Our review of Soul Food, published November 4th, 1999, is also available.
"Soul food cookin' is about cookin' from the heart."
Food is a key to memory. I'll bet you can think of at least one dish which is inextricably linked to your childhood, cooked as only Mom (or Dad, or Grandma, or whoever) could make it. It may have been baked beans, spaghetti and meatballs, secret-recipe chili, potato pancakes, macaroni and cheese, lutefisk…For me, growing up organic in the Pacific Northwest, it was fresh-baked whole wheat bread, beef stew simmered in the crock pot, sourdough waffles, molasses-sweetened cookies and homemade ice cream. Mm-mm. My mouth is watering right now.
For writer and director George Tillman Jr., raised in a middle-class black family in Chicago, it's "soul food": fried catfish, black-eyed peas, chicken and dumplings, collard greens and sweet cornbread. The movie Soul Food is inspired by memories of his own childhood: family celebrations, bickering aunties, grandmotherly wisdom, and fantastic Sunday dinners served with warmth, laughter and love.
Facts of the Case
We are introduced to the characters of Soul Food by Ahmad (Brandon Hammond, Mars Attacks!), a thoughtful, observant child who loves his extended family. Ahmad's family traditions revolve around togetherness, good music and good food. And good food comes from his grandmother's kitchen, where the family gathers every Sunday afternoon for a soul food feast.
Mother Joe (Irma P. Hall, A Family Thing), or "Big Mama" as she is affectionately called, is the matriarch of the family, and the calm at the center of its constant storms. Her three daughters are the source of most of this weather. Ahmad's mother Maxine (Vivica Fox, Independence Day) has an ongoing rivalry with her older sister Teri (Vanessa Williams, Eraser), a successful but unhappy lawyer. Teri's husband Miles (Michael Beach, "ER"), also a lawyer, wants to leave his career to be a full-time musician, much to Teri's dismay. And the youngest sister, Bird (Nia Long, Stigmata), is marrying Lem (Mekhi Phifer, Shaft), an ex-con who has a hard time fitting in with the family.
None of these problems seem unbeatable until Mother Joe falls seriously ill. Without her loving smiles, homegrown wisdom and Sunday meals, squabbles become battles and family ties stretch dangerously thin. Ahmad, who often seems more grown up than his adult relatives, knows he has to do something to reunite the family. And he has a plan. He knows that in good times and bad, family is a source of strength and comfort, support and identity…and that nothing brings a family together like a dinner table.
This is George Tillman Jr.'s first full-length film, and it's an impressive debut. (It was followed by Men of Honor.) Directed with loving care and attention to detail, Soul Food is crafted with the veracity that comes from personal experience. Tillman's wise old grandmother was the hub of his own family circle, and the three sisters are distilled from the personalities of his mother and her five sisters. The nostalgia Tillman feels for his childhood is evident in the joyousness of these family celebrations, the careful filming of the elaborate meals, and the way Ahmad and his grandmother smile at each other as though they shared some special secret. He refers to the film's themes repeatedly in the commentary track: tradition, family, the wisdom of elders, strength in unity.
Yes, it's ultimately a feel-good movie, but it doesn't gloss over the bad times on its way to the good ones. Sirens (police cars, fire trucks) are a recurring theme in the movie, a constant reminder of the dangers of life. The family is close, but that makes it all the easier for its members to hurt one another. And in a twist of devastating irony, Mother Joe suffers from diabetes; the very food that nourishes her spirit is destroying her body.
The story is supported by a strong and well-chosen cast. Irma P. Hall brings an incredible warmth and inner beauty to the role of Mother Joe, and Brandon Hammond manages to hit all the right notes as young Ahmad. The other cast members all deliver excellent performances as well. There really isn't a bad one in the bunch.
The plot is backed by gentle orchestral accompaniment, and highlighted by soul and R&B numbers. Ten of the songs were written by the talented Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds, who has a cameo as a member of Miles' band. Babyface is also executive producer of the picture. The soundtrack offers 5.1 and stereo surround options, although to be honest there's not a tremendous amount of difference between the two in this dialogue-driven movie.
Fox Home Entertainment has done a superb job with this Director's Edition, improving significantly on the original release (which is now out of print; you can read Judge Dean Roddey's review of it here). The transfer has been upgraded to anamorphic widescreen, and the image and color quality are very good, with few flaws. The disc is packaged with a nice array of special features, many of which are, oddly, not listed on the case.
The commentary track features writer and director George Tillman Jr., who has no trouble finding interesting things to say about the film. His passion for the project is obvious, as he speaks fondly about the details of this or that shot, or how a character was inspired by someone in his own life. Producer Robert Teitel also talks for about a minute and a half, though his comments are too general to be informative.
A full-frame featurette offers about seven minutes of set shots and interviews with Tillman and the cast. Also included are two music videos, designed to promote the soundtrack: "We're Not Making Love No More," performed by Dru Hill, and "I Care About You," by Babyface. The first is pretty cheesy, flashing back and forth between film (from the movie) and video (of the performers and some other random folks). However, the second one, involving a clever play on the phrase "moving pictures," is really quite good. A cast list page and two trailers ("Fox Flix") complete the package.
Or maybe not. The case also lists "Excerpts from the Soul Food Cookbook," though I couldn't find them. I suspect that this bonus is included in the liner notes, which are missing from my screener copy.
Fox gets a special commendation for including English subtitles, which make the film more accessible to the hearing-impaired (and also, incidentally, to those of us who like to watch movies late at night in apartments with thin walls).
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Soul Food is a movie about family, but it's not what I would call a family movie. Its R rating is earned by a couple of fairly explicit sex scenes, brief violence, and some pretty harsh language. While the film's overall messages are positive, it's still not something you'd want to watch with younger or more sensitive viewers.
This isn't really much of a complaint, but I couldn't help but notice how Vanessa Williams is highlighted on the front of the DVD case in such a way that it looks like the movie is all about her. It's not. Her part is challenging and interesting, but not central to the story. If anything, Irma P. Hall or Brandon Hammond should have had the prime spot. This follows an annoying trend in DVD packaging, in which the star with the biggest name is plastered across the cover. Do people really buy DVDs just because of star power? I sure don't.
Soul Food is well worth a rental and, if it warms your heart, it's a good deal for the price. I recommend it for mature audiences looking for low-key drama.
Soul Food is acquitted on all charges. Now the court is hungry for some down-home cookin'.
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