'Soul Food' Was a Delicious Feast for Black Cinema's Golden Age

The 1997 dramedy captured the lives and loves of black families in America, and the history they share.
20th Century Fox

Certain films are remarkably deft at encompassing the music, fashion, and sensibilities of the people it represents. This year marks the 20th anniversary of George Tillman Jr.'s critically acclaimed box office hit Soul Food , which remains one of the best films to lovingly and respectfully portray the complexities of an African American family.

In his autobiography, Malcolm X described soul food dishes as "representations of Southernness and commensality." It's literally food for the soul, created by the ingenuity and spirit of African Americans as they were emerging from the confines of slavery and marching toward visibility, equity, and autonomy. Soul food represents one of the earliest markers of African American resistance, and Tillman Jr. illustrated that resolve and determination throughout his film.


Soul Food came out during the 90s golden era of black cinema, when Boyz n the Hood, Love Jones , The Brothers , Set It Off, and Poetic Justice presented different, nuanced portrayals of black lives. From the first notes of Boyz II Men's smash hit "A Song for Mama" in the film's opening credits, Soul Food showcased an unmistakable adoration for its female characters and the ways they supported their families—especially the matriarch Mama Joe (the legendary Irma P. Hall). As she raised her three daughters—Teri, Maxine, and Bird (Vanessa L. Williams, Vivica A. Fox, and Nia Long, respectively)—Mama Joe constantly offered them effortless words of wisdom on how to nurture their own families, delivered with the love and wit of any discerning black elder and expressed perfectly by the thespian skill of Hall.

The film's built around the premise of food, family, and music, highlighting the generational legacy of black families healing and growing through the sharing of meals. This is seen in the 40-year Sunday dinner tradition upheld by the Joseph family, which started when the Joseph elders lived in Mississippi and continued even after they had migrated to the northern city of Chicago.

Soul Food's story is told through the eyes of Mama Joe's 11-year-old grandson, Ahmad. A standout line in the film is when he shares an anecdote that sheds light on Mama Joe's euphoric spirit and her unmatched skills in the kitchen: "People always said [Mama Joe] never made one enemy in her whole life, 'cause if she did, she'd just have them over for some of her green beans, sweet potato pie, and Southern fried chicken. And they'd be down with her after that."


Later, when Bird complains about the tedium and difficulty of cooking ham hocks, Mama Joe gives her a lesson on the history of Southern food, and why staples such as ham hocks, pig feet, and chitlins were integral. These foods represented all that black people were allowed—and could afford—to eat, and necessity called on making sure these typically unappealing foods tasted delicious. "See, soul food cooking is about cooking from the heart," Mama Joe adds; in a later voiceover, Ahmad echoes this importance: "During slavery, us black folks didn't have a whole lot to celebrate so cooking became the way we expressed our love for one another."

Lingering shots of tables laden with cornbread, dumplings, deep-fried catfish, macaroni and cheese, string beans, fried chicken, collard greens, and black-eyed peas offer black viewers an opportunity to see themselves and the inner workings of their culinary home life on-screen; and those shots are emblematic of the film's major themes of forgiveness, reconciliation, and family, which came to light around the dining room table where everyone ate, fought, and commiserated.

Soul Food's legacy goes beyond just the movie: Its soundtrack was a treasure trove of black talent, showcasing music from acts such as Dru Hill, Missy Elliott, Timbaland, K-Ci and Jo-Jo, and Babyface's After 7. Each song felt painstakingly selected to reflect the characters' moods and allow the viewers a window into their conflicted emotions, turning them into spectators and participants. After Miles (Michael Beach) cheats on Teri with her cousin Faith (Gina Ravera), Dru Hill's "We're Not Making Love No More" echoes in the background of a party, betraying Teri's stoic expression as she glares at her husband, both watching Teri's sister slow dancing with her husband. The lyrics portray everything she can't say, as well as the somberness of a disintegrating relationship that can't be saved.

In an interview with the Chicago Tribune, Tillman Jr. said he wanted to create a film that showcased a "black family in Middle America"—the birthplace of Maya Angelou, Malcolm X, Langston Hughes, Lorraine Hansberry, and Michael Brown. It's an area of the country filled with black families who cherish one another, show up for one another, and uphold the notion of being gifted and black. Tillman Jr. was successful in his aims: Soul Food made almost seven times its budget at the box office, accruing more than $43 million and eventually spawning a television adaptation of the same name (which went on to become the longest-running drama with a predominantly black cast in North American prime time).

Soul Food represented the perennial perseverance and joy of black families held together by the women who raised them, who made the food that sustained them, and who told the stories that offered them solace. It will never cease to be as visually indulgent as it is irresistible ear candy. The world will always need soul food—and Soul Food.

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