“How Stella Got Her Groove Back” is known for steamy scenes between Stella, a stern stockbroker played by Angela Bassett, and a young Jamaican man half her age. At the Tribeca Festival on Saturday, Bassett reflected on filming those intimate moments alongside Taye Diggs as her love interest, explaining the one responsibility her co-star shouldered: “He had to fulfill a Black woman’s fantasy.”
Bassett and the film’s director, Kevin Sullivan, were at the festival to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the romance based on the novel by Terry McMillan.
As Bassett entered the SVA Theater in a tangerine-colored suit and a feathered top, the audience erupted in applause and cheers with one fan shouting, “I love you!” The conversation touched on her co-stars, including Diggs and Whoopi Goldberg, the importance of filming in Jamaica and the legacy Bassett aimed to leave.
With Torell Shavone Taylor moderating, Bassett began by recognizing McMillan, who with Ron Bass wrote the screenplay, and praising the costume designs of Ruth Carter, with whom Bassett worked closely on the “Black Panther” franchise.
Bassett was always Sullivan’s choice to play Stella. He explained how a worldwide search led the filmmakers to cast Diggs as Winston Shakespeare, the 20-year-old hunk Stella gets involved with. Sullivan had seen Diggs performing on Broadway in “Rent,” and during rehearsals, the director would ask Diggs to sing to Bassett, to help with nerves and strengthen their chemistry.
“It was important for me to make the love scenes from a woman’s point of view,” Sullivan added. “It was not Winston’s story. It was Stella’s story.”
The romantic comedy was Sullivan’s directorial debut, and it later swept the 1999 NAACP Image Awards with wins for lead actress, supporting actress and motion picture. Bassett, who is known for powerful performances of memorable women in “What’s Love Got to Do It” and “Waiting to Exhale,” said she tried to find a balance between boldness and emotional vulnerability.
“Whenever I take on a character, you’re looking for the totality of them and who they represent and what they are about, what struggles they’re going through,” Bassett said. “It’s not one- dimensional, and often throughout history we as Black women have been seen that way.”
Getting Whoopi Goldberg to play Stella’s friend, Delilah, was a top priority. Bassett was a fan of the comedian, who signed on after Sullivan went to her home and spoke with her about the film. His favorite scene: after Delilah learns she has liver cancer, the friends share a playful moment in the hospital jamming to Marvin Gaye and giggling at old memories. The two had undeniable camaraderie and sisterhood, Bassett said, adding, “The scene when she passes, I felt that, for real, at her funeral because she was such a dear friend.”
Though the novel was set in Jamaica, the studio initially wanted to film in Mexico, where crews and infrastructure were already in place. But Sullivan worried the cultural connection could be lost. By establishing a Jamaica-based crew and overcoming challenges like poor infrastructure, Sullivan said, the film “came in on time and under budget.” Bassett added that tourism even rose on the island, with audiences eager to find a Winston Shakespeare for themselves.
Most recently, Bassett played the valiant Queen Ramonda in “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” for which she received an Oscar nomination. She also stars as a first responder in the Fox TV series “9-1-1.” When asked about the legacy she hopes to leave, she said she felt privileged to play characters who are brilliant, courageous and sensual and who represent Black women as multifaceted beings.
“I would hope that I illuminated the human experience,” Bassett said.