I use hands to help my fellow man / I use hands to help with what I can / But when I face an unjust injury / Then I change my hand into FIST OF FURY

Soul Man

tn_soulmanWell, I guess as long as we’re talking about race…

From the director of my two favorite FRIDAY THE 13THs (parts 2-3) and the star of THE HITCHER comes this comedy about Mark Watson, a white dude pretending to be black to get a scholarship to Harvard Business School.

Watching THE HITCHER reminded me about seeing this movie in the ’80s, and I thought holy shit, did they really make that movie? I didn’t imagine it? They really pretended anybody would believe C. Thomas Howell as a brother? And no, the idea is not that the whitebread kids at Harvard have never seen a black person up close so they can’t tell the difference. No, he also fools Rae Dawn Chong (put upon love interest) and James Earl Jones (no nonsense criminal law professor).

I mean seriously.  Look at that picture. Squint. Take your glasses off. Stand across the room. Is there any way that would fool you? Would you even notice he was supposed to be black? I don’t get it, man. If anything he looks like an Indian guy with a perm. I mean, he could pass for not white, but I don’t think he could passing for black. He couldn’t pass for passing black, in other words. You really gotta suspend the ol’ disbelief on this one.

mp_soulmanBut it’s not as offensive as I thought it would be. Clueless, yes, but well meaning at least. Here is a numbered list of items:

1. They don’t pull some shit where you’re supposed to think he deserves the scholarship and that it’s not fair to be only available to black students. He’s clearly a dumbass. His rich dad decided not to pay his way, he had been bad about paying bills, so he had no money and came up with this stupid scheme.

2. He mostly doesn’t try to imitate any stereotypes. No accent, no juive talk, no jokes about rhythm. He’s just a sweater-wearing suburban dork like himself, except “black.”

3. To be extra safe they make sure you don’t think it’s blackface. He supposedly uses an overdose of experimental tanning pills. The hair is never addressed and you never see him maintaining the look. He also doesn’t wear terrifying hell contacts like the Wayans brothers when they played WHITE CHICKS.

Most of the racial humor actually comes out of white people being dumb. There are jokes about a white girl using black men for sex and basketball team captains (one played by Ron Reagan) fighting over who gets C. Thomas on their team (big mistake). In one of the few scenes really dealing with stereotypes the white girl’s dad (Leslie Nielsen) imagines Mark as a cursing, watermelon-eating pimp. It’s clear that only a real asshole would think this, even if it’s played for laughs. Nielsen’s son fantasizes about Mark as Purple Rain-era Prince, the idea maybe being that the younger generation are becoming more comfortable with black people because of music. An accurate point, it turns out.

And at the end it definitely comes out in favor of affirmative action. He realizes how worthy Rae Dawn would be of that scholarship. He tries to atone for his lies partly by giving a percentage of all future earnings to a scholarship for African-Americans. The movie also comes out clearly in favor of interracial relationships. So in that sense it’s more progressive than JUNGLE FEVER. The soundtrack’s not as good, though.

Despite all that, it’s hard to take. His dorky best friend (who I mistook for the dorky best friend from TEEN WOLF) makes a smarmy trial speech arguing that society made Mark do it. He talks about him being a victim and the class are supposed to picture this poor black dude and then he walks in and it’s regular lilly-white C. Thomas Howell and they go “wh-wh-WHUT!?” It’s the most unintentionally racially insensitive summation speech until A TIME TO KILL. Maybe that’s where they got the idea.

And then it’s pretty painful how much he gets away with it. I mean, he obviously feels bad. He tries to make reparations, even using the word reparations. He makes it very clear that he knows this hasn’t really shown him how it feels to be black (although he did experience racial profiling, some dicks in preppy sweaters making racist jokes and Leslie Nielsen punching him in the stomach, all things African-Americans have to contend with on a dialy basis). But still, I just can’t buy Rae Dawn and James Earl forgiving him so quick.

I mean, if this guy wears a disguise to trick you about his race, that’s pretty fuckin bizarre. And if he did it to steal a scholarship? I mean, I don’t think you would talk to that guy again. That would be too uncomfortable. James Earl seems almost impressed by it, and Rae Dawn gets over it in a day or less. I don’t think it fits their characters. I’m not saying they would kill him when they found out, like Brandon Teena, but they would think he was a real bastard.

I guess it would go down better if the movie gave him more of a race struggle. It’s obviously supposed to have kind of an eye opening effect for him, in the tradition of BLACK LIKE ME, WATERMELON MAN, etc. But it ends up being more like JUST ONE OF THE GUYS, it’s just about him sneaking around and trying to not get caught. The worst part is the forced climax where his parents, the girl who wants to sleep with him and Rae Dawn Chong all show up at the same time and he has to run back and forth between them trying to make sure they don’t know about each other. He wears a ski mask so his parents won’t see his disguise, then when they see him without it they think he’s a black guy trying to rob them. (A black guy who looks like an Indian with a perm.) So he uses ebonics and runs away. All kinds of THREE’S COMPANY style misunderstandings.

I think if people really for some reason believed he was black he would have a little more to deal with. Like what would have happened if he got into a debate about affirmative action? That would be pretty uncomfortable, him having to defend it even though he got the scholarship unfairly. And that’s the kind of thing people were really debating on campus back then, I bet. They could also deal with white people being overly nice to him. Fortunately Scorsese later dealt with that in the extended cut of the Michael Jackson “Bad” video.

I wouldn’t suggest watching SOUL MAN. It’s not as offensive as I expected, but it’s not good either. Not insightful enough to be a good drama or satire, and not funny enough to be a good comedy. Although I admit it was kind of funny to watch such a long slow motion montage of C. Thomas Howell sucking at basketball.

You know, Barack Obama went to Harvard Law School starting in ’88, so assuming Mark continued his education as planned they may have crossed paths. As a former member of the black community I’m sure Mark was very proud to see Obama become the first African-American president of the Harvard Law Review.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, August 26th, 2009 at 2:48 am and is filed under Comedy/Laffs, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

20 Responses to “Soul Man”

  1. Ayre Gross for President!

    I love it when C.Thomas struts down the hallway, all dressed up in “Black Panther” gear…

  2. This isn’t the last race-switch comedy James Earl Jones would do, Vern. 5 years later, he played HIMSELF in True Identity, where british comedian Lenny Henry plays a black british actor disguising himself as a white guy to hide from the mob.
    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0103128/
    What’s really fucking bizarre is that in the film, Lenny Henry’s character is an understudy to James Earl Jones in Othello. And earlier this year, Lenny Henry played Othello for real, which he credits working with James Earl Jones for inspiring him to do.

  3. for some reason i have been meaning to see this pretty much my whole life. i refuse to believe it is not awesome.

  4. Gah! Stu, you beat me in coming here to mention True Identity!

    I don’t know what the hell video tapes I was renting in the 80’s, but a trailer for Soul Man seemed to be on every other tape…..along with Lady Hawk.

  5. That is because Soul Man kicks ass.

  6. Man – this sight is really starting to interfere with my ability to get shit done. Vern is just a machine these days. Amazing review – both the review itself and the timing/fact-that-you-wrote-it-at-all. I am going to try and do some work now.

  7. Good review, great summation. Keep em coming.

  8. Hey, if you’re going that route then please review JUST ONE OF THE GUYS. It’s an 80’s movie staple as far as I’m concerned.

  9. Not movie related but perhaps salient in this discussion of race in America…

    …Teddy Kennedy R.I.P.

  10. As a resident of Massachusetts, obviously the big story is Ted Kennedy dying. Everyone is supposed to be real sad, but I don’t know. The number of character assassinations he performed on people simply because they were registered under different political parties, the way he allowed Whitey and Bill Bulger to flourish and eat away at my state from the inside, the whole killing somebody thing, they add up to a very conflicted legacy.

  11. I limited my comment to Teddy Kennedy R.I.P. Regardless of his many foibles, whatever his political persuasion and whether one agrees or not with his politics, within the context of race there is no doubt that he and his family sincerely strived to improve equality among the races in the USA – which is what Vern’s post, current and prior, were about – and he earns my respect for that.

    Like I said, R.I.P.

  12. caruso_stalker217

    August 26th, 2009 at 1:56 pm

    THANK YOU, STU!

    I remember seeing TRUE IDENTITY as a kid, but I never knew what it was called. That has bugged me for many years.

  13. I’m fairly confident that Vern is really a collection of different people all calling themselves Vern.

  14. OFF TOPIC: Vern, check out these on set stills from the Seagull on his Machete disguise…

    http://www.blogdecine.com/galeria/machete-imagenes-del-rodaje/1

    Steven Seagal is…

    “The Gentleman”

    PS. Seagalogy sequel, please?

  15. Can anyone tell me what it is that Seagal is wearing (the third photo is the clearest) because it’s got me baffled.

  16. Jacks Lack of Motivation

    August 26th, 2009 at 7:20 pm

    Jam: It does look rather like a sturdy anorak or other waterproof garment (feasible given the splatter in Planet Terror), or possibly a kind of drab Sergeant Pepper’s outfit? I wish I could contribute more than confusion.

  17. Interestingly enough the whole white people trying to pass as black and vice versa was explored in a short documentary/reality series called “Black. White.” (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0494185/) back in 2006. It’s non-fiction but worth a look to see how well-meaning people from two different families try to explore their preconceptions about race to varying degrees.

  18. I remember the television ads for this when it was brand new, which ended with C. Thomas Howell shouting the timely comic zinger, “come on, man, this is the 80s! It’s the Cosby Decade!” The line has stuck with me ever since, despite thinking that if THAT was the level of “comedy” on display, I could gladly go the rest of my life without seeing it. Ding, we have a winner. Thanks for watching these things so I don’t have to, Vern. Can Soul Plane be far behind?

    Speaking of Africans, in an effort to steer Ted Kennedy somewhat toward this topic, the most thought-provoking tribute I read today was this one, which is giving him credit for helping this be a blacker (and browner, and yellower, and altogether more diverse in hue and culture) nation:

    http://www.dailykos.com/storyonly/2009/8/26/772482/-Ted-Kennedys-Greatest-Accomplishment:-He-Created-Americans

    I saw him in person twice in the decade I’ve spent in Boston (exactly a decade a week from today! Please send money, no cards.), and, although I had the chance to go shake his hand both times, I never did. I’m really regretting that today. Here’s hoping just one congressperson (or president…) will strive to emulate his legacy of public service, helpful legislation, and dignified, hard work.

  19. To say ole “Ted” is a complicated and controversial figure, well no shit. One can’t argue what happened in 1969 really, he fucked up. I don’t get still how he escaped prosecution, but none the less.

    That said, months back I read that book LIBERAL LION about him, and good and ill, he’s a rather compelling figure. His (asshole) father never respected him, neither his older brothers even as grownups. Even in JFK’s 1960 Presidential campaign, he and RFK basically gave Ted basically obvious scrubber jobs just so to have him do something.

    Yet ultimately, maybe took him several decades to figure it all out, but Ted surprised most everyone by becoming one of the larger-than-life giants of the U.S. Senate along with Daniel Webster and Strom Thurmond, a more accomplished and serious legislator than his more liked, more fondly remembered brothers ever did combined in that chamber.

    Hell even in spite of ’69, Ted almost won the 1980 Democratic nomination away from a sitting President.

  20. Vern – Sorry to say this, but I always thought you were black.

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