The 20th anniversary of Waiting to Exhale is just around the corner. What happened to buddy movies centered around African-American women?
In one of the most compelling storylines from the made-for-television movie Girlfriends’ Getaway 2 (currently airing on TV One), Vicki (Garcelle Beauvais) struggles with the sometimes competing goals of having the perfect wedding and building the perfect marriage.
Thankfully for Vicki, her girls are right there by her side cheering her on when she makes the right choices and helping her up off the ground when she makes the wrong ones.
“This sequel is for the underserved audience like me and my girlfriends and my mom,” says Terri J. Vaughn, who has costarred in and executive produced both Girlfriends’ Getaway flicks. “We have Empire and Power but there is still a voice that is missing.
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“Born Again Virgin (another TV One show) speaks to a younger voice. It doesn’t speak to grown-ass women 40 and up. We’re dealing with kids and schools and marriage and they’re not there yet,” says Vaughn, 45, whose credits include All of Us and Friday. “There is an audience for this. We proved that as the No. 1 movie to air on TV One ever and I pray that the numbers are even bigger than they were last year.”
With any luck, Vaughn’s prayers will be answered. But when you consider the fact that the 20th anniversary of Waiting to Exhale is just around the corner, it’s disappointing that both Girlfriends’ Getaway movies never made it to the big screen.
After all, Waiting to Exhale (released December 22, 1995) grossed $67 million domestically and $81 million worldwide, so obviously, there is a precedent for success when it comes to buddy movies centered around African-American women. Hollywood just needs to deliver and turn small-screen gems like Girlfriends’ Getaway and Lifetime’s With This Ring into large-screen hits.
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“Waiting to Exhale passed the litmus test of Hollywood success,” says Cassandra Hollis, a producer, director and actress. “When a film is super successful, typically we see several that follow the same or similar formula. Not so in this case.
“Unfortunately, this is not a new phenomenon for films with predominately African-American casts,” Hollis says. “We can go back as far as the 1940s with films like Cabin In the Sky and others from the 1950s that were quite successful at the box office and yet did not yield an increase of similar type films.”
Roger Bobb, who directed and co-executive produced both Girlfriends’ Getaway films, also wanted the project to grace the big screen. But in the end, Vaughn said, she and her producing partner Cas Sigers-Beedles, were unable to secure studio interest and financial backing.
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“Unfortunately, in our business with the talent that we have attached, you’re not going to get green-lighted for the big screen,” Vaughn says. “The women in this movie are, I feel, the most deserving. The product warrants a big-screen production but that’s not how it rolled out.
Vaughn, Sigers-Beedles and Bobb are not the only ones fighting the good fight when it comes to making movies about Black women’s friendships. For years, Mara Brock Akil has been trying to turn Girlfriends, which aired on TV for eight highly popular seasons until 2008, into a movie much the way HBO’s Sex and the City went. But, so far it hasn’t happened.
“TV viewers already proved there was an audience for this genre with the success of Living Single, which predated Waiting to Exhale, and Girlfriends,” Hollis says. “Hollywood missed this.”
But fans shouldn’t count Girlfriends out just yet, Akil says. In fact, she says she wouldn’t mind a little help from the show’s diehard supporters.
“The thing is, whether the public cares or understands, there is a business component to all of this,” Akil told ESSENCE last year. “I remain diligent with CBS Paramount, who owns the rights to Girlfriends."
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“If the fans want something to do, they can contact CBS Paramount and let them know that they want that movie, because I want to do it,” Akil says. “They know I want to do it. So I still stay diligent in convincing them that this is a property that is worth thinking about giving the rights to. I haven’t been told no.”
Finding the ‘Right’ Cast
Whitney Houston was the secret weapon for Waiting to Exhale. As a Grammy-winning recording artist, she had a household name that would attract non-black audiences.
These are the things that studio executives talk about and consider when making movies with predominately black casts. In the case of Girlfriends, for instance, Tracee Ellis Ross’ current prominence on ABC’s black-ish could help turn Girlfriends into a big-screen commodity.
But studios shouldn’t underestimate the power of social media to get the word out on casts with lesser-known names, Hollis says.
“Whitney Houston was one of the biggest stars in the world at the time,” Hollis says of Waiting to Exhale. “But Angela Bassett was an Academy-award nominated actress and Loretta Devine was a Broadway diva. The casting was great but great casting does not mean that the leads, certainly for an ensemble cast, all have to be household names.
“Social media is an excellent window into how audiences see and respond to film casting.”
Meanwhile, romantic comedies are all the rage when it comes to predominately black casts these days and films such as Baggage Claim and Think Like a Man and Think Like a Man Too have fared well monetarily and feature friendships between black women and black men.
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Reality TV Side Effects
In Girlfriends’ Getaway 2, Vicki and the gang bump heads with each other and the men in their lives but they never destroy their bonds with each other as women. There are even moments of evolvement and self-reflection.
“In the first movie, Vicki wanted to get married but that didn’t work out with the first guy,” Beauvais says of her character. “And it’s funny how, we as women, will say, ‘Yeah. I want this guy. I want to get married.’ But we are shocked when we have to make adjustments.”
Beauvais’ Vicki isn’t the only one with relationship issues. For instance, Vaughn plays Sophie, a mom who has to decide whether or not to give her cheating ex-husband a second chance.
Essence Atkins reprises her role as Lauren, the yoga-loving spiritualist tempted to betray a vow of celibacy. Malinda Williams rounds out the cast as Camille. This time around, Camille is secure in her marriage but desperately wants to solidify her fledgling journalism career.
“Our goal is to bring real life situations to the screen,” Vaughn says. “You can have disagreements with your friends and have it not go down like a reality show where they go to blows. It was important for us to create characters who act like people that we know.”
Vaughn says one of the problems with the dearth of movies about Black girlfriends is the inundation of reality TV, which she says poisons viewers into thinking their negative depiction of Black female friendships is the only depiction.
Fatherhood expert and actor Stevan Lynn agrees with Vaughn and says he longs for the days of Waiting to Exhale.
“Waiting to Exhale and the handful of films thereafter, sought to not only entertain but teach, encourage and yes, heal African-American women,” Lynn says. “That has been replaced by the insurgence of reality television and Facebook and Instagram, all of which provide a quick fix overwhelmingly used on a daily basis.
“They target the African-American female community but with grave consequences in areas such as relationship development and bonding and reverence for patience and faith in times of struggle.”
Looking for Solutions
Before you hug your remote control extra tight and count down the days until the next Black woman buddy film comes on TV, there is hope, the experts say.
Vaughn vows to keep trying to leverage her success into movie deals, Hollis is working on a project or two and Akil keeps stoking the flames at CBS Paramount. Meanwhile, Will Packer, the brains and money behind blockbusters such as Straight Outta Compton, Ride Along and the Think Like a Man movies is working on a film about four African-American girlfriends headed to ESSENCE Fest.
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Besides, as Lynn points out, African-American moviegoers and filmmakers have other options too and should also consider paths with less tread such as Hulu, Amazon and Netflix.
“Outlets such as Netflix provide a platform for creative indie filmmakers whose stories often reach out to African-American women,” Lynn says. “Films that can be viewed in the comfort of their homes, surrounded by friends with unlimited popcorn and soft drinks.”