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Black women get even at movies

THE CAR PARK of the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza is where director John Singleton staged a vicious gang execution for Boyz N the Hood, his ground-breaking account of young black men who lead short violent lives.

A year later the LA riots swept through the streets surrounding the glossy shopping mall, but left it largely untouched - in fact, it was the command post for the National Guard.

A very unlikely kind of film - about black professional women, which lampoons black men - is now showing at the mall's gleaming new Magic Johnson Theatre. Waiting to Exhale has been a runaway success right across the United States. After it opened shortly before Christmas, noisy groups of African-American women began piling out of the packed cinema and into Gagnier's restaurant across the street. "They were discussing the movie," said the owner, August Gagnier, "and talking bad about men."

Directed by Forest Whitaker, the black actor who played the British soldier taken hostage in The Crying Game, Waiting to Exhale is set in Phoenix, Arizona. It stars the singer Whitney Houston and the acclaimed actress Angela Bassett.

It contains chapters from the lives of four black career women who have manifold complaints against black men, who are portrayed as coke-heads, frauds and second-rate lovers. Defying industry cliches, there is not a gun and hardly a good man in sight, but images of middle-class life, smart cars and champagne. Bitterly funny, the movie is a feminine riposte to the male angst exemplified in the Million Man March on Washington last year, and to black street language that renders all women "whores" and "bitches".

Riding on audiences 70 per cent female and 65 per cent black, it became Christmas's No 1 film, briefly topping Disney's Toy Story. Twentieth Century Fox, which paid $15m to make it, suggest it will earn perhaps three times that. The company is hoping to expand its appeal across the racial divide.

In Boyz N the Hood, Bassett played the stereotypical long-suffering single mother raising a troubled teenage son. In Exhale, when her wealthy businessman husband of 11 years leaves her for his secretary, she sets his BMW on fire and takes him to the cleaners in the divorce court.

The insult is worse because the other woman is white.

Gagnier's is one of the best-known African-American eateries in Los Angeles, discreetly stylish with a firmly middle-class clientele. Nursing a drink in the corner of the bar is Evelyn Jase, a twice-divorced saleswoman for Estee Lauder cosmetics, who went to the film with her 23-year-old daughter. It reminds women they have choices, she said, and explodes the myth that they need a man. "It is a film everyone should see. A lot of the men there were embarrassed because they saw themselves."

Across town at Mann's Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard, a young black woman is hurrying in with her companion and son. "I heard it was a woman's movie," she said. "That if people came to see it with their boyfriend, they would quit their boyfriend."

Houston plays a TV producer in an affair with the man who stays with his wife for the sake of the children. But the most telling role is Robin, a good-time girl played by former Eddie Murphy co-star Lela Rochon, in a permanent struggle to get out from under men who don't perform, sexually and otherwise.

Professor Todd Boyd, an expert on black Americanculture, charts Exhale's success in more cynical terms - it's based on a best-selling book, was released into a big holiday market, has a good soundtrack and casts one of America's most popular singers.

"It's a terrible film. Everybody is talking about women's voices but where was the woman director?" Nevertheless, he said, it could open new avenues the way that director Spike Lee blazed a trail for male black cinema.