Today, December 22 is the 25th anniversary of the U.S. release of the film Waiting To Exhale starring Whitney, along with an all-star cast (Angela Bassett, Loretta Devine, Gregory Hines and others). Directed by Academy Award-winner Forest Whitaker with a screenplay by Terry McMillan and Ronald Bass, the film was notable at the time for having an all-African American cast. The film was a financial success as was the soundtrack album, produced by Babyface.
In the 25 years since Waiting to Exhale’s debut, the ground has shifted for Black female representation. The groundbreaking film was the catalyst for that change.
Savannah (Whitney Houston), Robin (Lela Rochon), Bernadine (Angela Bassett), and Gloria (Loretta Devine) entranced audiences as they navigated life, love, and the bonds of sisterhood. It was a welcome and refreshing anomaly amid a slew of films that focused on narratives from the inner city — mostly centering Black men. The film changed the industry and catapulted the stars of nearly everyone who touched it. Now, on this pivotal anniversary, the key female players — plus the guys who portrayed their boyfriends, husbands and sons — talk to ZORA about making one of the most iconic films in history.
When McMillan first optioned the film, she had one name in mind to play Savannah. However, Bassett couldn’t envision herself as anyone but Bernadine.
“I fell in love with the drama,” Bassett tells ZORA. “[Bernadine’s] fractured relationship with her husband, starting over and learning to invest in herself in every way, rediscovering who she is and what matters most to her, putting herself first. The idea was so badass.”
The moment she read Waiting to Exhale, Rochon knew she was destined to play Robin, the high-powered executive who picks the wrong men. “I fought so hard for it because I felt very right for Robin, and the fact that Whitney was already cast was huge to me,” she remembers. “It was my first time in a lead role.”
Devine also recalls the frenzy surrounding the novel and the film’s production.
“I read the book when it first came out,” Devine says. “Everybody in Hollywood was auditioning for [the movie]. It was an exciting time. We were in Arizona for three months, and some scenes were cut out that people never saw. I had to learn to swim because [Gloria] was supposed to have a heart problem throughout the movie.”
With McMillan’s words to anchor them, it was Whitaker who carefully cultivated this story for the screen.
“Putting him at the helm as director could not have been a more excellent choice,” Bassett says. “He had such an enduring and apparent love for women, for ‘sistas’ in particular. I still think he is wondrous to this day. He’s always shown up for me, and I show up for him.”
Waiting to Exhale didn’t just elevate Black women; Hollywood began churning out more female-centered stories. For Bassett, the cherished friendships on- and off-screen mean the world to her. “The scene at the end of the movie with the women listening to the radio and singing in the car was not scripted,” she says. “It was organic moments like these in which we found comfort with one another.”
That feeling of being seen has remained with Devine to this day. “It’s really affected, the way people look at Black women,” she says.