‘Soul Man’ At 30: Eerily Prescient, Underappreciated Gem, Or Rightly Forgotten Anachronism?

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.

Sure, it lets its protagonist off the hook a little too easily (true of virtually every comedy from the ’80s through about now), and in fact part of the tension comes from trying to figure out how the hell the film will work in an inevitable “Oh well, boys will be boys” finale (preferably with a two-hand tapping guitar riff and a freeze frame ending involving a skateboard). But even if it falls on its face a few times, you can sense in Soul Man at least an honest attempt to explore some real issues in a deeper way than you’d expect from goofy, proto-body swap sexy comedy. “Our intentions were pure,” Howell told THR. “We wanted to make a funny movie that had a message about racism.”

In his essay, Armond White singles out the moment where Mark’s professor, played by James Earl Jones, ultimately lets Mark off the hook (for, you know, attending law school in blackface for the purpose of stealing a scholarship from a deserving African-American), on account of he learned a valuable lesson:

Presiding over a law school hearing once the trick is exposed and with Mark facing expulsion, Banks explains, “A Harvard Law School graduate can do a great many things: make a lot of money, teach, become a senator, a judge. A Harvard Law graduate, Mr. Watson, has power. I hope I teach my students to use that power responsibly, even generously. But you’ve learned something that I can’t teach them. You’ve learned what it feels like to be black.”

That’s where the film trumps the audience’s assumptions. Mark admits, “No, sir. I don’t. I don’t know what it really feels like, sir. If I didn’t like it, I could always get out. It’s not the same, sir.” At last, the old sentiments of passing-for-white dramas are quashed.

I don’t know that this is exactly a watershed moment in race relations. Yes, the film was clearly meant to satirize Me Generation privilege (as White says), and clearly it’s more overtly critical of white people than it is of black people, as Rae Dawn Chong says. But… of course it is. If you’re releasing a film where the main character is a white guy in blackface, it’d better be pretty critical of white people.

In the end, Mark says the right thing — that he doesn’t really understand, and couldn’t — and he gets a “pass” in race relations and maybe even gets the girl. Really? That’s all it takes and all is forgiven? It’s a little too easy, but then, this is an ’80s comedy. Everything was too easy. It lives in a world where a tanning pill can turn a white guy black and two dudes could pass off their dead boss as a living party animal for an entire weekend (etc, etc). I wouldn’t exactly call it ahead of its time, but it is noticeable that its “Don’t pretend to understand an entire peoples’ struggle based on one experience” conclusion is virtually identical to the one Stan arrives at in the Token episode of South Park twenty-some years later.

Soul Man feels like its heart was in the right place. “The film is sweet and romantic,” Chong says, and there’s certainly a childlike innocence to it. You want to live in a world where art could explore blackface for good and everything would be cool. The lead actors were 19 (Howell) and 24 (Chong) at the time, and they did legitimately good work, making choices that were both ballsy and nuanced. Howell “never affects the slangy, jivey traits associated with hipster concepts of blackness that fetishize the underclass,” as White puts it.

You can understand why Chong would still be pissed at Spike Lee. For someone to shit on a major moment in your career (and life), something you’d put your heart into, and essentially call you a traitor, without having seen it (unclear if he has by now), would be hard to forgive.

At the same time, you could make a case that it doesn’t matter how good the movie was (or wasn’t). The protestors were likely protesting the mere existence of a mainstream movie starring a white actor in blackface. The plot and the message are immaterial. It leaves open the criticism that even if Soul Man had its heart in the right place, it had its head up its ass. That never feels so true as in the scene where the white dude in blackface calls his girlfriend a bitch and yells at her to get more heroin and watermelon.

If you watch the scene, yes, it’s clearly an attempt to skewer white people’s racist perceptions. But that doesn’t make me cringe any less when I’m watching it. I mean, no one on set thought this might be a bad idea?

It’s hard to fully side with the filmmakers or the protestors, because in their own way, both are trying to ignore context. People boycotting the film want to ignore the context of what the film is actually trying to say (operative word — trying), while the filmmakers want to ignore the context of 100 years of blackface and its inexorable ties to oppression (“Jim Crow,” the name for an entire caste system of officially sanctioned degradation, after all, came from the name of a minstrel show), and the way being reminded of it might make people feel. I don’t think it’s quite fair to call Soul Man racist — but it is tone deaf and naive.

As Mark says in the film, “It’s the Cosby Decade! America loves black people!” The entire conflict of the film is Mark coming to realize that it’s not quite as simple as that, but there is a certain simplicity with which the plot resolves its own race problem nonetheless. It’s wildly optimistic. How you see the movie depends largely on whether you find that optimism charming or delusional. I can watch it the same way I watch a lot of work from the early- and mid-’60s, when people really did think they could triumph over the forces of “old and evil” (as Hunter S. Thompson put it) solely through abstract declarations of “peace” and “love.” It was probably as easy to believe racism was almost solved in 1986 as it was to believe the military-industrial complex was almost put in check in 1966. Looking back on it, it’s easy to want to believe as they do, and you can even empathize with why, even if part of you thinks they were almost pathetically deluded.

For the most part though, the worst parts of the movie come down more to narrative flaws than conceptual ones. Ron Reagan Jr. (whose dad was still president at the time) cameos as a law student arguing with a friend over who will get Mark on their pick-up basketball team. The scene is embarrassing, not because it relies and the somewhat harmless premise that white people think all black people are good at basketball, but because it goes on for what feels like 25 minutes. How much do we need to see of the white guy sucking at basketball, really? Howell really hams up the sucking too, which was totally unnecessary. He’s an actor. They probably could’ve just shot him trying to play well and gotten the same effect — see Teen Wolf, Hoosiers, etc. In any case, Soul Man feels far more of its time than it is behind the times or ahead of them.

In retrospect, I think what Soul Man exemplifies most of all is Hollywood’s capacity for this kind of benevolent cluelessness. It gives us a perfectly irresolvable argument. Yes, a blackface movie in 1986 was probably a bad idea, and yes it received boycotts, protests, and terrible reviews as a result. But it was a financial success — turning a $4.5 million budget into $28 million profit — and became a basic cable staple for years. You could make a case that audiences responded to its optimism, but you could also make an equally persuasive one that historical examples prove financial success doesn’t negate racism. But that’s the outside world. Hollywood is much better at building its own insular bubble. It’s hard to argue that Mark Watson got off too easy in getting the girl when the guy who played him got the girl in real life, and at least partly on the strength of that same blackface gimmick.

In her email, Rae Dawn Chong confirms, “Yes, we fell in love making it. I liked his bravery and he looked like a beautiful piece of chocolate in make up. The filming was magical. Boston was magical. I fell in love with Boston then too.”

Vince Mancini is a writer, comedian, and podcaster. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.