Ever since Bernadine, Gloria, Savannah, and Robin laughed together, cried together, and fussed at each other in the name of friendship in theaters around the world, many have exalted the 1995 film Waiting to Exhale as the blueprint for showing Black women’s friendships on-screen. Waiting to Exhale followed four African American women experiencing the ups and downs of love and romance in Phoenix, Arizona. Based on the 1992 novel by Terry McMillan, the film has also stood the test of time in the hearts of those too young to remember when it premiered, if they were even alive at all.
Over the years many TV channels have kept the movie alive, and today it’s even streaming on HBO Max. Though the film had major success, after 1995 there remained a lack of films centering Black women friendships. Shows like Living Single and Martin were largely popular amongst Black communities in the 90s, yet they didn’t last into the next millennium. Meanwhile Friends, often said to have been based on the mostly Black Living Single, was green-lit ten seasons compared to Living Single’s five.
With the golden age of Black sitcoms ending in the 90s, there seemed to be no major shows and films exclusively about the everyday lives of Black women and their friends. In 2016, Issa Rae’s Insecure, a series about a woman navigating her career and relationships in Los Angeles, premiered and garnered a huge following, many of whom had watched Rae’s former webseries The Mis-Adventures of Awkward Black Girl. It wouldn’t be until 2017 that theaters around the world would see another major film about a group of friends, this time on a Girls Trip.
Tracy Oliver and Kenya Barris’s comedic film stars Queen Latifah (who also starred in Living Single), Regina Hall, Jada Pinkett Smith, and Tiffany Haddish as HBCU alums who’ve struggled to reconnect after the woes of post-college life got ahold of them. From thriving and failing businesses to managing motherhood and infidelity in marriage, the story was a hilarious reminder that we can go far alone, but we can go further with friends. The hysterical film, set at one of the Black community’s most sought-after events, Essence Festival, with a star-studded cast, was a recipe for success. The film and its cast earned many awards and nominations, but perhaps Girls Trip’s largest reward is the sheer number of television shows centering Black womanhood and friendship that’ve been green-lit since.
With Insecure’s recent series ending, many Black women are not only mourning the friendship of main characters Issa and Molly, but also the moments where they get together with friends and talk about the breakups, reconciliations, and arguments we can all relate to. These newer series provide different worlds viewers can fall into.
In 2019, BET picked up Twenties, a comedy series from Lena Waithe, following Hattie, an aspiring screenwriter who is queer, and her two straight best friends as they chase their dreams in Los Angeles. The premiere episode features a heartwarming scene with the main characters singing “Exhale (Shoop Shoop),” an homage to Waiting to Exhale and the song’s singer, Whitney Houston, whom Waithe often notes as an inspiration.
In 2017, Tracy Oliver, who cowrote Girls Trip and starred in The Mis-Adventures of Awkward Black Girl, began writing the pilot for First Wives Club, a series inspired by the 1996 film The First Wives Club about three divorcées who seek revenge on their exes for leaving them for younger women. The revamped series is not only extremely fun to watch, it’s also freeing to see Black women in their 40s figuring life out as best they can and not necessarily calling it quits because their marriages, jobs, and friendships are not working out as they’d planned.
More recently Oliver created Harlem, a Prime Video dramedy that follows a group of friends navigating similar challenges. The group is a bit younger, in their 30s, with Harlem as more of a character than a backdrop. As in Twenties, one of the leads is queer, but this character, Tye, is coming to terms with dating a white woman while she runs a dating app for queer women of color. Leigh Davenport’s Run the World on Starz, which also takes place in Harlem, was renewed for a second season last year. She says that she’d been working on the show for ten years prior to its success. The last few years have proved to be the time that studios finally realized that just like Sex and the City and Girls, series like Run the World, First Wives Club, Twenties, and more need to be on television, where Black women everywhere are itching to watch.
Though the premises of these series may seem the same, each brings a different flair and different voices to the screen that are relatable to an array of women who are doing their best to figure out their complicated lives. This year viewers could see even more shows centering Black women. Recently, Netflix teased a new show coming to the streaming service about a Houston-based group of friends navigating a world of affluence while trying to find balance in their everyday lives. Waiting to Exhale may also see a TV series reboot featuring the daughters of the original characters.
Yet, there are still many stories in this genre that are untold. Many of the series already on-screen feature women living in coastal cities like New York and Los Angeles. Like Netflix’s teased series, viewers could see more women living in the American south—and possibly the midwest, too. Another striking occurrence in many of these shows is the inclusion of one queer character in a friend group of mostly straight women. It’d be a welcome relief if new shows could reverse this since, let’s face it, many queer folks have groups of friends aligned with their sexual identities, including friends who are also Black. More queer folks assigned female at birth are open to rediscovering their gender identities today than ever, and often lean on their friends for additional support throughout the process. Could these stories also be told? There are a thousand ways the doors that are opening for shows centering Black women could open even further.
Often, Black women are each other’s safety in workplaces, in public places like grocery stores and shopping centers, at universities, and all over the world. To see aspects of our everyday lives on-screen, and to see them in a comical yet real light, is refreshing. We are each other’s home. One can only hope that, unlike the golden age of Black sitcoms in the 90s, we don’t see the end of these series anytime soon—that they can expand in a way that is authentic and hasn’t been done before.