‘How Stella Got Her Groove Back’ Director on Universal Appeal, Enduring Legacy of Black Rom-Com

“People of different ages and colors come up to me and tell me their stories of falling in love with the film,” Kevin Rodney Sullivan tells TheWrap

Whoopi Goldberg (left) and Angela Bassett star in 1998's "How Stella Got Her Groove Back"
Whoopi Goldberg (left) and Angela Bassett star in 1998's "How Stella Got Her Groove Back"

This week marks 20 years since Stella got her groove back … and she’s still got it.

The beloved 1998 rom-com “How Stella Got Her Groove Back” saw Angela Bassett — at the peak of her movie career — and the illustrious Whoopi Goldberg pack their bags and head to Jamaica with fresh-faced newcomer Taye Diggs, in his first film role as young, handsome islander Winston Shakespeare.

Back then, 27-year-old Diggs was best-known for originating the role of Benny in Jonathan Larson’s “Rent. The film also marked the feature debut for director Kevin Rodney Sullivan.

The film, and book it was adapted from, captured black and female audiences in the late 90’s and early 2000s. Sullivan, who’s directed many episodes of TV since, as well as films like “Guess Who” and “Barbershop 2,” told TheWrap that people still come up to him two decades years later to tell him how much they — or their moms — love “How Stella Got Her Groove Back.”

But it’s not always women revealing their love for the movie, he said, and they’re not always black.

Though “How Stella Got Her Groove Back” centers around black characters and tells a story from a black point of view, it definitely feels universal, and the wide net it’s been able to cast around audiences is proof.

“You can’t be a black filmmaker in Hollywood and not pay attention to and think about the boxes or categories that Hollywood wants to put you in,” Sullivan said. “But I’ve also had a lot of people of different ages and colors come up to me and tell me their stories of falling in love with the film.”

If Sullivan had any regrets regarding the movie, it was the absence of an international release. In 1998, he said, Hollywood studios were resistant to giving black films a shot overseas — that’s only now starting to change, thanks in part to successes like “Black Panther,” “Hidden Figures” and even “Moonlight.”

“How Stella Got Her Groove Back” pulled in $37.7 million at the box office for Fox in 1998, and had a production budget of $20 million. If released today, Sullivan said maybe it would have gotten an international release, and he’s sure it could have performed well in some foreign markets.

“It definitely goes in cycles, the interest in the African-American experience,” Sullivan told TheWrap. “Hollywood responds to success, but it seems like it’s a new day in the industry.”

But “How Stella Got Her Groove Back” wasn’t simply a black story, the film was also heralded as a feminist battle cry, while at the same time being criticized as a frivolous fantasy romp.

Being Sullivan’s first feature film, he said he had no misconceptions about what he was making. The goal was to make people laugh and make a film people would have a good time watching. But he also believes that “the romantic comedy genre is a disrespected and overlooked one in Hollywood.”

“I knew I wasn’t going to be dressing up in any tuxedoes for this one,” Sullivan said, referring to it’s lack of awards season accolades.

That aside, there was a responsibility to get it right and tell the story of a 40-year-old single mother searching for happiness in the wake of a divorce justice.

“I think a story that’s told from a woman’s point of view has great power because we don’t tells those often; that’s a very specific view point,” Sullivan told TheWrap. “I knew I better listen, because I knew there was information that I didn’t have. Angela is an extremely talented actor and she’s one of the smartest people I know — then to have [Terry McMillan] right there on set too and you throw Whoopi in there — we just put all of that brain power and talent together.”

“How Stella Got Her Groove Back” was adapted for the big screen by author McMillan from her New York Times best-selling novel of the same name. Bassett embodies Stella, a successful, hardworking, 40-year-old single mother in desperate need of a little relaxation and romance. Enter Goldberg, as her college best friend Delilah Abraham.

Goldberg, who had already won an Oscar for her supporting actress role in “Ghost,” convinces Stella to take a first-class vacation to Jamaica. There she meets, is romanced by and falls in love with Diggs’ character, a “not even legal” 20-year-old college graduate.

While Stella says all she wants in Jamaica is to “run, read, relax and roll over,” Delilah has other plans — she wants to be a “big old ho slut, if I can.

Stella Payne is easily on Bassett’s Mount Rushmore of iconic film roles. It’s one moviegoers surely remember, which is saying a lot for an actress who’s taken roles in “Boyz n the Hood,” “Malcolm X” and “What’s Love Got to Do with It,” to throw out a few.

Though Sullivan sat at the helm of the film and Diggs served as the catalyst for Stella getting back her groove, it was the female talent involved that’s driven it to enduring success.

“Terry’s book and Angela’s performance really gave the film that resonance that people have connected to. It was my role to abide by that,” Sullivan said. “I’m a little taken aback by it all. It’s a labor of love and I’ve been really flattered. I can only be grateful that it has endured. The fact that people still watch it, I’m good with that.”