Soul Man (1986)

11 Apr

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Smith’s Verdict: *

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Whites passing for blacks” is not a subject easily done in movies. In the case of “Soul Man,” it just doesn’t work. This is the premise: a UCLA graduate can get into Harvard Law School, but he needs a scholarship and there’s one just right for him. The only problem is he’s not black and that’s a requirement. So he buys some special “tanning pills” and uses them, changing the color of his skin. So he gets the scholarship and passes for black.

Given this premise, “Soul Man” actually sounds like a semi-interesting idea for a movie. A man sees the world as someone else. Also, it sounds good as a comedy and we’ve seen it work in comic situations—remember that hilarious SNL skit in which Eddie Murphy posed as a white man? But it sounds even better as a comedy-drama. Unfortunately, “Soul Man” is reduced to idiotic TV sitcom situations and misses the entire point of this premise. It’s not race that needs to be showcased as much as ethics. This person is lying to everyone he meets and pretending to be someone he’s not…by masquerading as a black man.

C. Thomas Howell plays the now-black student. You probably know him as the protagonist in 1983’s “The Outsiders.” He’s a talented actor, but he just doesn’t have much to work with here. His character Mark Watson changes his skin color and gets a perm (though I think he looks more suntanned than black). He faces many situations at Harvard. His landlord isn’t pleased with him renting an apartment, a sex-crazed white woman has a father who doesn’t want him dating her, and then we get a lot of offbeat humor, in which stereotypical moments ensue. The basketball teams fight over who should pick Mark, they call him “Marcus,” he keeps running into a bunch of jerks who make racist jokes whenever he walks by, and he impersonates Stevie Wonder’s movements in order to disguise himself from somebody he knows. (And by the way, this is not by any means the real Harvard as much as it is a movie Harvard.) But he does meet two interesting characters. One of them is his black professor (James Earl Jones) who shows no pity. The other is a black fellow student (Rae Dawn Chong), whom Mark starts to like.

His interactions with these two people could make “Soul Man” very interesting and it makes you want to overcome its other scenes. But it just doesn’t have the wit that it needs to work. This is described as a comedy, yet its drama is a lot more interesting than anything that is supposed to be funny. Every joke here is predictable—you can see the punch line coming from a mile away.

And then once the first half is lacking in potential, the second half comes along and it’s just horrible. We get a Groucho Marx-type sequence in which the mad white woman is in Mark’s room, Chong is in the living room, and the parents (who do not know he’s black) are in the kitchen. So Mark is forced to go from place-to-place, sometimes changing his appearance in order to do so. At this point, I lost all hope for the movie.

It gets even worse when it reaches the courtroom scene, in which the wrong sort of dialogue is said in Mark’s defense when we all know this is a criminal offense. James Earl Jones should have confronted Mark about his lie. But no, he drops all charges after Mark apologizes. And I wanted Rae Dawn Chong and Mark to talk about this—just really talk about this situation.

Rae Dawn Chong and James Earl Jones give the best performances in this movie because they portray real characters. But I couldn’t identify with C. Thomas Howell as the main character Mark.

“Soul Man” is a trashy comedy that could’ve gone one way but ended up going another way—and that was the way I hated to see it go through.

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