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Thursday, 15 November 2018

Retro Review: Soul Man (1986)

Soul Man
Cast: C.Thomas Howell, Rae Dawn Chong, James Earl Jones, Leslie Nielsen, Julia- Louis Dreyfus
Genre: Comedy
U.S Box Office Gross: over $27 million 

Plot: To achieve his dream of attending Harvard, a pampered teen poses as a young Black man to achieve a full scholarship 

'No, Man'

Back in 1986, comedy, Soul Man caused controversy centred around a plot of a Harvard Law student who poses as a Black student, in order to qualify for a college scholarship. Rae Dawn Chong came to the film's defence who told TheWrap that Spike Lee, who brought it up, made a big deal out of it and out of what she construed was nothing. & since then, she hasn't forgiven Lee for what happened. 

An over-privileged, Caucasian UCLA undergraduate in Mark is strapped for cash to pay his way through Harvard Law School and takes ''tanning'' pills that make or be it turn him Black and thus, he makes himself eligible for an African American scholarship. He ends up looking like Michael Jackson with a bad Jheri curl and turns from a sun-kissed tan to Jamaican Brown, rather than a natural Black person. Though of course, there are light and fair-skinned African Americans and dark and chocolate-y -brown looking skinned African Americans out there in real life. Yet Mark doesn't come close to looking either. 

Aside from the Blackface issue, Soul Man is utterly charmless and humourless to a tee and the story is just not good, at all. And after emerging as a young talent in Steven Spielberg's E.T, C. Thomas Howell made a complete howler by starring as a Black-wannabe teen and in a role that completely derailed his promising career. As Mark, he manages to evoke every Black stereotype that comes across as sarcastic, instead of as an earnest imitation. Since Soul Man, Howell hasn't been cast in major Hollywood movies and instead has found himself in straight to DVD, Z-movie fare. Also in the movie are James Earl Jones as a criminal law professor and Julia-Louis Dreyfus, before she hit the big time with Seinfeld on TV, as Mark's old school friend.... named Lisa Simpson. Lisa Simpson is also the name of a character in The Simpsons TV show. 

The main writer of the film is Carol Black, who created The Wonder Years and sitcom, Ellen. Inbetween the montages, verbal exchanges the film struggles to find a balance, whilst failing to offer something meaningful to say and in question, it ends up being clumsy, difficult and uncomfortable viewing. The comedy with Mark spewing African American colloquialisms and usage of terms is far from amusing and just comes off as distasteful and cringeworthy and I found the cursing to be unnecessary. The inherent racism was just embarrassing to endure and there was not one single scene or moment that I genuinely enjoyed or liked, never mind loved. The main character doesn't experience or endure one nasty racially motivated scene or incident; rather than the film chooses to approach it as nothing more than a lightweight piece. 

I get that Soul Man was an attempt to make fun of a non-Black person trying to act and look Black, and yet some of the scenes that were played out for fun or to make a particular point ended up being embarrassing, as opposed to effective. It tries to do what Tootsie did with the guy in make-up falling for the girl he has a crush on, whilst in disguise and attempts to be a Blackface comedy - but if I had to pick and choose, I'd take Tootsie anytime, any day over Soul Man. 

Final Verdict:

Lacking any nerve or will to challenge to the viewer, it settles for safe, bland - and even more so it's not the least bit funny or entertaining.

Oh and gaining a Blackface by ingesting tanning pills..... say what? 


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