Here’s a (not so) new fact about me: I really love 80’s films. I grew up watching them with my Mom, then discovered some on my own accord. The 80’s were great for original films, especially teen/young adult films. Some of my favorite films from the 80’s are Heathers, Just One of the Guys, Secret Admirer, Crossroads, and Weird Science, and The Outsiders. The 80’s were a completely different time. A lot of risks were taken that would not be taken today. During my Fall break, I decided to check out a movie called Soul Man.
Soul Man is truly an interesting film, especially in the context of the time period (1986). Upon its release it was panned by critics, but still was a commercial success. A wealthy teen, Mark Watson (C. Thomas Howell) is cut off by his parents and forced to pay his way through Harvard Law School. After failing to receive financial aid, a private loan, or any other sort of assistance, Mark resorts to desperate measures. There is a full scholarship offered to the best qualifying AFRICAN AMERICAN applicant- so Mark decides to live his life at Harvard as a black man. He uses tanning pills to darken his skin, wears brown contacts, and wears the stereotypical Jerry curl of the time. Here is where the controversy for the film begins. A privileged white kid dons black face in order to keep his prestigious spot at Harvard, and to continue his lavish lifestyle.
The movie is chock full of racist innuendos and black stereotypes. While this film tries to shed light at the apparent racism of the time, it does so in a tacky and lighthearted way. In gym, two men fight to have Mark on their basketball team, and are surprised when he isn’t any good. When Mark visits Whitney Dunbar’s (his white girlfriend play by Melora Hardin) home, her parents imagine him in a pimp suit eating watermelon, among other things. Whitney also obsesses over Mark’s blackness, almost to the point of fetishism. While these gags can seem uncomfortable and biting at times, it sadly reflects the mindsets of the time- and even today.
Meanwhile, Mark meets a smart and hard-working African-American woman named Sarah (Rae Dawn Chong). Predictably, they fall for each other. Not much of Sarah’s backstory is given, but we learn that she’s a single mother struggling to make ends meet, and was next in line to receive the scholarship that Mark illegally attained. Burdened by his conscious and feelings for Sarah, Mark decides to ditch the charade and admit to his wrongdoing.
In the end, Mark meets with his professor (James Earl Jones) and discusses his punishment for his actions. He agrees to work a campus job to pay back the money to Sarah, establish a scholarship in her honor, apologize publicly to Harvard, and dedicate his time to assisting members of the black community. Lastly- the one thing that this film does completely right is the fact that Mark states that he doesn’t truly know what its like to be black because he could bow out at any time (Looks furiously for Rachel Dolezal). This film helped lead C. Thomas Howell become more sensitive to race issues, and ironically enough, Howell married Rae Dawn Chong- although it lasted less than a year.
This film is definitely not perfect, but it helped to open viewers’ eyes about racism in our society, especially in higher education.