Film reviews and more since 2009

Soul Man (1986) review

Dir. Steve Miner

By: Steve Pulaski

Rating: ★★½

Mark Watson (C. Thomas Howell) is the pampered son of a wealthy family. An intelligent soul, Mark is destined for a four year stint at Harvard Law School, where he and his pal plan on becoming lawyers and being well off for the rest of their lives. A snag in Mark’s plan comes when his father’s psychiatrist suggests that his father begin to focus on himself rather than the needs of others, which results in Mark’s father refusing to pay for his college tuition, playing the old “self responsibility” card. Mark totals the cost of tuition, room, and board for Harvard Law and realizes that he needs $50k to finance the next few years, all but crushing his plans of attending his dream college if he’s forced to finance it by himself.

Without a lot of options, Mark looks into various scholarships, stumbling upon one that looks good, although the primary qualification is the individual applying need be African-American. In an act of sheer desperation, Mark takes a handful of tanning pills to appear African-American so he can apply for the scholarship. He winds up getting the scholarship, which offers him a full ride to the school and gets him on the fast-track to success. It isn’t until he meets a less fortunate African-American woman named Sarah (Rae Dawn Chong), who is in one of his law classes and struggling to balance her college life and personal life.

To begin with, the assertion that a film like Steve Miner’s Soul Man couldn’t be made today is immediately dismissed with the fact that the Shawn and Marlon Wayans’ film White Chicks, where two African-Americans impersonated white women, and Robert Downey Jr.’s performance as an African-American gunslinger in Tropic Thunder both exist and were made in the 2000’s. Having said that, to assert that Soul Man is at all offensive is another knee-jerk reaction to the film’s premise, which is executed in a way that’s interesting, if nothing else. In some ways, Soul Man is one of the earliest depictions of class divisions and white privilege in a comedy film, especially one as mainstream as this one was.

Consider the scene when a cop is trailing Mark while he is casually driving down the road in his vehicle. When the driver of a parked car suddenly swings their door open, Mark abruptly swerves, which results in the cop immediately pulling Mark over for allegedly changing lanes without a signal. Mark is then charged with being surly to an officer and must spend the following day behind bars, missing his important law test. This very scene illustrates the blatant discrimination in the law; had Mark been white, he almost certainly wouldn’t have been pulled over, much less followed by the police officer.

Scenes like this, amidst many others including the casual exchange of racist jokes and the cold looks from random pedestrians, really show the kind of discrimination that is so widely seen and discussed in the modern day. However, Soul Man‘s nearly fatal flaw is its sitcom approach to this idea. Writer Carol Black tries desperately hard to unnecessarily soften the material for a mainstream audience by adding in ridiculous scenes like Mark’s parents coming the same time Sarah comes to study with Mark and a sex-crazed yuppie is in Mark’s bedroom. In addition, any time Mark shares the scene with his roommate and pal Gordon (Arye Gross), the comedy of the film stalls almost entirely.

Soul Man‘s desire to constantly find a punchline in every scene comes close to making its depiction of white privilege almost entirely moot. However, Soul Man does get big bonus points for not making its statements about casual racism an overblown moral in the film, with scenes of moralizing set to charming orchestration to make the audience feel warm and fuzzy. The scenes are very humbly depicted and morals are quietly communicated throughout, which makes this film sort of a blessing in disguise when it comes to the way it handles loftier emotions. This is the very definition of a film that’s a wash, complete with strong social commentary amidst sitcom-style humor and subtle morals communicated through ridiculous situational comedy.

NOTE: As of this writing, Soul Man is available to rent on multiple platforms.

NOTE II: I got to interview C. Thomas Howell in April, and he had extensive thoughts on the ensuing controversy surrounding Soul Man. Embedded below is the segment in which he focuses on the movie, and below that video, is the full interview.

Starring: C. Thomas Howell, Rae Dawn Chong, Arye Gross, James Sikking, Leslie Nielsen, James Earl Jones, Melora Hardin, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus.. Directed by: Steve Miner.

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About Steve Pulaski

Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!

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