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In the Groove

Shallow feels swell in McMillan-inspired Stella

The timing couldn't be better for How Stella Got Her Groove Back. The dog days of summer are upon us, and few prospects could be more welcome to asteroid-weary moviegoers than a light romantic comedy that includes a trip to Jamaica as part of the package. Director Kevin Rodney Sullivan may push this fluff-enriched tale of a fortyish stockbroker (the ever-resourceful Angela Bassett) and a youth half her age (the truly spectacular Taye Diggs) well past its 90-minute welcome mark, but moviegoers aren't likely to complain. This is escapism, pure and simple. And few know the power of such purity better than Terry McMillan.

When McMillan's Waiting to Exhale overwhelmed the bestseller lists (on its way to its inevitable hit-movie reincarnation) several years ago, it presaged a seismic cultural shift that had been a long time coming. The African-American middle class has finally arrived at the mainstream. In need of a voice to supplement Oprah's, it has found one in McMillan. If that voice is closer to Rona Jaffe than Toni Morrison, then so much the better -- as far as McMillan's fans are concerned. For the novelist/screenwriter's strength is her ability to confect a fictional universe not only removed from the purview of white racism but from the far subtler oppression of black identity as well.

McMillan's novels are about women with "man trouble." This being a universal theme, it has not unexpectedly attracted no small number of white readers as well. But to her black female core audience, such tales offer the ineffable luxury of problems whose solution never cuts so deeply as to draw the sort of blood (their own) African-Americans have long wearied of having to mop up. If this bespeaks of a certain superficiality, then the McMillan faithful will surely say, so much the better. McMillan has a younger man in her life "for real." But that's not why her book has been read so avidly. What McMillanites want is to get their own groove back through fantasy. And fantasy is what the movies, like no other known form of cultural expression, are ideal for providing.

Whoopi Goldberg's performance in Stella provides a perfect example of McMillan's allure in action. Next to John Travolta, Goldberg's the most omnipresent fixture in the Hollywood firmament. But she's paid a price for such visibility. Simply put, Whoopi hasn't appeared alongside this many black people in a movie since The Color Purple. Her wisecracking Eve Arden-styled best friend role here is scarcely fresh, yet it allows her to exhibit more genuine acting skill than she has since The Player. In other words, she doesn't push any gesture or line reading in her usual ever-so-slightly overdone manner, the better to differentiate herself not only from white co-stars but the notion that her role represents anything in particular about black life for the benefit of white spectators. In much the same spirit, she declines to ostentatiously get down in word and deed, the better to conform with perceived wisdom of African-American "realness." Whoopi's just there, every bit as much as Angela Bassett is there, and both she and her fans are the better for it.

Bassett breathes a lot easier here than in her recent turns as Tina Turner in What's Love Got to Do with It and as an enraged, wronged wife in Waiting to Exhale. She's every inch as glamorous as Whitney Houston in The Bodyguard or Diana Ross in Mahogany, yet Bassett never descends to being a demonstration model for fantasies so removed from ordinary experience as to approach science fiction. And part of that has to do with the way that her part is written. A pivotal moment comes fairly early on in Stella, when, having just met the object of her affection for the remainder of the film, Bassett asks if he's a rapper. He isn't, needless to say. But the kick comes in the question itself, for the implication is clear that if he were, she wouldn't have anything to do with him. We've come a long way from the "hood," and its overwhelmingly narcissistic displays of black maleness advanced as the be-all, end-all of African-American consciousness. At the same time, we're somewhat off to the side of the (relatively) everyday world of last year's surprising hit Soul Food and the rural exotica of the even more surprising hit Eve's Bayou. Stella centers on nothing more than the pleasant daydream of any number of women in their thirties and forties -- both black and white.

It's familiar territory, trod most memorably 42 years ago in Douglas Sirk's All That Heaven Allows. "But Carrie -- he's your gardener!" a shocked Agnes Moorhead (playing the Whoopi role) told a troubled Jane Wyman (the Bassett part) on hearing of her attraction for the young and studly Rock Hudson (the Taye Diggs slot). But times have changed -- along with the stars' complexions. This time out, the family accepts the stud without putting up much of a fuss. And why shouldn't they? And why shouldn't you? It's just a movie. And for African-Americans, the ability to say that simple phrase is reason enough to rejoice.

How Stella Got Her Groove Back.
Rated R.
Directed by Kevin Rodney Sullivan. With Angela Bassett, Whoopi Goldberg and Taye Diggs.

 
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