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.”
12 Black Rom-Coms to Watch, From 'She's Gotta Have It' to 'Hitch' (Photos)
"She's Gotta Have It" (1986)
Spike Lee's feature film debut, "She's Gotta Have It," has to be considered the quintessential Black rom-com. The film, which Lee updated as a Netflix series, tells the story of Nola Darling and her three unique boyfriends. It's been heralded as helping to usher in the indie film movement of the '80s and changing the representation of black people in American cinema.
"Coming to America" (1988)
Probably more comedy than romance, but Eddie Murphy's 1988 rom-com "Coming to America" is a classic in either genre. This fish out of water tale follows Prince Akeem (Murphy) of Zamunda on his journey to America, fleeing an arranged marriage. Landing in New York City, he and his sidekick Semmi (Arsenio Hall) try to acclimate to American life, while trying to find a wife of his own. The film also marked the first time Murphy dressed up to play more than one character.
Another Eddie Murphy film makes the list. This time there's no need for him to play any other characters because he's joined by Halle Berry, Martin Lawrence, David Allen Grier, Grace Jones, Ertha Kitt and Chris Rock -- need we say more? "Boomerang" is your prototypical rom-com, with a little signature Murphy. He plays a New York marketing exec and womanizer, Marcus. But what goes around comes around in this romantic comedy, leading Murphy's character to find and realize true love.
"Love Jones" (1997)
You would be hard pressed to find a more charming, more attractive pair to co-star in a Black romantic comedy in the '90s outside of Larenz Tate and Nia Long. "Love Jones" follows the love at first sight and up and down relationship of two young black artists in Chicago. In an oral history of the film for it's 20th anniversary, Tre'Vell Anderson wrote for the Los Angeles Times: "'Love Jones,' at its core, is about possibilities, those opportunities people of color know exist for them -- in love, life and career."
New Line Cinema
"How Stella Got Her Groove Back" (1998)
"How Stella Got Her Groove Back," adapted from Terry McMillan's best-selling novel, introduced the film community to Taye Diggs, then a Broadway actor known for "Rent." It also gave Angela Bassett one of the defining roles of her career. Her Stella character is an overworked single mom in need of a vacation and some romance, so best friend Whoopi Goldberg takes her to Jamaica, where she meets and falls in love with Winston Shakespeare (Diggs), a man 20 years her junior. Rolling Stone critic Peter Travers said of the film: "Whether you regard Stella’s getting her groove back as a feminist battle cry or as a silly wish-fulfillment fantasy, the movie delivers guilt-free escapism about pretty people having wicked-hot fun in pretty places."
"The Best Man" (1999)
It's the rare (Black) rom-com that warranted revisiting with a sequel, some 14 years later. "The Best Man," starring Taye Diggs, touts an ensemble cast that includes Nia Long, Terrence Howard, Morris Chestnut, Harold Perrineau and Monica Calhoun as a group who come together for their friends' wedding only to have old flings, feelings and drama resurface thanks to a new, semi autobiographical book Diggs' character Harper wrote that threatens the wedding and friendships.
"Love and Basketball" (2000)
"Love and Basketball" isn't exactly a romantic comedy, but this coming of age young love story written and directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood is a classic. The film follows the friendship and relationship of Quincy (Omar Epps) and Monica (Sanaa Lathan) as they grow up and pursue their shared dream of playing professional basketball. The film abandons comedy and instead culminates in a one-on-one basketball game for the future of their relationship that will surely make your heart ache.
New Line Productions
"Two Can Play That Game" (2001)
This Vivica A. Fox-Morris Chestnut rom-com pulls from a familiar story: A self-assured relationship veteran finds herself having difficulty maintaining a relationship. In "Two Can Play That Game," Fox's character puts forth an all-out assault dubbed the "10-day-plan" in order to get Chestnut crawling back to her.
"Brown Sugar" (2002)
This list clearly needed more representation from Taye Diggs and Sanaa Lathan. Their 2003 rom-com boasts supporting roles from Queen Latifah and Mos Def. In "Brown Sugar," Dre (Diggs) and Syd (Lathan) have been close friends since childhood, but after Dre proposes to his girlfriend Syd realizes that her best friend might actually be the love of her life.
"Deliver Us From Eva" (2003)
It's a take on William Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew." Gabrielle Union plays Eva, is an uptight single woman meddling in her sisters' love lives. To keep her from disrupting their relationships the sisters' boyfriends pay notorious ladies man Ray (LL Cool J) to romance her, date her and break it off a few weeks later. But of course, they fall in love. As Eleanor Ringel Cater wrote for the Atlanta Journal Constitution when the film came out: "Not only is this a funny and romantic movie, but it proves, yet again, that movies can and, in some instances, should be colorblind."
The New York Times' A.O. Scott dubbed this Will Smith vehicle as "soft and sweet as a marshmallow." Smith plays a romance expert hired to teach nebbishy guys like Kevin James romance women way out of their league -- until Smith's Hitch himself meets his match in Eva Mendes' no-nonsense gossip columnist. Sparks eventually fly, of course.
"Jumping the Broom" (2012)
Paula Patton plays a corporate lawyer who falls for Laz Alonso's ambitious stock broker -- but their Martha's Vineyard wedding runs into conflict between her hoity-toity family and his more working-class clan.
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”Deliver Us From Eva“ and ”She’s Gotta Have It“ are among the hits that prove that movies, especially romantic comedies, can be colorblind