It's easy to understand why a film like Soul Man, in which a white college student pretends to be black in order to win a scholarship, would be a lightning rod for controversy. Even without seeing it, you can guess that it will walk through a minefield of dangerous topics: affirmative action, racism, so-called "reverse racism," whites' perceptions of blacks, blacks' perceptions of whites' perceptions of blacks, and so forth. Soul Man winds up handling some of these issues well enough, but mostly it sidesteps them and concentrates on being a standard-issue 1980s comedy.
The film's release, 22 years ago this week, was marked by protests. Spike Lee, who is famous for loathing things, famously loathed it. Yet in the DVD commentary by director Steve Miner (who had previously made the first two Friday the 13th movies) and star C. Thomas Howell, they seem baffled by the outrage and spend only a few seconds addressing it. "When we made this movie, we weren't making it from an irresponsible place," Howell says. "We weren't trying to send messages. We were having fun."
Miner adds, "We were having fun with it, and ... I felt that at the end it supported the idea of affirmative action."
Of course, supporting affirmative action can be a controversial position, too, but Miner and Howell's point is that they just wanted to make a dumb comedy. They had little interest in subverting America's misconceptions about the black community, except insofar as they could get a laugh out of it. They talk about deleting a scene that came off as too racist, and the N-word is never used, even by characters who would normally be "allowed" to say it. Watching the film now, it's hard to see how anyone other than those looking for things to be offended by could possibly take offense at it. If anyone comes out of the film looking bad, it's white racists, not black people. Then again, maybe that's offensive, too. Maybe it's condescending for white people to make a movie about black issues at all. See? Minefield.
The immediate, gut reaction to the film's premise is to be reminded, uncomfortably, of Hollywood's shameful "blackface" tradition, where white actors would paint their faces and prance around in parodic minstrel shows. This was common in the vaudeville days (and before), and it seeped into the first few decades of film, too. It was used early on in dramas like Birth of a Nation (1915), where the major black roles were played by white people in face paint, but it was soon relegated to comedies, and even then only in a show-within-a-show context: a character was a performer, and we'd see a few scenes of him in blackface in the context of performing his act. It's not like Al Jolson just walked around throughout the movie with his face painted. He only did that when his character, a song-and-dance man, was onstage.
That's an important distinction to make with regard to Soul Man. Even in the blackface era of early Hollywood (which pretty much died out by the 1940s), no one was expected to believe the character was actually black -- not the other characters, and certainly not the audience (which, after all, saw the character without his makeup throughout the rest of the film). Soul Man is another thing entirely. We know he's not black, but the other characters in the movie do not.
Soul Man is in many ways a quintessential 1980s comedy. The main character, Mark Walton (C. Thomas Howell), has a goofy sidekick named Gordo (Arye Gross). Their enemy is a pink-sweater-wearing preppie who threatens to expose Mark's fraud. At UCLA, they have a stoner buddy who wears a bathrobe and unmatched shoes to a party. It all ends with the truth coming out in a public setting presided over by a stern authority figure. You could find these elements in almost any comedy produced in that era, often with a name like John Hughes or Molly Ringwald or John Cusack somehow attached.
The racial element, obviously, is what sets it apart, along with a thin undercurrent of social satire. Mark is a privileged California boy who has coasted through UCLA and now assumes his wealthy father will pay for Harvard Law School, too. But Dad, in a random bit of shtick that only happens in movies (and only in not-very-good movies at that), decides to spend all his money on himself and teach Mark a lesson about the real world. And so Mark, now penniless, looks for scholarships to pay for law school, only to find that most of the grants are for minorities or underprivileged people. Spoiled white kids from Beverly Hills don't qualify. As Mark explains, "They have financial aid for people whose parents are poor, not for people whose parents are a**holes."
Seeking to get a scholarship for African American students only, Mark becomes black by taking tanning pills acquired from the aforementioned UCLA stoner. It's never explained whether he must take these pills regularly, or how he can become white again when the time comes. The matter of Mark's hair is also never addressed. When he's white, it's brown and wavy, almost James Dean-like. When he's black, it's suddenly Jheri-curled and tight. Did the pills do that, too? Did Mark have to go to a stylist? Is he wearing a wig?
At Harvard, Mark encounters the situations you'd expect, and let it not be said that the makers of Soul Man failed to exploit every possible angle of this comic scenario. When he plays a pick-up game of basketball, both team captains want him for their side, and both assume his name isn't Mark but Marcus. A running gag has him always walking into a scene just as two white kids are swapping ethnic jokes. He is pursued lustily by a white girl named Whitney (Melora Hardin, who now plays Jan on The Office), who is fascinated by his differentness. (Later, she dates an American Indian for the same reason.) He gets pulled over for what's known as a DWB, Driving While Black.
A scene with Whitney's uber-white, uber-snooty family is the film's best example of real social satire, as we're shown what each member of the family thinks of when they see Mark. Mom has a Mandingo fantasy wherein the sexually powerful Mark ravishes her. The kid brother sees rock star Prince. And the racist father (played by Leslie Nielsen) sees him as a watermelon-eating pimp who has impregnated Whitney and tells her, "Go get me my heroin and hypodermic needle, bitch!" This skewering of white perceptions of black men is exactly the kind of thing Spike Lee would later do in Bamboozled.
The real love of Mark's life, though, isn't Whitney but Sarah Walker (Rae Dawn Chong), a black law student who is the mother of a young son. The film is careful to point out that she is divorced, not an unwed mother; you can imagine the outcry from those who already perceived the film as racist if Sarah had been a pregnant teen from the inner city. They have a black professor, played by James Earl Jones, who expects them both to rise above whatever prejudices they may face and prove themselves at lily-white Harvard. That said, he also gives Mark a break on a late homework assignment (he was in jail for the DWB offense) after saying he would never accept late work at all.
You may rest assured that the truth comes out in the end, that Mark is duly chastened for his social and academic fraudulence, and that no one really suffers any palpable consequences for anything. (I did tell you this was a quintessential 1980s comedy, didn't I?) The film takes one more halfhearted stab at mocking rich kids, with Gordo telling the academic hearing committee, "Despite (Mark's) race and upbringing, my client may yet become a useful member of society!" The joke is that he's referring not to Mark the black man, but to Mark the privileged white brat. Some more effort along that line of thought might have improved the film, if anyone had been interested in improving it.
Miner and Howell say on the DVD commentary that they think political correctness would prevent a film like Soul Man from being made today, but I don't know if that's true. In this summer's Tropic Thunder, Robert Downey Jr. played a self-serious actor named Kirk Lazarus who has his skin chemically altered to appear black, much the same way Mark did in Soul Man. No one was offended by that aspect of Tropic Thunder because everyone got the joke: It's not Robert Downey Jr. pretending to be black, it's the character he's playing who's doing it, and that character is a pinhead. So in response to Miner and Howell, you could make the film, you'd just have to do it with more self-awareness.
A final note: If Mark entered Harvard Law School in the fall of 1986 (when the film was released), and if he stayed there until he graduated, then his third and final year overlapped with the first year of a fellow by the name of Barack Obama. I would like to have seen Mark and Barack's interaction, wouldn't you? That would have made for a great movie.
FROM THE TIME CAPSULE: When Soul Man was released 22 years ago this week, on Oct. 24, 1986...
- Crocodile Dundee was the No. 1 film in America. It had been at the top of the box office for five weeks and would stay there for another four. What a strange world 1986 was.
- On TV, the Fox network had just launched, with Joan Rivers' late-night talk show as its flagship program, while Oprah Winfrey's daytime talk show was just going national. Other new shows that had recently premiered included Matlock, ALF, Designing Women, and Nickelodeon's Double Dare.
- Cyndi Lauper's "True Colors" was the No. 1 song on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, having just replaced Janet Jackson's "When I Think of You."
- The top book on the New York Times Best Seller list was It, by Stephen King. Tom Clancy's Red Storm Rising was No. 2.
- The International Olympic Committee had just announced Albertville, France, and Barcelona, Spain, as hosts of the 1992 Winter and Summer Olympics. Meanwhile, the New York Mets were days away from winning their second-ever World Series, against the Red Sox.
- Final preparations were being made for the Statue of Liberty's 100th birthday celebration, to be held Oct. 28.
- Actresses Camilla Belle and Olivia Thirlby were both a couple weeks old, and Penn Badgley (Gossip Girl) was a week from being born. At the other end of the spectrum, Cary Grant and Desi Arnaz were both within five weeks of dying.
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"Eric's Time Capsule" appears every Monday at Film.com. You can visit Eric at his website, which is much easier to get into than Harvard Law.