Soul Food (1997)

The disturbing trend about Hollywood and black people isn't that Hollywood is willing to pay for black movies that make money. That has always been the case. What is really disturbing is that the non-"buddy comedy" films Hollywood has been making lately, which make money, have been uniformly entertaining and creatively dynamic.

Hollywood has been taking a big chance on unconventional films because it senses, first, that the market for the films exists, and, second, that it has no idea what kind of a black film will make money. So instead of using the usual criteria for deciding what goes into production, the studios have been entrusting modest budgets to unproven but promising talents and asking only that they not lose money. Far from losing money, the films have often proved to be big sleeper hits.

But this can't last. Pretty soon, instead of learning that by giving chances to talent, they can make money, Hollywood will start lumping black non-"buddy comedy" films into a big pile. We'll have Waiting to Eat Soul Food and Set It Up. Hollywood can't leave well enough alone.

So skip out to your local theater now and check out what Hollywood has wrought without even hardly meaning to.

George Tillman, Jr.'s Soul Food is a joyful film about a black family in Chicago whose life centers around Mama Joe (the fabulous Irma P. Hall), the family matriarch, whose abundant spirit and Sunday soul food dinners keep the whole family together. When Mama Joe's health is endangered, so is the life of the family. Ahmad (Brandon Hammond), Mama Joe's grandson, tries desperately to bring the family back together despite the obstacles it faces.

The family is made up of three sisters, Mama Joe's daughters, and their families. The sisters are Teri (Vanessa L. Williams), an attorney, Maxine (Vivica A. Fox), a housewife, and Bird (Nia Long), who runs her own beauty salon.

The story of how the members of the family are separated and then must reconcile again is not just the usual soap opera. The relationships and actions of the characters are deeply motivated, convincingly written and portrayed. There is a certain soap opera feeling to it in places, but not any more than exists in real life, and that's what the film recreates for the most part: the real life of an average family which transcends its averageness by being full of love and forgiveness.

The film Soul Food brought most to mind for me was Marvin's Room, a little film with no grand aspirations. Both films chart the life of an extended family and how a little love, a little insanity, and a lot of tragedy don't have to add up to disaster.

Marvin's Room, of course, wasn't as big a hit; white moviegoers take small films about their lives for granted while black moviegoers have increasingly voted with their box-office dollars for just such little, personal films.

Tillman, the writer and director of Soul Food, has created an immensely colorful tapestry of black life. There are, of course, a few plot inconsistencies, and a few places where the story is rushed or glossed over, but on the whole, Soul Food satisfies. The acting by Hammond, Hall, and Fox as three generations of family members add up to more than the sum of its parts. Hall's face echoes Fox's in a particularly powerful and pivotal scene to great effect.

Cinematographer Paul Elliott's lighting and camera work bring out the faces and the emotions of the black cast in a way that I haven't seen done quite so successfully since Do the Right Thing. He's lighting their faces from a black perspective, just as white movie stars' faces have been lit from white perspectives. The characters, accordingly, feel bigger, more real. The phrase "people of color" came to mind as I watched this film. Nothing about Soul Food is one-dimensional.

Links for Soul Food

Internet Movie Database Entry

Roger Ebert Review


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