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Case Number 00171

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Soul Food

Fox // 1997 // 114 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Dean Roddey (Retired) // November 4th, 1999

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All Rise...

Editor's Note

Our review of Soul Food: Director's Edition, published August 15th, 2001, is also available.

The Charge

There's something cookin' in the kitchen, and it smells like trouble…

Opening Statement

Though I was born a poor white child, I've really enjoyed a lot of the recent blooming of black cinema in this country. A lot of it of course has been mean streets stuff of gangs and racial problems. This is somewhat unfortunate since it's hardly completely representative, though as always tough circumstances can make for great stories. This film, however, shows the other side of the coin, of the black middle class in America. Though it was a little bit cutesy in places, I think it delivered a pretty powerful story and was an enjoyable watch.

The Evidence

The center point of the story is the extended family of Mother Joe, the matriarch of the family, played by Irma Hall (Beloved, A Family Thing, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil), whose strength has held the crew together through thick and thin. She pulled herself up into the middle class the hard way, and gave her children a chance to be born into a world of much wider horizons.

But as often happens, they have a tendency not to appreciate what they've got. When Mother Joe's diabetes flares up, she has to be hospitalized to have her leg removed. There are complications during surgery and she falls into a coma, eventually dying. Without her guiding hand, the family begins to come apart at the seams—as old tensions are now free to rise to the surface.

The tensions are mainly among Mother Joe's three daughters, Teri, Maxine, and Bird. Teri is played by Vanessa Williams (Eraser, Hoodlum), Maxine by Vivica Fox (Batman and Robin, Independence Day), and Bird by Nia Long (Stigmata, Love Jones, Boyz in the Hood). Even a poor white child doesn't need to be told that these are three unnaturally fine looking women. But hey, this is Hollywood, right? Teri is the "I've got to overachieve because I validate myself by accomplishments" type. She became a high powered lawyer, and married another layer, Miles, played by Michael Beach (A Family Thing, Short Cuts, One False Move). She tends to keep the others afloat financially, and makes sure that they remember it. Maxine is the most like mom, inheriting her cooking skills and just wanting to be a mother herself. Nia is the youngest and trying to get started, borrowing money from Teri to open her own barber shop.

And the men get their blows in too. Miles is beginning to move more and more into his music, and letting his law practice fall by the wayside. Teri thought she had married a fellow power lawyer and isn't exactly happy about this. Eventually, Miles quits his job to do his music full time. Nia is newly married to Lem, played by Mekhi Phifer (Girl 6, Clockers, The Tuskegee Airmen), who just got out of jail for some youthful drug indiscretion. He lies about his record on his job application and is fired when it's found out. So he's stuck trying to get a new job, without letting Nia know about it. But she finds out and makes the mistake of getting her pimp-daddy ex-boyfriend to pull some strings to get Lem a new job. Lem finds out about this and goes ballistic.

Other roles include Maxine's boy, Ahmad, played by Brandon Hammond (The Fan, Mars Attacks!, Strange Days). He is the narrator of the story, and does quite a good job for his age I thought. Adding spice is cousin Faith, played by Gina Ravera (Get on the Bus, Showgirls). I'd never seen her before, but she was quite appealing and very beautiful as well. Miles seems to have the same taste in women, as Teri catches them together in a less than Platonic position.

The family's life revolves around Sunday afternoon dinner at Mother Joe's, a tradition followed for many, many years. These involved copious amounts of the type of food the movie is named after. These days of course soul food would be better known as "heart attack on a stick" because it's not exactly light. But it had my mouth watering because I was born a poor southern white child, and this type of food was a staple of anyone's grandmother in that area in those days.

But with Mother Joe gone, the tradition falls by the wayside and Teri puts up the big house for sale in order to get back some of the money she's loaned out over the years. It falls to Ahmad to put everything right and get the family back together. And of course he does, because this is a big money Hollywood film, which is required by law to end happily.

Though the transfer was non-anamorphic, it was evidently a pretty clean transfer because it looked quite good overall when digitally enhanced on the Faroudja. They still don't get off the hook, but at least they sinned minimally.

The sound track is available in 5.1 format, which is good. There isn't a lot of action in this film, but they are used for some subtle effects. And the film has a good bit of music, which is well served by the surround format. Most of it is of the super smooth vocal soul that is so prevalent these days. I'm not a big fan of that genre myself—give me BB King or James Brown personally—but it certainly sounds good wrapped all around you.

The Rebuttal Witnesses

As mentioned above, the video transfer is a 1.85:1 letterboxed deal. Non-anamorphics always suck, and get a serious demerit. The vocals on the soundtrack are a little rough in places I thought, but not enough to be a serious problem.

My only problem with the story is that it was a little too "everyone lived happily ever after." I guess, in the bigger picture, it should be considered progress that an all-black movie can now be considered a big enough financial deal that they get the same lawyer enforced blandness previously reserved for white folks. In a way, it just seems weird because it's obviously targeted towards adults, with an R rating, so the ending just seemed too pat in comparison with the more dramatic meat of the story.

There aren't a lot of extras. There is a small featurette and a music video by the guy who wrote a lot of the music in the film (some of it played by Miles' band).

Closing Statement

Soul Food could have been a little more dramatic, but I have to understand that everyone doesn't like their movies as painful as I do. There are already plenty of Boyz in the Hood and Juice style films out there, so we definitely need more of this type of material in order to maintain some balance. The story is good, the acting is excellent, and it's just an enjoyable watch. As mentioned above, don't invite the kids in for popcorn, because it's a little too much for them, but watch it after they go to bed.

The Verdict

This one is acquitted, but with the usual slap on the wrist for a non-anamorphic transfer. When will these kids ever learn?

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Scales of Justice

Video: 85
Audio: 80
Extras: 40
Acting: 90
Story: 90
Judgment: 77

Perp Profile

Studio: Fox
Video Formats:
• 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French)
• English
• Spanish
Running Time: 114 Minutes
Release Year: 1997
MPAA Rating: Rated R
• Drama

Distinguishing Marks

• Theatrical Trailer
• "I Care For You" Music Video


• IMDb

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