Soul Man (film)

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Soul Man
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Steve Miner
Produced by Donna Smith
Steve Tisch
Written by Carol Black
Music by Tom Scott
Cinematography Jeff Jur
Edited by Dave Finfe
Balcor Film Investors
The Steve Tisch Company
Distributed by New World Pictures
Release dates
  • October 24, 1986 (1986-10-24)
Running time
104 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Box office $27,820,000

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[1] and stars C. Thomas Howell, Rae Dawn Chong, Arye Gross, James Earl Jones, Leslie Nielsen, James B. Sikking, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus.[1]

The title refers to the Sam and Dave song "Soul Man". The original soundtrack includes a version performed by Sam Moore and Lou Reed.


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.


Reception and controversy[edit]

The film was widely criticized for featuring a Caucasian actor wearing blackface.[2] When the film was released, some protests took place within the black community.[3]

Controversy aside, the film was panned by critics. It has a score of only 14% on Rotten Tomatoes.[4] 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."[5]

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.[6]

Music video[edit]

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.[7] Soul Man executive producer Steve Tisch got the actors to do the cameos.[7]


Defunct mathcore band Botch has a track named "C. Thomas Howell as the 'Soul Man'" on their release We Are the Romans.[8]

DVD releases[edit]

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.[9]

It was released again by Anchor Bay Entertainment as a double feature along with Fraternity Vacation on November 20, 2007.

On October 20, 2011, it was released again as a double feature by Image Entertainment along with 18 Again!.


  1. ^ a b Maslin, Janet (October 24, 1986). "Movie Review: Soul Man (1986)". The New York Times. 
  2. ^ "Soul Man' Just Goes To Show Discrimination Isn't Funny". Orlando Sentinel. Retrieved 2010-11-12. 
  3. ^ "NAACP, Black Students Protest Film `Soul Man". The Los Angeles Times. October 1986. Retrieved 2010-11-09. 
  4. ^ "Soul Man (1986), Rotten Tomatoes.
  5. ^ Ebert, Roger (1986). "Soul Man", retrieved November 6, 2014.
  6. ^ "Reagans on 'Soul Man': Thumbs Up". The Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2010-11-12. 
  7. ^ a b Rosenthal, Donna (October 12, 1986). "Soul Synchers". Los Angeles Times. 
  8. ^ Albert Mudrian (ed.), Precious Metal: Decibel Presents the Stories Behind 25 Extreme Metal Masterpieces, Da Capo Press, 2009, p. 321.
  9. ^ "Soul Man". DVD Talk. Retrieved 2012-05-18. 

External links[edit]