Hollywood didn’t really discover the black female audience with Waiting To Exhale, at least not the way Columbus discovered America. Terry McMillan’s bestselling romance novel was already a recognized phenomenon before there was a movie version and so the dream industry was just along for the ride. Exhale was a very profitable ride of course, hence How Stella Got Her Groove Back, an April-August romance starring Angela Bassett that’s return trip, community service, and mercenary raid all rolled into one. It’s not a very well-made movie, but Stella‘s many limitations will probably be a side issue among its target audience, irrelevant next to those repeating images of Angela being so rich and beautiful and black.
The divorced, 40-year-old Stella is the typical girl who has everything… except, you know, love. Introduced like a video personal ad, she powers through million-dollar deals with unquestioned ease, lives in a generically scenic home, mothers her teenage son with firm, smiling wisdom and takes slow-motion morning runs through the hills. (Unlike the hug-centric Exhale, Stella is built around gasp-producing money shots, Bassett’s triathlete body, her home, and her young lover drawing equal amounts of oohs.) After enduring some ribbing from her sisters about being blackman-less, Stella decides what she really needs is a restful trip to Jamaica with gal pal Whoopi Goldberg (who gets all the best lines). There she meets Winston (Taye Diggs), a 20-year-old hardbody. It’s not a wholly unbelievable love connection. Besides having those muscles, Winston has no real competition, his main obstacles a pair of flabby exfootball players and the psychic scars Stella’s developed where her groove used to be.
One of those “if you have to ask…” things, Stella’s vaguely metaphysical groove doesn’t really get an on-screen exploration beyond the tastefully sexy kind. (You know it’s definitely back when a single postorgasmic tear erupts from Stella’s eye midway through the movie.) Director Kevin Rodney Sullivan pares McMillan’s turgid hand-wringing about love and living life to the fullest down to simple aesthetic determinism (Winston and Stella look too good not to be together). But where Exhale extended its beautiful ladies the courtesy of consistently glossy surroundings, Stella is kind of chintzy, its high-end black spaces as superficially textured as an episode of Melrose Place. Stella deserves a grudging nod for giving black women the kind of soapy images white women take for granted, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t have tried harder to make them shine.