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How Stella Got Her Groove Back - An Interpretive Analysis
One of the most impressive things about this film is that it is about the relationships, careers, and decisions of black characters without any white influence. There are a few minor white characters, but they do not influence the actions of the major characters. Although the overall concept of the film’s plot—a romantic relationship between an older woman and a younger man—could easily be played by an all white cast, the fact that it isn’t creates a different opportunity for the film’s audience. Rather than providing viewers with a film mainly made up of a black cast that focuses on black stereotypes or offers the viewpoint of black families living in poverty without opportunities, this film shows a financially successful, physically healthy, and independently strong black woman.
Angela Basset, who plays Stella, creates a beautiful, idealistic character who has human flaws, just like everyone else. This film is particularly impressive because it offers the black community a female character who has had a profitable and successful career, stresses the importance of having deep, influential relationships with other women; and, she shows that a woman doesn’t need a man in her life to be successful, but can choose to have one in order to further enrich her life. While it isn’t socially responsible that this one character be interpreted as a generalization of all black women, it is possible that many people (of all skin colors) will consider this character in such a way. For white audiences, it is a good lesson to see this kind of “spokesperson” for the black community (although a better lesson might be learning not to view one person as a “spokesperson” for a wide-range of people). For black audiences, it is an opportunity to see characters that aren’t solely dealing with problems of oppression or portrayed with old stereotypes.
The gist of this concept is that man cannot use standards developed in one culture to justifiably evaluate and judge another culture that has developed other means to solve the problems of survival. Likewise, he cannot determine what is “primitive” or “normal” in one culture and the society in which it is embedded on the basis of the standards of another culture . . .. Since cultures are man-made, the cultural relativist assumes that all cultures are equally valid, and that what is “normal” in human life can vary from culture to culture.
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The relationship Stella has with her best friend, Delilah, is inspiring. They are two women who love each other and confide in one another. Only recently has popular culture begun to put an emphasis on how important female bonds are. So much emphasis is put on women finding love and getting married—it is as though women are incomplete without men in their lives. But when there are depictions of women who are successful without men, this breaks that belief. Stella and Delilah are each other’s confidantes, inspirations, and companions. They have the qualities of life partners, without the sex.
The Race Issue
There are some aspects of the film that I interpreted as scenes that addressed the topic of race. Near the film’s beginning, Stella and her best friend, Delilah (played by Whoopi Goldberg), meet in Jamaica. After loudly and animatedly greeting each other, Delilah casually tells Stella they don’t want to “scare the white people!” While this is an amusing line, it also touches on the fact that their enthusiastic greeting might seem odd to other white guests—being loud and excited is generally unacceptable in upper/middle-class white culture. Another scene that addresses the issue of racism is when Stella returns to her job after her first trip to Jamaica. She learns that her employer is merging with another company and part of the deal is that each company lets go of one major employee: Stella is the one chosen to be let go. While it isn’t stated, or even suggested, that she is chosen because of her race (and/or gender), it is impossible to notice that the person being let go is the only woman of color in the office. Fortunately, she fights back and stands up for herself.
The third major issue of racism I noticed in the film dealt with one of Stella’s sisters, Angela (played by Suzanne Douglas). Angela is in a bi-racial marriage—her husband is white. Not only does Angela have a white husband, but they are also wealthy. She is constantly reminding Stella about how she should act and “how it looks” when Stella does something that isn’t “expected” of her. Angela experiences a double consciousness more openly than the other characters because she is so vocal about her desire to create a perfect image. It is easy not to like her character and to consider her shallow, but that would be a mistake. What she is experiencing is complex. Being in a bi-racial marriage and higher income bracket means that the people she knows judge her based on how she acts as a black woman. When her siblings act out of the roles Angela, herself, is forced into, she is frightened that it will reflect upon her own character.
At one point, Stella mentions how her mother wanted her to have a successful career so she could get out of the projects. Stella and Angela find different methods of doing this—one has a financially rewarding career and the other marries into a lifestyle that allows it. Their youngest sister, Vanessa (played by Regina King), is in the working class and struggles to make ends meet. But she is a very strong woman and doesn’t seem to care what anyone thinks about her—her character also creates a lot of comedic relief throughout the film. These three sisters are very different from one another. A strong point of the film, however, is that it shows how family relationships are important.
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The Age Issue
Stella tackles an age issue that is a double standard in the United States. When Stella, a forty-year-old woman, begins dating Winston, a twenty-year-old man, they are confronted with different reactions. Angela disapproves completely (as this could reflect negatively upon her and could have negative consequences for Stella), Vanessa and Delilah encourage Stella in the relationship—as long as she is happy, Winston’s mother strongly disapproves, and many attractive, young women visibly check Winston out when he is with Stella (one woman even assumes Stella is his mother). It is generally acceptable for older men to be romantically involved with younger women in the United States, but the opposite is rarely accepted. While Stella has to tackle this cultural limitation, she also has to do it as a black woman—which means she has to work twice as hard to justify her actions to other people.
Stella encounters problems because she goes against the “norms” of black culture in the United States and the “norms” of white culture in the United States. Not only is she black, and female, but she is also an older woman in a relationship with a younger man. She is the one who has had a successful career and is financially independent. When she and Winston are together, they go against what American culture says is okay or normal. I believe that in some ways it was easier for them to get together because Winston was Jamaican. Because they come from different cultures and backgrounds, it is not as difficult for them to create their own culture together, in private. In fact, when they are alone together, everything runs smoothly. It is only when they go out into the public, under the eyes of the ever-watchful society hawks, do they have problems.
A lot of stereotypes and prejudices against black people are justified by the fact that many black people are poor. In essence, they are judged by their class. Stella removes the class barriers, offering a successful, educated woman. The movie provides an independent black woman struggling to add a little fun to her life. Without these class differences, Stella is no different from anyone else: she has the same desires, insecurities, and needs as everyone. In fact, the only difference between Stella and me is that she has darker skin. Although she was successful, I am willing to bet that I’ve had more opportunities handed to me than she did based on the color of my skin. When I go on vacation, meet with friends, or date a younger man, I don’t worry that everything I’m doing creates judgment for everyone else who has the same skin color as I do—a skin color that may be the only thing we have in common.
Although How Stella Got Her Groove Back was a bit choppy and inconsistent at times, it is a film worth watching. It offers a movie with a black cast that isn’t about being victims—these characters are strong and independent people. They are living, working, loving, and existing in the ways that make them happy, regardless of what others think.