He didn't give up, he got down.
John Hughes had the corner market on '80s teen comedies and dramas. His cohorts were Molly Ringwald, Emilio Estevez, Robert Downey, Jr., Anthony Michael Hall, Andrew McCarthy, Judd Nelson, Ally Sheedy, Matthew Broderick, and Sean Penn. Collectively these titans churned out such classics as Fast Times At Ridgemont High, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, St. Elmo's Fire, Less Than Zero, and Weird Science. But what about that other '80s teen flick? You know the one I'm talking about…a movie that people only speak about in hushed tones and behind closed doors. A movie that everyone has seen but no one wants to admit they like. I'm talking about C. Thomas Howell's finest hour…I'm talkin' 'bout Soul Man! Anchor Bay, the studio that releases the stuff no one else will churn out, gets in touch with its bad self, cranks up the tunes, and finally gives us a little soul…Soul Man, that is!
Facts of the Case
Rich and pampered Mark Watson (Howell) seems to have it all: good looks, rich parents, and now a letter of acceptance to Harvard Law! Mark plans on attending the prestigious college with his best buddy Gordon (Arye Gross, House) and partying his little buns off until graduation! There's just one problem: Mark's father has decided to cut off his funds for school! Without a penny coming in from his father (and a horrible credit rating from the bank), Mark is forced to look else where for the $50,000+ dollars needed for his education. Suddenly Mark finds his solution: take some tanning pills, get a new haircut, and pass himself off as an African American college student! Receiving a full tuition due to his newly acquired minority status, Mark thinks easy street is right around the corner…until he realizes that being black isn't as easy as he thought! Sparring with his criminal law professor (James Earl Jones, The Sandlot) and trying to impress a beautiful black female student (Rae Dawn Chong) are just a few of the obstacles Mark will have to face. Mark also finds that ethnic jokes and stereotyping sometimes go hand-in-hand with being a black man in the '80s. As the school year stretches on, Mark will have to search his soul and learn that sometimes color truly is only skin deep.
This movie could not have been made two, five, or even ten years ago. Watching Soul Man I was amazed at how the times have changed. Here is a movie that is so split in what it wants that it's dizzying. Soul Man is a farce for the teenage audience. It's also a sociological piece about racism. And a romance. Finally, it is a movie that asks not a single important question about the subject it examines. The idea of a white man posing as a black man is one of promise; this could have easily have been a thought-provoking look at what it means to be a black man in our society (in 1985). Alas, director Steve Minor (Friday The 13th Part 2, Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later) seems to sidestep all depth for scenes featuring a woman talking about how small Howell's assumed black penis size is.
Or maybe I'm looking at this with a much more penetrating eye than is needed. It's obvious from the opening scene that this movie wasn't meant to be taken seriously. This is sort of like Roots for the college crowd—a college crowd that smokes doobies and drink like a fish. This movie is an enjoyable '80s teen romp if you don't take it too seriously. The movie sidesteps any questions about race or equality, save for a few "after school special" moments (i.e., when Mark socks a fellow student for one too many "black jokes"). First off, while I have limited knowledge about the FDA, I am pretty sure that there are no tanning pills available that can turn a Caucasian man into an African American man (complete with a Jeri-curl hairdo). Secondly, C. Thomas Howell is easily the last convincing white man turned black man I've ever seen (and this includes Michael Jackson). Even with dark skin the guy still looks like he just ended up with a really good tan after a day of lounging on the beach. And not to criticize, but there's a reason why Sean Penn just made the Oscar nominated I Am Sam and Mr. Howell's currant starring role is The Hitcher 2: The Prey.
Oddly, Howell's supporting cast is very good. Arye Gross, the poor man's Christopher Lloyd, is sort of funny as Mark's best friend. James Earl Jones inhabits a role that seems almost tailor made for his skills (talking deep, appearing imposing, et cetera). Rae Dawn Chong as Mark's love interest has the blandest role in the film—her and Mark's eventual romance rang quite hollow for this reviewer. And in very minor roles there's the always enjoyable Leslie Nielson (The Naked Gun, 2001: A Space Travesty) as a racist father and Julia Louis-Dreyfus (TV's Seinfeld) as one of Mark's high school chums.
While I can't really sing this film's praises, it is a fun movie in a very un-PC kind of way. Soul Man is a movie that deals with some pretty heavy topics, yet never has the cajones to face them head on. There's a lot of wacky scenes to be seen here and some are even humorous (one particular groaner involves Mark juggling his parents, lover, and possible girlfriend in his small apartment). By the end we know that Mark will have learned his lesson, but it never feels like he's understood his actions to their fullest extent. I guess in some weird way that works out just fine—the writers of this script never really understood the possibilities of this film's concept either.
Soul Man is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. Once again, Anchor Bay comes through with an exceptional looking transfer. This version of Soul Man features sparklingly crisp and clear colors, dark black levels and hardly any grain, dirt or imperfections of any kind (a small amount of edge enhancement, but nothing to get your shorts in a bundle over). So here's the question of the day: why is it that we can get a glorious copy of Soul Man on DVD, but only a crappy full frame version of National Lampoon's Vacation from Warner Brothers? Discuss.
The audio is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround. Unlike the video portions of this disc, the audio is not as impressive, though it does work quite well within the confines of the film. There are many instances of good old fashioned '80s music peppered throughout this mix, and while the bulk of the track comes from the front and side speakers, this is still a fine audio mix. No distortion, hiss, or any other obstructions were heard in the soundtrack. No subtitles or alternate soundtracks are included on this disc.
While Soul Man certainly doesn't qualify as a "special edition," Anchor Bay has nonetheless included a couple of well done extra features that should make fans scream "I feel GOOD!" James Brown-style! The first extra feature is a commentary track by director Steve Minor and actor C. Thomas Howell. Immediately you know that this is going to be an entertaining commentary when the two participants quip that the movie "seemed like a good idea at the time…" That is easily the most apt statement I've ever heard by any filmmaker. So, the movie isn't great, but this commentary track is rather fun and features a few goofy stories from the production of the film. Also included on this disc are anamorphic theatrical and teaser trailers for Soul Man.
Hmmm…let's take a quick peek and C. Thomas Howell's resume since Soul Man: Far Out Man, Asylum Days, The Glass Jar, Fatal Affair and the eternal classic The Prince and the Surfer. Is it any surprise that Soul Man is the pinnacle of Howell's career? I think NOT!
A hung jury…but it's a funky hung jury!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
• Commentary Track by Director Steve Minor and Actor C. Thomas Howell
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