Angela Bassett is taking her clothes off, and people are staring.
Crew members stand riveted as she unties her skirt. A production assistant about to offer mango juice sinks, mesmerized, into a beach chair; the prop man, three straw bags hanging off each arm, freezes. Guests at Jamaica's Round Hill resort lean out of their windows, waving glasses of free champagne offered by the hotel as an ''apology'' for being forced to witness the 39-year-old actress strip down to a blue-and-black bikini. ''I've never worn so little clothing in my entire career,'' mutters Bassett, before performing a perfect swan dive into the swimming pool.
On Aug. 14, Twentieth Century Fox is hoping that a significantly larger audience will watch Bassett play poolside in How Stella Got Her Groove Back, based on Terry McMillan's 1996 best-seller about a 40-year-old stockbroker (Bassett) who journeys to Jamaica with her best friend, Delilah (Whoopi Goldberg), and falls in love with an islander half her age, played by 27-year-old newcomer Taye Diggs.
Stella, however, is more than this summer's latest love story: It's a test of Hollywood's recent hunch that African-American women are the Holy Grail an undiscovered audience. Three years ago, McMillan's debut novel-to-screen effort, the $16 million Waiting to Exhale, grossed $67 million to become the first major hit that targeted African-American women. But its success came with the help of costar Whitney Houston, a best-selling soundtrack, and a crucial crossover audience of white women. Whether Stella crosses over and how much money it can make if it doesn't could determine whether Hollywood continues to court African-American women or returns to ignoring them.
While Stella's $22 million budget hardly makes the movie a risky venture, Fox has hedged its bets by repeating many of the elements that made Exhale a winner. ''It's a misnomer to think of Stella as a sequel to Exhale,'' insists Fox's president of film production Tom Rothman. ''But if you can reunite a successful team, that's a good thing.'' Besides rehiring Exhale vets Bassett, producer Deborah Schindler, and screenwriters McMillan and Ron Bass, Fox recruited music powerhouses Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis to produce the soundtrack. They also repeated a formula when choosing a director. Like Forest Whitaker, an African American who made his feature debut with Exhale, Fox went with Kevin Rodney Sullivan, who directed HBO's Soul of the Game and had been considered for Exhale.
And there, perhaps, the resemblances end. Stella tells a different kind of story, and when she and Bass began to script it, McMillan knew they were in trouble. ''It was a very internal book,'' the author says. ''There wasn't a lot of tension or conflict.'' McMillan and Bass struggled through several drafts, unable to turn Stella's private turmoil into an interesting cinematic experience, until McMillan decided to solicit ideas from potential directors. ''I wanted a woman,'' she says, ''but the women we showed it to ... had superficial changes.''