“Waiting To Exhale” Was 20 Years Ago–What Happened To The Girlfriend Movie?
Seven years after Joan, Toni, Maya and Lynn, the fun-loving collective of sister friends known as Girlfriends went off the air, I am still waiting for a Girlfriends movie. After all, the foursome, which became a threesome after actress Jill Marie Jones left the show at the conclusion of the sixth season, never had a proper farewell. Girlfriends was abruptly canceled mid-season after the 2007-2008 Writers Guild of America strike, during which time, writers negotiated new media revenue streams, and virtually all television production ceased. That left loyal fans like me disappointed and longing for more. And though Girlfriends creator Mara Brock Akil has said that she is open to penning a big-screen adaptation of her hit series, she also made it clear that CBS owns the rights and hasn’t exactly jumped at the opportunity to do so.
But with a built-in audience and loyal fan base, Girlfriends as a movie is a no-brainer. It’s the kind of entity that executives and studios typically love to have on deck. As a film, it would fall into a category that some consider a type of genre all its own: the girlfriend movie. And while the girlfriend movie seems to be dying, that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be revived. Black women haven’t seen the likes of a Black female ensemble cast on the big screen since Waiting to Exhale, which was released in 1995. That’s 20 years ago. What exactly happened between then and now?
That question is difficult to answer. Ever the bandwagon jumper in search of the latest trend, you would think Hollywood would have continued the momentum set forth by Waiting to Exhale. Not that its success should have led to hurried, wannabe copies. But rather, it should have made clear that there is an apparent interest and a large female audience hungry for on-screen representations of themselves, universal representations that aren’t solely for Black consumption. As this Essence.com article points out, Waiting to Exhale did well at the box office. Really well. Not only did it gross nearly $150 million worldwide, but it was also the talk of the town, what with its unforgettable scenes (Bernadine setting fire to her husband’s car) and relatable characters who were all looking for love, often in the wrong places. (If memes were a thing back then, I’m pretty sure Waiting to Exhale would have had its fair share of them.)
But in the eyes of Hollywood, this kind of film doesn’t rake in beaucoup bucks, not like the movies we’re used to seeing on the big screen nowadays–namely comic book and superhero adaptations and regurgitations. More accurately, the Black girlfriend movie is not the kind of movie studios think audiences want to see. That’s part of the reason movies like With This Ring and Girlfriends’ Getaway (1 and 2), which aired on Lifetime and TV One respectively, went straight to the small screen. The disregard for these films does a disservice to audiences and ignores what these kinds of movies do so well. Our girlfriends are there for every hiccup and heartache. They cheer us on long after we’ve stopped cheering for ourselves. They’re not afraid to tell us the truth or to simply tell it like it is. Waiting to Exhale’s tagline said it best: “Friends are the people who let you be yourself…and never let you forget.” The best of these movies display the beauty of that sisterhood and the power of those bonds, and in an entertaining, engaging way.
If there’s one thing the industry at large should have learned by now, especially in recent months after the success of movies like Straight Outta Compton and War Room, is never to underestimate moviegoers or films that happen to have majority Black casts. Considering the current television landscape in which Black women are finally playing leading roles in wildly popular and critically-acclaimed shows like Scandal, How To Get Away With Murder, Empire and Brock Akil’s Being Mary Jane, it’s odd and unnerving that this representation isn’t yet reflected in film, whether via films with Black female leads or Black ensemble casts. But even if we can’t see Joan, Toni, Maya and Lynn together again, bringing back the girlfriend movie would be a great start to changing that.