WASHINGTON -- My friend Jack was highly annoyed. His wife did not want to go with him to see ''Waiting to Exhale.'' She wanted to go with some other women. Other black women.
''It's one of those woman things,'' Jack grumbled. ''One of those black woman things.''
Poor Jack. He's not alone. Across the country, a new creature has appeared on the scene: the ''Waiting to Exhale'' widower. These men are left behind by the million-plus women's march to movie houses to see director Forest Whitaker's adaptation of Terry McMillan's best-seller about the travails of a quartet of modern single black women.
In its first weekend, it earned a blockbuster $14 million, edging out ''Toy Story'' as the nation's No. 1 most popular movie. A big reason was the scores of wives like Jack's who bought tickets by the bunch so they could sit as a group and bask in the warm glow of a movie that portrayed lives that looked very much like their own.
Not since ''The Color Purple'' has a major motion picture featured a black woman's point of view and never before has one depicted the special world of upper-middle-class, thirtysomething professional black women in the '80s and '90s. The result is a welcome oasis from Hollywood's usual sea of fantasies and stereotypes.
You will hear few or no references to drugs, food stamps or kinky sex in this story. Instead you will see the lives of upwardly mobile African Americans with fine houses, expensive cars, beautiful Arizona sunsets and walk-in closets that look like a high-fashion clothing store. These people have arrived, but they don't seem quite sure of where.
Instead of the usual archetypal cinematic array of hookers, mammies and long-suffering grandmas on the couch, you will see ordinary people like Savannah (played by Whitney Houston), an ambitious television producer who just moved to Phoenix from Denver ''where the men are dead.''
Fire in the BMW
You also will meet her best friend Bernadine (Angela Bassett), whose husband and business partner dumped her for his white bookkeeper, causing her to set fire to his BMW and his designer wardrobe. There's also Robin (Lela Rochon), a businesswoman who can't seem to stay away from men who are bad for her. And there's Gloria (Loretta Devine), who has given up on men to focus on raising her teen-age son.
Ostensibly a story about young black people, it quickly becomes a story about young men and women who just happen to be black. Their problems are human problems seen through the prism of African-American experience.
Ms. McMillan's hit novel helped dispel the myths that black folks don't buy books or that white folks won't buy books by black folks. I hope that, just as multitudes of people who were neither Chinese nor female helped turn the book and movie versions of Amy Tan's ''The Joy Luck Club'' into hits, people of all colors will turn out to see or read a good story like ''Waiting to Exhale.''
Even so, despite its crossover appeal, ''Waiting to Exhale'' has special meaning to women and to black Americans at this moment in history. For one, it puts flesh and blood on a problem poverty scholars like the University of Chicago's William Julius Wilson have been talking about for years: the shrinking supply of marriageable black men. While more young black women are going to college than ever before, too many young black men are going to prison, unemployment lines or the cemetery.
What is a black woman to do? Many are pressured, like those in the movie, to get themselves a man and keep him by any means necessary, no matter how much he disrespects them. Ms. McMillan's characters eventually discover through trial and error that they need not sell themselves so short.
They also learn to have what Savannah calls a ''plan B.'' They learn to never allow themselves to become so dependent on any man that they lose their self-respect. They learn not to be so competitive for the attention of men that they lose their appreciation for the company and comfort of other women.
''Waiting to Exhale'' is neither anti-male nor a sinister conspiracy to divide black men and women. Like the black-consciousness movement itself, it advises its audience to fight self-hatred with self-reliance and self-respect.
For me, the movie's biggest surprise came after it ended. It was in the men's room, of all places, that, away from the ears of women, I heard men who happened to be black talking quite seriously and intently about the movie and what it was trying to say. For me, at least, that was a first. Maybe it won't be the last.
Maybe impromptu rooster parties will follow the ''Waiting to Exhale'' hen parties. Maybe a movie that has put some men and women at odds with each other might ultimately help bring us together. We can only hope.
Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.