Remembering the Absurdly Racist Blackface Comedy 'Soul Man'

The grotesque comedy about an undergrad who binges on "tanning pills" to win a minority scholarship turns 30 today.

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Oct 26 2016, 4:00am

Photo courtesy of 'Soul Man'

As of fall 2016, Roku provides four different standard rental options for the movie Soul Man (one, somehow, is a stream via the Urban Movie Channel service). To the surprise of anyone who has seen the 1986 film—a star turn for E.T.'s C. Thomas Howell, and a cinematic HorcruxSoul Man has not yet been stowed away for presumable eternity.

For those who don't know, the movie—which turns 30 years old this week—tells the story of Mark Watson (Howell), a UCLA undergraduate who, strapped for cash to pay his way through Harvard Law School, takes an overdose of "tanning pills" to appear black, and thus, become eligible for a scholarship for gifted black students. Yes.

There are endless films in which a white person signs as black for comic effect; I just revisited, for instance, Chris Elliott's nerdy journalist in rap mockumentary CB4, a film developed, written by, and starring African American writers and comedians. It's worth noting that, conversely, Soul Man is the work of a white director and writer: Steve Miner—fittingly, better known for his horror work—and Carol Black, creator of Ellen and your possible childhood favorite The Wonder Years. There are only two central black characters in the movie. Another uncommon element of the film: Late 20th-century movies featuring a white-guy wannabe also don't normally involve actual blackface, let alone the would-be sympathetic protagonist in full body paint.

One might assume, from any capsule description, that Miner's movie was some aberrant, low-budget exploitation experiment. Instead, it was the handiwork of Hollywood's mid-tier elite and the result of a millions-strong budget. One recognizes many of its faces: a young Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Mark's classmate, a not-young James Earl Jones as his primary professor, and an abstracted-looking Leslie Nielsen, playing the prejudiced father of a civil-rights-obsessed, blond-bombshell undergrad (Melora Hardin). "I could really feel 400 years of oppression and anger in every pelvic thrust," she sighs, after a midday tryst with Mark.

The feeble line echoes Mark's explanation of why he doesn't mind transforming into a black man at the beginning of the film. "These are the 80s, man," he chuckles to Gordon, his slimy, Eddie-Haskell-esque henchman of a friend (played by Arye Gross). "This is the Cosby decade. America loves black people." This short, dystopian explanation thrusts Soul Man into motion; its musical idee fixe , Sam and Dave's "Soul Man," blares for the first time (featuring Sam Moore and, bafflingly, Lou Reed).

Mark is then put through the ringer of the black American experience, as imagined by the woman who wrote The Wonder Years. The slings and arrows he endures include two kids periodically making "Negro" jokes in the dining hall, and then, after noticing Mark, yelling, "No offense, OK, man?" After being profiled and tailed by Cambridge traffic police, Mark ends up in a holding cell with a bunch of cartoonishly abusive Irish cellmates. Scenes like these are meant to induce chuckles and awed groans, as if to say, "Man, they really just went there." Unfortunately for audiences, the film does go there, and then it goes further.

Eventually Mark is forced into the role of a dejected but diligent loner on campus. He unites with a real black student Sarah Walker (Rae Dawn Chong), to overcome their marginalized position in the school—by studying extra hard for their final exams. After a warm, five-second visit to her grandparents' modest household, they share a dramatically unjustified kiss in the snow to the strains of a sensuous saxophone solo.

The messy period of atonement before he publicly admits his deception is possibly the film's most harrowing section. After Mark fesses up, sidekick Gordon wonders if he'll return to being his normal white self, asking, "Do you really hate the Beach Boys now?" "Hard to say." Mark replies. "I guess I still like some of their funkier stuff."

During ghastly moments like these, Soul Man reveals its similarity to another misbegotten film: 2007's I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, in which Adam Sandler and Kevin James pretend to be a gay couple to secure a life-insurance policy. From the Beach Boys comment on, Soul Man makes the pathetic Chuck and Larry pivot from "It's so wrong it's funny" to an ineffective, sobering "Walk a mile, or a semester, in another demographic's shoes, and you'll learn to never make fun of them again" message.

There is, of course, no acceptable way for deeply unacceptable films to reach their merciful conclusions. But Soul Man manages to confound even one's worst expectations. Before Mark's big reveal to the campus, Gordon assumes the role of a pseudo-defense attorney, flipping the script on the product-of-his-environment argument. Mark, he argues, was brought up to be selfish and entitled, the product of an upper-crust white family in the suburbs. "Can you blame him for the color of his skin?"

For some reason, James Earl Jones's character agrees with the assessment, and is even amused by Mark's stunt. "You must have learned a great deal more than you bargained for through this experience," he remarks, grinning. "I didn't really know what it feels like, sir," adding, "If I didn't like it, I could always get out."

That line is the movie's nauseating coup de grâce, intended to justify the fact that Mark gets off with little more than a slap on the wrist for his deception. He tells Jones's character that he wants to finish his law degree to "do some work that might be of use to someone."

Mark's happy ending prefigures a new era of racist film: the 21st-century white savior flick, a future constant in multiplexes and on Oscar ballots.

Although it was protested by activist groups and decimated by critics, Soul Man was a commercial success and got a public commendation from the president and first lady. Twelve years later, Hollywood would squeeze out an arguably more reprehensible film without batting a greased-up eyelash: Krippendorf's Tribe, where an anthropology scholar (Richard Dreyfuss) fakes evidence of an obscure New Guinean tribe by filming his family in paint and feather headdresses.

Soul Man is shocking, but in the years that have followed, real life has imitated art, with examples such as Mindy Kaling's brother pretending to be black in order to get into medical school or the countless stories of blackface-on-campus. It seems only inevitable that something similarly perverse might arise again, from the primordial ooze of our deeply divided country.

Follow Winston Cook-Wilson on Twitter.

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