Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Soul Man (1986)

It might have held a mournful beat on a rusty tin lid in pre-bellum Mississippi, but to politically correct mid-Eighties audiences Soul Man must have sounded more like the Banana Boat Song ...

Soul Man (1986, Steve Miner)

Starring: C. Thomas Howell, Rae Dawn Chong, James Earl Jones, Arye Gross, Julia Louis-Dreyfus.

Box Notables: ‘Retail Price £69.99’ sticker. Yowza! It's also perhaps worth noting that the Mail on Sunday found it "Very Funny"...

Tagline: ‘A Comedy with Heart and Soul”

Trailers: Monte Carlo, Crime Story, Cyclone, Enemy Territory, Death Before Dishonour

Cherrypick: This is the Cosby decade; America loves black people!”

As ethically sketchy and cavalier as any of the jokers or knaves this blog has yet ushered into your presence, this 1986 journey through the nine-dimensional labyrinth of positive discrimination is as elegant and worthwhile as tits on a bull.

Wasting no time in messing with our moral gyroscopes, director Steve Miner’s would-be underdog yarn encourages us to root for over-privileged whitebread slap-magnet Mark Watson (Howell) as he tramples over every minority that gets in his way in order to win a scholarship to that Promethean cradle of overarching human idealism, Harvard Law School.
"Were am dat wateemelon, etc..."
His rich and faddish father, we learn, has taken his progressive therapist’s throwaway advice about unfettering himself from the shackles of societally-imposed family obligations very much to heart and has bestowed upon his son the greatest gift it is his to give by cutting him off without a red cent. This forces the boy to become a man by paying his own college tuition to the tune of $54,000. Mark is, however, nothing but his father’s son, and pops most assuredly did not get where he is today by hard graft…

After visiting a chum who’s attending ‘Sun-Tan Lotion College’, Mark downs a handful of untested pills that pigment his milky skin the colour of milky coffee, slips on some Ray Bans and – with no indication as to how he teased his glistening slick of chestnut hair into a serviceable Afro – jive-talks his way into a scholarship reserved for the most promising black student in LA. Yes, Mark has – and there’s no way to chocolate-coat this – ‘browned up’.
The whole film in one - immeasurably better - scene
Once on campus, the film is free to divide its time between making capital of white assumptions that all African-Americans males are either Black Panthers or hepcat pimp-daddies and dispelling such myths as innate basketball prowess and across-the-board good fortune in the trouser department. The whole thing pounds to the kind of racial insouciance that might have held a mournful beat on a rusty tin lid in pre-bellum Mississippi, but must have sounded more like the Banana Boat Song to politically correct mid-Eighties audiences. This Kentucky-fried flim-flam continues until our undercover brother falls in love with the girl whose scholarship he swiped and all kinds of racial, class and gender hell break loose.
No, Luke, I am your teacher
Howell, although looking only slightly more authentically African-American than an iced bun, is quite winning in the role that completely derailed his promising career. He is supported by a strong cast headed up by James Earl Jones, who distinguishes himself as Mark’s gnarly-but-benign Criminal Law professor. A proud black educator who gives his students of colour no special treatment, Jones stands apart from the films broiling ethnic maelstrom until the script forces him to blot his copybook by referring to the bulk of his class as “white shits”. Also of note is an early showing by Elaine from misanthropic TV smash ‘Seinfeld’ as an old high-school pal of Mark’s named – rather confusingly after one’s partaken of the requisite quantities of bad booze to make it through this baloney – Lisa Simpson. None of them, however, can divert the film’s kamikaze plotting from zeroing in on a Pearl Harbour of racial iniquity.
The whitest black white man in America
After a supposedly farcical scene revolving around an unexpected visit from Mark’s parents; his white girlfriend; his black girlfriend; a selection of ski masks and a Beach Boys medley, our protagonist reluctantly comes clean. The little turd should be looking at an educational stint in the Big House, but instead, Professor Jones and the school board are so impressed by the life-lessons that this brass-necked yahoo has learned during his time en noir that they accede to an outrageous program of guilt-assuaging martyrdom that sees Mark allowed continue his studies as a honky, the misappropriated scholarship revert to its rightful recipient and the rest of us wondering whether the Civil Rights Movement was a collective hallucination.

Oh, lawdy!

Originally published in Little White Lies#24

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