Crossing the Line – Soul ManPosted: July 18, 2008
Alright, I had the full column typed and ready to go last night. Whiskey and waiting for my fellow contributors got in the way, and I woke up with the column missing. Here’s my recreation of our look at 1986’s blockbuster hit “Soul Man” directed by Steve Miner, who I hope has died of shame since. Apologies if it isn’t as funny as the original, but then, how would you be able to tell?
Tagline: He didn’t give up. He got down. (Editors Note: Subtle Racism?)
Synopsis: Mark is white. Mark got into Harvard Law. Mark’s dad won’t pay, and he can’t summon the effort to work his way through. The solution is apparently to use too many tanning pills and get a full ride scholarship for black students. Hilarity ensues. Lessons are learned.
Interesting Fact: In the scene where Mark first approaches Gordon as a black man, Gordon was originally supposed to believe Mark was going to mug him. An entire scene was filmed in which Mark played along with it and made Gordon sing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”. It was taken out because it was thought, that although funny when filmed, it was inappropriate and racist. (Editor’s Note: Somehow they found something too racist to put into this film)
Objectionable material: Rae Dawn Chong, racism, sex, jungle fever, awful writing, some really good actors slumming hard, an endless parade of stereotypes, what is essentially an extended blackface gag
Disturbing Quote: Mr. Watson, I am not a humorous man, but if you insist on taking up my class time making jokes, please see to it that they are funny. (Editor’s Note: This pretty much sums up the entire film)
PsychoLarry: Soul Man is the kind of film you see on a Sunday afternoon on what used to be UPN or any of the major networks. It would be on right next to Cobra and Major League 2, dull mediocre films that fill up time slots and make no effect on anyone. It’s dumb enough to pass off ideas like a main character from California in the 80s that believes Black people dress like the Black Panthers and only speak jive. It’s dumb enough to pass off Boston as full of nothing but blatantly racist Irish people who beat Black people at the drop of a hat, but somehow give James Earl Jones a tenured position as a Law professor. It’s dumb enough that the main character’s punishment for defrauding Harvard Law and almost ruining someone else’s life in the process is to say he’s really sorry.
As the others make clear, the film is super racist; I don’t really think I need to emphasize that. I can’t imagine that it ever caused much of an uproar though, or really bothered anyone all that much. It’s a bad movie, and hardly worth the effort, and anyone that would have been offended might have had more important racial issues to deal with, like ending Apartheid or dealing with Reaganomics. What really bothered me is watching James Earl Jones and Leslie Nielsen slumming in schlock like this. I realize that prestige doesn’t put food on the table, but Darth Goddamn Vader in 1986 could not have been so hard up for cash that he demeaned himself to be in this movie. I guess to be fair Leslie Nielsen does have a history of appearing in terrible comedy films.
Do yourself a favor, don’t see Soul Man. To be safe, stay away from the regrettable Dan Ackroyd sitcom of the same name too. You’ll avoid 104 minutes of unfunny crap that happens to also be insulting to your intelligence and racist to the point of being painful.
MBRFT: This film teaches us that black people aren’t that scary after all. In fact, they are just like you and me on the inside. And it’s wrong to impersonate them to take advantage of social services established to counter disadvantages inflicted by hundreds of years of white-inflicted economic and social inequality. Now, this might be a progressive and groundbreaking message in 1950, but “Soul Man” was made in 1986. If that message is eye-opening to anyone who saw it, then they are probably living in deep parts of the south where news take decades to travel…and voting Republican.
“Soul Man” also accomplishes the rare task of trying to make an anti-racism statement by being unforgivably racist. Calling it misguided is being generous. The film is noteworthy for the sheer reason that it exists. Somehow, no one put the axe to it somewhere in the production process. You’d think that the make-up artist, after applying a cheap perm wig and artificial tanner to C. Thomas Howell to make him look unconvincingly black, would protest to someone that this must be setting back race relations fifty years. But somehow everyone whose name rolls at the end credits went goose-stepping along with this thing. Even big name actors and actresses are involved in it: Leslie Nielsen, Julia Louis-Dreyfus (a Kramer cameo would seem more appropriate), James Earl Jones and even Ronald Reagan Jr. (proving his ability to pick good films is as good as his father’s).
Shockingly, it manages to even be racist towards white people, portraying them all as ignorant fire-hose-toting bigots. And the whole thing takes place in a liberal Massachusetts college town. After Mark is arrested for driving his car and being black (proving all black comedians from the 80’s right), he is assaulted by an entire softball team because they just lost to a bunch of “niggers.” Why they are being held in the jail at all is not explained. Everyone in this film just seems to be conveniently racist. There are still countless instances of hate crime and explicit racial discrimination in this country today but the filmmakers of “Soul Man” are completely unable to realistically portray one.
I could forgive the film if it managed to work as a piece of satire or scathing social commentary, but it’s simply unfunny and irresponsible. Given the recent New Yorker cover controversy, the film seems relevant as a model of what not to do (Editor’s Note: I really enjoy making Editor’s Notes).
Screaming Girl: Last semester I had to write a paper about populations at risk and the stereotypes that they have to face on a day to day basis. Rather than choosing a serious movie like the Killing Fields or the Color Purple I chose the groundbreaking movie Soul Man. Why did I choose this movie over the others? First, it is MBRFT’s go to movie when he wants to get drunk and laugh at stupid things. Second, I didn’t really like this class, it was required. Third, I wanted something that I knew would give me plenty of material to write about. Finally, I wanted to get drunk and laugh at a movie (Editor’s Note: The Color Purple probably would have been a better choice).
What I got from the movie was a 7 page paper and an A. I won’t put our handful of devoted readers (being made up primarily of MBRFT, Psycho Larry and me) through the torture that is a paper about modern racism. However I will summarize one of the most racist scenes of the movie. Taken directly from my paper.
Mark (the main character while in blackface) goes to dinner at his landlord’s house with his landlord’s daughter. At the dinner each member of the family has their own mental image of what an African American is. The first is the mother who imagines a primal African with a sexual drive that craves the taste of a white woman. The second is the son who looks at him as a Prince-like rock star gyrating with his guitar. The final and most offensive is the father’s interpretation of him as a pimp dressed in a flamboyant pink suit eating watermelon and telling the imagined pregnant daughter to get him his heroin and some more watermelon while calling her a “white bitch”.
I really don’t have to go over how this scene is extremely racist and if I do then I’d be glad to send you my paper. Overall, the movie, though not as grotesque as the others was somewhat controversial mainly because of the blatant racism presented. The problem with the racism in this movie is that in the process of trying to make it look funny it really only makes it look more racist. You won’t gain anything from this movie except for some guilt in the fact that you rented or own (hint hint MBRFT) the movie. But if you want to get drunk and laugh this is the movie to watch.
Mind Fuckability Rating: Why is this movie on the list?
-Next week we get to look at a Disney film. How can this be? It’s a Disney film racist enough that Disney refuses to ever release it. “Song of the South”!