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

Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'