Soul Man (film)
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Steve Miner|
|Produced by||Donna Smith
|Written by||Carol Black|
|Music by||Tom Scott|
|Edited by||Dave Finfe|
Balcor Film Investors
The Steve Tisch Company
|Distributed by||New World Pictures|
Soul Man is a 1986 American comedy film about a white man who temporarily darkens his skin, in order to pretend to be black and qualify for a black-only scholarship at Harvard Law School. The movie was directed by Steve Miner and stars C. Thomas Howell, Rae Dawn Chong, Arye Gross, James Earl Jones, Leslie Nielsen, James B. Sikking, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus.
The movie's protagonist, Mark Watson (Howell), is the pampered son from a rich family who is about to attend Harvard Law School along with his best friend Gordon (Gross). Unfortunately, his father's neurotic psychiatrist talks his patient into having more fun for himself instead of spending money on his son. Faced with the horrifying prospect of having to pay for law school by himself, Mark decides to take up a scholarship, but the only suitable one is for African-Americans only. He decides to cheat by using tanning pills in a larger dose than prescribed to appear as an African-American. Watson then sets out for Harvard, naïvely believing that blacks have no problems at all in American society.
However, once immersed in a black student's life, Mark finds that people are less lenient than he imagined and more prone to see him as a black person instead of a fellow student. He meets a young African-American student named Sarah Walker (Chong), whom he first only flirts with; gradually, however, he genuinely falls in love with her. As it turns out, she was the original candidate for the scholarship which he had usurped, and now she has to work hard as a waitress to support herself and her son George while studying. Slowly, Mark begins to regret his deed, and after a chaotic day—in which Sarah, his parents (who are not aware of his double life) and his classmate Whitney (Melora Hardin), who is also his landlord's daughter, make surprise visits at the same time—he drops the charade and openly reveals himself to be white.
The film ends with Mark declaring to his professor (Jones) that he wishes to pay back the scholarship and do charity work to make amends for his fraud. When asked what he has learned, he says that he realizes that he could have changed back to being white at any time and so does not really know what it means to be black.
Sarah decides to give him another chance, and the movie ends with him deciding to just work his way through college.
- C. Thomas Howell as Mark Watson
- Rae Dawn Chong as Sarah Walker
- Arye Gross as Gordon Bloomfield
- James Earl Jones as Professor Banks
- Leslie Nielsen as Mr. Dunbar
- James B. Sikking as Bill Watson
- Melora Hardin as Whitney Dunbar
- Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Lisa Stimson
- Maree Cheatham as Dorothy Watson
- Wallace Langham as Barky Brewer
C Thomas Howell later said, "when I made the movie, I didn’t go into it with the idea that I had a responsibility to sort of teach America a lesson. I went into it because it was a great script. It was so well-written, so funny, and—sadly—very true. A lot of the experiences this guy goes through, maybe he wouldn’t have gone through them if he was a white person, but when he’s black, it’s a very different experience."
Ron Reagan Jr, son of then-president Ronald Reagan and first lady Nancy Reagan, had a small role in the film.
NAACP Chapter President Willis Edwards said in a statement at the time, "We certainly believe it is possible to use humour to reveal the ridiculousness of racism. However the unhumorous and quite seriously made plot point of Soul Man is that no black student could be found in all of Los Angeles who was academically qualified for a scholarship geared to blacks." 
"It was only controversial because Spike Lee made a thing of it,” said Rae Dawn Chong years later. “He’d never seen the movie and he just jumped all over it... He was just starting and pulling everything down in his wake. If you watch the movie, it’s really making white people look stupid... It [the film] is adorable and it didn’t deserve it,”"
“I always tried to be an actor who was doing a part that was a character versus what I call ‘blackting,’ or playing my race, because I knew that I would fail because I was mixed,” said Chong. “I was the black actor for sure, but I didn’t lead with my epidermis, and that offended people like Spike Lee, I think. You’re either militant or you’re not and he decided to just attack. I’ve never forgiven him for that because it really hurt me. I didn’t realize [at the time] that not pushing the afro-centric 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.”
Spike Lee responded by saying, "In my film career, any comment or criticism has never been based on jealousy."
"A white man donning blackface is taboo," said C Thomas Howell. "Conversation over — you can't win. But our intentions were pure: We wanted to make a funny movie that had a message about racism."
Howell later expanded:
I’m shocked at how truly harmless that movie is, and how the anti-racial message involved in it is so prevalent... This isn’t a movie about blackface. This isn’t a movie that should be considered irresponsible on any level... It’s very funny... It made me much more aware of the issues we face on a day-to-day basis, and it made me much more sensitive to racism... It’s an innocent movie, it’s got innocent messages, and it’s got some very, very deep messages. And I think the people that haven’t seen it that judge it are horribly wrong. I think that’s more offensive than anything. Judging something you haven’t seen is the worst thing you can really do. In fact, Soul Man sort of represents that all the way through. I think it’s a really innocent movie with a very powerful message, and it’s an important part of my life. I’m proud of the performance, and I’m proud of the people that were in it. A lot of people ask me today, “Could that movie be made today?"... Robert Downey Jr. just did it in Tropic Thunder!... The difference is that he was just playing a character in Tropic Thunder, and there was no magnifying glass on racism, which is so prevalent in our country. I guess that’s what makes people more uncomfortable about Soul Man. But I think it’s an important movie.
Controversy aside, the film was panned by critics. It has a score of only 14% on Rotten Tomatoes. Roger Ebert gave Soul Man one out of four stars, writing that the main premise "is a genuinely interesting idea, filled with dramatic possibilities, but the movie approaches it on the level of a dim-witted sitcom."
"It’s romantic, lovely and fantastic," said Chong. "It’s really funny. People should give it a view — especially people who were afraid it was racist.”
Despite the controversy the movie was a box office success. On its opening weekend, it debuted at #3 behind Crocodile Dundee and The Color of Money with $4.4 million. In total, Soul Man went on to gross $27.8 million domestically.
A music video for the film's soundtrack was released for the Sam & Dave song Soul Man performed by Sam Moore and Lou Reed. The video starred actors Bruce Willis, Cybill Shepherd, Rae Dawn Chong, C. Thomas Howell, Ron Reagan Jr., George Segal, Jamie Farr, boxer Ray Mancini and the children's character Gumby, all lip synching to the song. Soul Man executive producer Steve Tisch got the actors to do the cameos.
Soul Man was released for the first time on DVD on March 19, 2002, by Anchor Bay Entertainment. Special Features included a theatrical and teaser trailer, along with an audio commentary by director Steve Miner and C.Thomas Howell.
It was released again by Anchor Bay Entertainment as a double feature along with Fraternity Vacation on November 20, 2007.
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