the racial breakdown of the audience has flip-flopped from 60 per cent African-American to 60 per cent non-African-American in many markets - with the non-black audience averaging 85 to 90 per cent women."

Harper says this shift is significant in understanding the film's impact. "This is no longer a racially driven movie; it's now gender driven. That's the only way it could have become this cultural phenomenon."

The Upper West Side audience was not as vocal during the movie, but emotions still ran high. As the credits rolled, Jennet Chin, a television producer, punched the air and said, "Right on!" Her enthusiasm had a simple root. "You rarely see a big-budget Hollywood product which talks about sex from our perspective, from the view of a professional, adult woman," she said. "We have a lot of dissatisfactions with the way men treat us, and that's territory Hollywood normally ignores."

The Waiting to Exhale soundtrack supports Chin's perspective. All but one of the songs were written by Babyface, with strong input from Whitney Houston and the women of TLC whose "This is How it Works" should be retitled "Tips from a Woman on How to Make a Woman Feel Good."

Terry McMillan accepts that after a positive image for black women she was hoping for a better understanding of the way men treat women. "Every man you see in a film is a Clark Gable and no woman is ever left unsatisfied," she says. "You never see Ingrid Bergman turn to Bogart and say, `That wasn't good enough.' "

If rectifying that was her target, Waiting to Exhale is a bullseye. The men do not perform well in the sack, and after one speed demon leaves Lela Rochon unsatisfied, she compares him unfavourably with a glass of vegetable juice. The movie scores in another way - black actresses have never looked more like movie stars, which reflects an ugly reality.

"Black actors usually play supporting roles," director Forest Whitaker told NBC's Today show. "That means the lighting is most often designed around white stars. Black skin absorbs light differently, so we used soft- filter Chinese lanterns and straw-coloured gels which favoured the women's skin."

Waiting to Exhale has proved that a movie with black middle- class women at its centre can succeed. It's ironic that the movie's biggest star, Whitney Houston, has personal problems that seem to come straight from a Terry McMillan script. Her marriage has been troubled, with her husband, Bobby Brown, accused of violence and infidelity. Yet Houston could become the first black female star to carry a movie with her own name.

In The Bodyguard, Houston played alongside a rather lacklustre Kevin Costner and saved the movie. Her star power in an ensemble cast has helped pull in $45m for Waiting to Exhale so far. This week, for a fee of $10m, she begins shooting The Preacher's Wife, in which she stars with Denzel Washington under the direction of Penny Marshall (Big, A League of Their Own). The film is a remake of the 1948 movie The Bishop's Wife, which featured Cary Grant and Loretta Young.

"It means a lot if The Preacher's Wife is a success," says talent manager Dolores Robinson, who specialises in black clients. "That would be two blockbuster black movies in a year, and that could be enough to change the economics of Hollywood. It would set up a whole new generation of black actors, producers and directors. Right now, we get gangster movies like Clockers or specialist films like Smoke. If The Preacher's Wife is a hit, that will give blacks a guaranteed place in the mainstream."

n `Waiting to Exhale' will be released in Britain on 26 Jan

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