Soul Man

(Steve Miner, USA, 1986)


Recognisably a teen movie, Steve Miner’s Soul Man scores more points for pace and inventiveness than routine entries in the genre. I propose we take it not as a typically liberal film about race relations between blacks and whites in America (which, of course, it is) – liberal, in this context meaning evasive, facile, manipulative – but as a film about gags and comedic narrative construction.


Let’s imagine (I know it’s a stretch) that the story of white Mark Watson (C. Thomas Howell) disguising himself as black in order to enter Harvard Law School on a special scholarship is merely a pretext for fleeting moments like the following:


A mean father who wants black Mark and his best friend Gordon (Arye Gross) kicked out his building says to the attendant: “Look out for any drugs, pets, loud music or damage to the room”. Cut to, in rapid succession: the VU meter of a very loudly playing stereo, a smoking joint, and Gordon hammering a nail into the wall as he looks off-screen and asks, “Should we get an ocelot?”.


Such gags (and Soul Man is full of many good ones) perform a very special function: they kick any standard of verisimiltude well and truly out the door, cavalierly re-inventing the plot from moment to moment for the sake of an achingly corny laugh. Soul Man is an unending line of breathtaking cuts – leaps and comparisons in time and space that makes a joke of filmic conventions (e.g., slow motion or “appropriate” soundtrack music) as much as of the characters.


This shouldn’t be surprising, since it is in the fine American comic tradition of the performance film: Mark dances, disguises, plays (as does Gordon in the wonderful mock-courtroom scene) – and, as he struggles with the contradiction between his developing fake identity and his suppressed self, the time eventually comes when his real position in the scheme of things will either be revealed by himself or exposed by others. That’s when the film can pile on plot moves and reversals gloriously thick and fast. The upshot of all this depicted performance is that, thereby, the film (as it were) hands itself a license to play the same game for its knowing, funky audience. And that audience won’t feel particularly compelled to denounce Soul Man as racist.


But while we’re on the subject of racism, let’s set the record straight. Mark-as-black usually behaves relatively normally (he presumes neither to breakdance nor rhyme rap); the only time he metamorphoses into what is obviously a black stereotype is when he must perform blackness before white eyes that see with their own conditioned standards of authenticity; or when he is actually overtly a dream-image, a white projection (it’s a white girl who thinks the hero must be a black stud, a white boy who imagines he must be a great sportsman, a white child who fantasises that he’s the rock star Prince); or when he tries too hard, and fails disastrously.


The real blacks in the film, Rae Dawn Chong as Sarah and James Earl Jones as the stern Prof. Rutherford Banks, are entirely well-rounded, normal characters who carry the fiction’s obligatory moral force. Of course, the racism to which Mark’s personal journey is meant to testify comes out all-too-easily in the film’s final (white)wash – it’s the familiar liberal schtick of “learning from experience” to understand the world’s oppressed, what Judith Williamson rightly labeled the Tootsie Syndrome – but Soul Man’s tiny progressive element is already something to have pulled off in a solidly mainstream context of popular representation. It is, dare we say, an honestly white film!


It possesses some wonderful narrative inventions, of the kind you only see these days in maligned (or at least woefully underappreciated) American teen movies like Rob Reiner’s The Sure Thing (1985) or John Hughes’ Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986). This propensity allows two things to occur. First, a fine proliferation of minor characters and plot threads that collide hilariously, either all at once (the bedroom farce of Mark’s parents, current girlfriend and hopeful girlfriend congregating in his small apartment, with all the different disguises and ruses this necessitates for him), or in a shaggy dog, retarded fashion (as when the vengeful white yuppie bursts into the denouement just a few seconds late with his revelation that Mark is really white).


Second, this facility of invention allows for a rather conventional but surprisingly convincing love interest. I’m tired of all those movies like About Last Night (1986) or Desert Hearts (1985) where characters keep telling each other (and us in the cinema) how deep and momentous their emotions are.  Action – and not conversation – is the stuff of Mark and Sarah’s relationship; it’s a film that doesn’t talk love, but shows it. It shows love forming in the rapid, hectic crossfire of interpersonal action, following the difficult (and very public) experience of contradiction, conflict, even hatred.


And because the film makes you as spectator live through it, you believe (for a change) that there actually might be the basis for a love. Miner earns his right to an ultimate sentimentality – which is more than can be said for many overwrought, bleeding-heart, liberal dramas. Here, as well, Soul Man’s performance-mode wins the day: for love was nothing more, and nothing less, in yesteryear’s great comedies like The Awful Truth (Leo McCarey 1937) or It Happened One Night (Frank Capra 1934) than the trials lived by two alert people in an eternal present. Soul Man is not in that class but, on its own level, it’s a fine film.


And – spinning-off from the movie in a very ‘80s way, but closely connected to it – who can ever forget the music video  for its theme song where, in a strange duet, Lou Reed appears to be offering himself to black star Sam Moore: “I’ll give you hope – and be your funky boyfriend”?

MORE Miner: Forever Young, Lake Placid, Halloween H2O

© Adrian Martin December 1986 / May 1987

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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