Angela Bassett started her career with a bang, the likes of which few actors have experienced. Her early-1990s run of Boyz n the Hood, Malcolm X, What’s Love Got to Do With It, Strange Days, and Contact established her as one of cinema’s top talents, but powerful as these performances are, the films aren’t exactly ones that you turn on when you’re looking to unwind. And, with the exception of her Oscar-nominated portrayal of Tina Turner, they feature strong ensemble work from Bassett, not true lead turns.
For re-watchability and a celebration of the actor in full spotlight form, look no further than How Stella Got Her Groove Back, which celebrates its 25th anniversary on Aug. 14th. Based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Terry McMillan, who co-wrote the screenplay with Ron Bass (My Best Friend’s Wedding), Kevin Rodney Sullivan’s film gives the Yale Drama School grad another opportunity to showcase her established skillset. Yet it’s the balance of gravitas with comic and romantic prowess that makes the performance one of her best — especially since such well-rounded roles have sadly proven infrequent for Bassett in the years since.
The differences are evident from the film’s bubbly title and cheerful poster, which all but promise a tale of self-empowerment, a celebration of having fun and letting one’s heart lead the way, though viewers might initially wonder if they’ve been bamboozled. Following an opening stretch that establishes the seemingly humorless — and appropriately named — Stella Payne as a strong, confident, career-driven Black woman, moviegoers may think they’re about to see Yet Another Serious Angela Bassett Film.
But during a jokey early exchange with Stella and her sisters Vanessa (Regina King) and Angela (Suzzanne Douglas) at a San Francisco spa, a new side of the actor emerges. And things then get downright goofy back at Stella’s house when, while taking a call from a would-be suitor, she imagines a TV commercial for Jamaican tourism beckoning her by name, then visualizes herself in the ad, all while making misleading affirmations about the invitation to paradise as her oblivious gentleman caller listens.
Suddenly, the same person who so memorably plumbed the depths of Tina Turner’s tortured soul just a few years earlier is showing great potential as a comedienne. And opposite a particularly funny Whoopi Goldberg as best friend Delilah, Bassett gets plenty of chances to flex her own humorous allure as the two women meet up at a luxurious Montego Bay resort.
In Delilah’s presence, Stella immediately lights up; Bassett likewise clearly has fun with her co-star, reacting to and playing off Goldberg’s silliness. Whether dodging the advances of unsuitable bachelors or ribbing each other, the characters’ bond is one of true sisterhood and boisterous laughter. Paired with an upbeat soundtrack of hits produced by the legendary duo of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, plus gorgeous tropical scenery, the lighthearted island vibes are likewise infectious for viewers.
Delightful as this duo is, How Stella Got Her Groove Back doesn’t fully turn into The Angela & Whoopi Show, and Bassett shows off her romantic charms when Stella embarks on a surprise vacation fling with Winston (Taye Diggs, magnetic in his big-screen debut). Thirsting over the 20-year-old at breakfast, Stella makes it clear she has desires, and though sexy and desired in return, her lack of confidence at being twice his age necessitates some persistence on the young Jamaican man’s part.
Once Stella lets her guard down and dances with Winston at the resort’s disco, viewers are gifted the rare sight of Bassett in the midst of a true romance — one bereft of the discord, fear, and abuse that dominated many of her previous onscreen relationships. As such, it’s a joy to witness these beautiful actors fall in love and have sex to slow jams, all with the lone concern of whether their characters will stay together.
But throughout the good times, Bassett still turns on the drama when necessary. Retreating behind her wall of self-preservation, Stella is quick to get stern when Winston shows his immaturity, and the heartbreak Bassett conveys when Delilah’s health declines provides some of the film’s most moving moments.
Impressive as Bassett is at melding all of the above facets into a single performance, it’s a shame that How Stella Got Her Groove Back becomes a full-on, largely conventional drama in its home stretch and sheds the well-rounded playfulness of it May-December romcom side. Perhaps due to the ho-hum final act, the film earned middling reviews and wound up being only modestly profitable. And possibly in part because of this reception, Bassett returned to primarily dramatic projects over the subsequent quarter century, almost exclusively in supporting roles.
Though she’s experienced a career renaissance of late thanks to the Black Panther films, earning her second Academy Award nomination for her work in Wakanda Forever, and is consistently strong in the serious fare that dominates her resumé, the range she displays as Stella is a testament to her immense talent and diverse capabilities. Considering the recent re-appreciation of her gifts, the time feels right for Bassett to get her groove back in comparable fashion yet again.
“How Stella Got Her Groove Back” is available for digital rental or purchase.