Soul Man (1986) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

Junior and I have made fun of this film so many times that I suppose it's time to discuss it in some more depth.

Racism can be a subject for comedy, in the sense that anything is a subject for comedy. It has inspired some pretty good comedy movies like Bamboozled, and some great ones, like Blazing Saddles. But it presents very thin comedy ice, because it is not simple for people to distinguish between what you are, what you pretend to be, and what you are satirizing. If you draw blatant racial stereotypes to show how the racist mind works, you risk being accused of having drawn those stereotypes out of your own perceptions. If you try to portray the racists as morons, you risk creating racism in the other direction.

Soul Man, a film about a white kid (C. Thomas Ponyboy Howell) who poses as a black in order to obtain a minority scholarship, fell into every trap.

  • If it is supposed to be against racism, then why does it include scenes like the following:

When the white kid finally reveals his true colors, so to speak, we see some guys think "no wonder he sucks at basketball", and we see a white woman think "no wonder he has a small dick".

  • If it is supposed to promote better understanding of the issues, then why does it portray almost white character as a simple-minded racist buffoon, and every black character as noble, intelligent, compassionate, possessing unlimited integrity and eternally forgiving?
  • I found one scene really embarassing - a scene where the star tries to disguise himself from some white high school friends by donning sunglasses and impersonating the head movements that Stevie Wonder makes when he's singing.

I think if you want to approach something like this in a comedy, you either have to make the film uncompromisingly honest and raw, or you have to take all of the characters and situations to completely illogical comic extremes (like the rednecks in Blazing Saddles saving the pushcart from the quicksand instead of saving the black guys).

This premise could have been a rich mine for genuine humor, if the screenwriter had simply thought it out and researched it. If I were going to do this film, I would approach it as follows:

1. Hire the funniest black people I can find to be my co-writers. Mel Brooks hired Richard Pryor to help him write Blazing Saddles.

2. Combine their perception of how white people talk to them with my own perceptions of how white people talk to one another about black people (something which would add an extra layer).

3. Try to think through the actual responses that the character would get. This particular guy would have drawn out some ugliness from white crackers, to be sure, and some condescension from white liberals, but he also would have drawn some fire from black people who thought he was an Oreo or a house man. Try to draw the humor from real material, and keep the asshole proportion sensible among all groups.

There were some moments in the film that might have had the right idea. At one point, the guy was dating a rich white woman, and the film showed us how he looked in her racist father's eyes (basically like cross between Huggy Bear and Mike Tyson). That was reasonably funny, and totally over-the-top. If the whole film had gone that way, cutting in people's thoughts like "Dream On" cuts in the film clips, it might have been funny, but even that moment didn't really work in this context, because it was so far out of the tone of the rest of the film.



The big comic set piece was a scene in which a nympho white woman planted herself in his bedroom, while his black girlfriend was in the kitchen, and his parents were being juggled through the apartment. So he had to hide his color from his parents, hide the white girl from his girlfriend, and explain to his girlfriend why the white people kept pretending to be his parents, all while he was wearing a ski mask and gloves so that he could move from one group to another. It was one of those scenes where the one door closes just as the other one opens, and ....

Well, you get the picture. Nothin' racist about that. It's just dumb.

At the end of the film, everyone spouts all the pious liberal platitudes, and we learn that everything will be all right. His blatant embezzlement is forgiven, and even his black girlfriend forgives him for what he did. (Remember now, he didn't just walk around in blackface, but he was also cheating on her with a white nymphomaniac. Now that's forgiveness! That one might even have persuaded Jesus to reconsider the whole "turn the other cheek" principle, but Rae Dawn Chongwas back in love in about 20 seconds.)

DVD info from Amazon.

  • widescreen 1.85:1

  • full length commentary by Howell and the director

It isn't so much a bad movie as just a trivial one. It takes a silly Laverne and Shirley french-sex-farce attitude toward a topic that deserved a less cavalier approach. The result was that it's the kind of movie that is just kind of embarrassing. I didn't find it so much offensive as just clueless. Interestingly, it made a lot of money for New World Pictures.

By the way, the writer never sold another movie script, according to IMDb, having switched to sitcoms where she clearly belonged. The director, Steve Miner, was not so easily deterred from future failures. He went on to do the notorious Tom Arnold film "Big Bully", and his curse continues to this day. Last December he unleashed the James Van Der Beek financial disaster, "Texas Rangers", on an unprepared world. "Rangers" cost the studio $38 million dollars and did virtually nothing at the box.

The DVD Commentary

C. Thomas Howell and director Steve Miner do a good natured commentary on the DVD. ("It seemed like a good idea at the time") They address the fact that the film was controversial, but they don't really seem to recognize why. For example, they didn't seem to notice the improbability of Rae Dawn starting up again with a white guy who had been wearing blackface for months, and who had been cheating on her with a nympho white girl. If you remember, the Rae Dawn character had told him to get lost after he made restitution, then changed her mind instantly because he punched out some racist white guys!

Yeah, right. This is about as likely as a Jewish woman forgiving Hitler because he send her brother a nice bar mitzvah gift. "Aw, c'mere, ya big Nazi 'Nucklehead"

Miner points out that Richard Pryor called him and told him the movie was really funny, but the flip side of the story is that Eddie Murphy refuses to work with Miner because of this film, and Spike Lee found the film completely offensive. (If the part about Murphy is true, I'm not entirely sure that Eddie is on solid ground here, since he has impersonated white people in his films, and not very flatteringly. I suppose sauce for the goose ought to be sauce for the gander as well.)

According to Miner and Howell, the original reviews were mixed.

The most interesting piece of inside information in the commentary is that Tim Robbins was originally signed to do this film, but shooting on the infamous Howard the Duck went months past deadline, so Howell was hired.

This movie might have been a brilliant value if the commentary had been done by the director and Eddie Murphy, each explaining his position. Now THAT would be worth listening to.

The Critics Vote

  • Ebert 1/4.

  • Rotten Tomatoes summary. I didn't see any good reviews, or even any lukewarm ones. This may now be universally despised by critics. Ebert is kinder than some of the other reviews online. What happened to all the reviewers that originally liked the film?

The People Vote ...

  • IMDB summary. IMDb voters score it  4.8/10. There are some positive comments at IMDb from people who found it cute. I'm willing to wager that they were white people.
  • with their dollars .. it was actually a highly profitable film, with $28 million in domestic gross, off a $5 million budget.


IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a C-. I can't score it lower. It's a dumb comedy, and it makes me uncomfortable by its lack of honesty and its cheap shot approach to a serious topic, BUT many people find it engaging and good-hearted, despite what I or the critics say.

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