Soul Man, a movie that seems paradoxically both relevant and anachronistic, turned 30 this month. The 1986 film, directed by Steve Miner (My Father The Hero, Lake Placid) and written by TV vet and future Wonder Years co-creator Carol Black, stars the then-hot C. Thomas Howell (The Outsiders, Red Dawn) and Rae Dawn Chong (Howell and Chong were actually married from 1989-1990). It follows Howell’s character, spoiled UCLA frat boy Mark Watson, as he poses as a black guy to get a scholarship when his parents won’t pay for him to attend law school at Harvard. In the first scene, Mark wakes up in bed with a sexy lady (whose name he has forgotten). We soon see his car has a license plate that reads “UCLAID.” UCLA plus “laid,” get it? Ahh, the ’80s.
A white guy in blackface? Oh yeah, they went there. Almost everything about the movie screams “This could never be made today,” and mostly not in the usual semi-wistful sense. First, there’s the obvious fact that it involves blackface. Then there’s the very only-in-the-’80s/’90s assumption that audiences would sympathize with a spoiled character whose rich parents won’t pay for his posh education. (Harvard law tuition was $7,500 a year then, according to the film, a price that’s treated as outraaageous, though the same costs $40K+ these days and carries with it much less promised earning potential.) And finally (well, not finally, but to break this into just a few salient points), there’s the charmingly ’80s plot solution of “Well, maybe one of his friends invented a tanning pill?” that’s mentioned just once in the beginning of the film and never explained nor brought up again. Screenwriters just assumed audiences would buy even the highest of high concepts with little to no exposition back then, which I have to believe was at least partly influenced by cocaine. “I have this crazy idea! Quick, let’s do it, no time to discuss details!”
Soul Man, which you can watch for free through Amazon with a trial subscription to “the Urban Movie Channel” (you can’t make this up) is the kind of film that you’d think would be a curio, a film even critics at the time thought was pretty bad, never to be mentioned again. Yet in 2008 just after Obama was elected, then-chairman of the New York Film Critics Circle Armond White (he was expelled in 2014 after a hilarious heckling controversy) wrote a 2500-word essay in the New York Press about how “Obama’s rise was prepared — if not predicted — by Soul Man,” which “satirizes Me Generation privilege,” according to White. “Its only fault was that this interpretation came too soon. If Obama had seen it at the time, he might have thought to defy rather than admit its truths.” (White now writes for the conservative National Review.)
If only Obama had seen Soul Man, things would be different.
It’s an interesting thesis, and eight years later I’m still dying to know how. Likewise, it’s hard to say exactly which “truths” this very silly film contains, but it was hard not to think of Soul Man during Rachel Dolezal’s outing last year (as numerous Photoshops can attest). The film’s attempt at a moral, after all, is that Watson atones for stealing a scholarship from a more deserving, authentic black applicant (he finds out the scholarship should’ve gone to his own love interest! wild!) by gaining a modicum of understanding about what it’s like to be black. Which does sound a lot like Rachel Dolezal’s justifications, doesn’t it? Can blackface teach empathy? Only blackface in the right hands, perhaps…
“A white man donning blackface is taboo. Conversation over — you can’t win,” Howell, who was just 19 when he shot the film, told The Hollywood Reporter last year, and he’s right that the simple facts of the premise account for the vast majority of the criticism, from the NAACP chapter that led a boycott to Spike Lee, whom Chong has ripped in numerous interviews. “I’ve never forgiven him for that because it really hurt me,” Chong told The Wrap recently. “I didn’t realize [at the time] that not pushing the Afrocentric agenda was going to bite me. When you start to do well people start to say you’re a Tom [as in Uncle Tom] because you’re acceptable.”
“Nothing is more annoying then people who loudly complain about something without seeing it first. Uninformed but loud complaints are counter-productive to any cause, especially the black cause,” Chong told me in an email this week. “30 years ago it was often the case that certain people would drag others down to make themselves look like saviors… 30 years later we see there is never a savior, just a loud asshole.”
Lee hasn’t “fired back” according to any clickbait headlines I’ve seen, but according to his own account of a conversation he had with president Obama when Lee found out the Obama’s first date was to Do The Right Thing (chronicled in this year’s weird Obama fan-fic romance, Southside With You), Lee responded “Thank God… otherwise you would’ve taken her to Soul Man.” (And then everything would’ve been different, according to Armond White)
At the risk of sounding like the “gotta hear both sides” guy, I think I can understand both points of view here. Aside from a few screechingly cringe-inducing moments — including a dinner scene where Mark has a fantasy sequence in which he imagines how his racist white girlfriend’s family sees him, including her mother imagining him as Mandingo, the son imagining him as Prince, and most uncomfortable of all, her father (played by Leslie Nielsen!) imagining him as a watermelon-chomping pimp yelling at his pregnant girlfriend “go get my heroin and my hypodermic needle, bitch!” — Soul Man is, dare I say it, not nearly as problematic as I expected.