Being black and being white
Can form opinions, wrong and right,
Attitudes and points of view
Based solely on another’s hue.
Most get only one perspective,
Rarely totally objective.
Maybe, though, we’d change our views
If we were in another’s shoes.
Although we may be still behind
On growing fully colorblind,
Insight instead of reprimand
Might help us further understand.
MPAA rating: PG-13
When I watched Soul Man at my VC’s suggestion, I had no idea it was considered a controversial movie. After I’d seen it, I was surprised at the number of sites that listed it as shamelessly racist alongside films like The Birth of a Nation and Song of the South. It also seemed to impede C. Thomas Howell’s rise to stardom, since he’s mostly been resigned to TV and low-quality roles ever since. And yet, I liked Soul Man, which may be surprising too since I’m not a racist. I suppose, as a precaution, I should say up front that I am not black, and I apologize for anyone that this movie or my appreciation of it might offend. But I liked Soul Man.
In addition to Red Dawn and Gettysburg, I would even go so far as to call it one of C. Thomas Howell’s best movies. In it, he plays Mark Watson, a spoiled white guy whose father seeks to teach him a lesson by cutting off his funds right on the eve of his freshman year at Harvard Law School. Faced with giving up his college plans, Mark applies for and gets a scholarship…an African American scholarship. He does so by overdosing on tanning pills, an improbable and inadvisable method which doesn’t make sense, is never further explained, and serves merely as a superficial reason for Mark passing himself off as black.
With just his one friend Gordon in the know (Arye Gross), he goes in with several presumptuous, perhaps racist ideas of what being black is all about, such as assuming a black professor (James Earl Jones) will give him special treatment. “This is the Cosby decade,” he says. “America loves black people.” It doesn’t take long, though, for him to get a taste of other people’s racism, whether it be the prejudiced jokes of the local school bigots or the overly suspicious eye of a policeman (and those kinds of reports are still in the news). Over time, his perspective changes, based on both his own experience and his gradual relationship with fellow classmate Sarah (Rae Dawn Chong, whom Howell later married…for a year). Of course, this is a comedy, so the drama usually gives way to Mark’s hilarious attempts to avoid detection as his ill-conceived plan spirals out of control, and I must say that Soul Man had me laughing harder than I have in a long time, particularly when Mark does his Stevie Wonder impression.
So beyond whether I enjoyed it or not, I suppose the main question is this: is Soul Man racist? No, I don’t believe it is. Yes, there are racist stereotypes present, such as when Mark visits a girlfriend’s family (including an underused Leslie Nielsen), who all have ridiculously prejudiced views of Mark just because he appears black. Yes, most of the white characters have biased opinions of African Americans, from assuming they must all be good at basketball to automatically expecting to be robbed by them. Yes, the N word is uttered, though not nearly as much as in other movies. And yes, C. Thomas Howell wears black face to pretend to be black. If that in and of itself offends you, then steer clear of Soul Man.
Yet I have to believe that a film can present negative elements without endorsing them. The film could be compared to Arye Gross’s rather overblown legal argument toward the film’s end, offensive and derogatory if taken at face value but actually with the opposite meaning for those willing to see it. Viewing racism through a comedic lens may not carry universal appeal, but Soul Man is not meant to be a comprehensive critique of the subject, and even Mark admits that he couldn’t possibly understand what it means to be black. Characters and their viewpoints can be absurdly racist, but the movie intends for us to laugh at them and perhaps consider our own views and assumptions about others at the same time. Some jokes also happen to be funnier in retrospect, such as Mark’s white girlfriend suggesting an erotic novel called Shades of Gray. Very interesting…. Soul Man may be anathema to the politically correct, but if not for the controversy, I bet it would be an ‘80s classic by now.
Best line: (Gordon to his roommate, with impeccable timing) “We should get an ocelot!”
© 2015 S. G. Liput
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