50 Movies for 50 States Part Two: The `80s — #20 – Massachusetts, Film – Soul Man

#20 – Massachusetts, Soul Man

Soul Man (1986), directed by Steve Miner, written by Carol Black, with C. Thomas Howell, Rae Dawn Chong, Arye Gross, James Earl Jones, Melora Hardin, Leslie Nielsen and Julia-Louis Dreyfus, filmed at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts

A permanent fixture on any number of “Most Racist Movies Of All Time” lists, Soul Man is both a blunder and a wonder. Is it the most racist movie of all time?

The plot: Academically-gifted, cocky Caucasian Mark Watson (played by C. Thomas Howell) gets accepted to Harvard Law School. Huzzah! However, Mark’s dreams of graduating with a law degree from arguably the most prestigious law school in the United States are scuttled when his wealthy father informs him that he will have to pay his own tuition. Why the dick move? Because Mark’s father is generous man (so he tells us), and — under the advice of his therapist — Mark’s father has made the decision to give less to the people in his life and more to himself (for his own mental well-being, of course).

Mark learns that there are scholarships available for children whose parents are poor but not for children whose parents “are assholes.” But, wait … here’s a scholarship for the most academically-minded student in California — make that the most academically-minded BLACK student in California. Too bad that Mark is white. It’s like, why is there black history month but there’s no WHITE history month, right? RIGHT?

Good thing that Mark has access to these new experimental tanning pills so he can win that scholarship. (Seriously, I’m not making this shit up. This really is part of the story.) Double up the dosage and — boom! — the scholarship is his!

Oh, HELL no…

This, of course brings us to the most racist element of Soul Man, the fact that it assumes that Mark — a white guy — is smarter and therefore, more worthy of this scholarship — than any of the genetically black people in the entire fucking state of California. I’m not kidding. The moment Mark darkens his skin, the scholarship committee is practically throwing the scholarship money at him because he’s FUCKING BRILLIANT. We know this not because of we saw him curing cancer earlier in the film. Not because we saw him solving some complicated mathematical problems. We know that he’s FUCKING BRILLIANT because he’s white and therefore assumed to be smarter than every black person in the entire state of California. Therefore, the hardest part of winning the scholarship is finding a way to come across as convincingly black in appearance. Once again, thank goodness for those experimental tanning pills.

I mean, look at the guy. Al Jolson Jr. in black face singing “My Old Kentucky Home” should have an easier time fitting in at the Million Man March than Mark has trying to come across as a black man in appearance. Shawn and Marlon Wayans should have an easier time fitting in at a Jimmy Buffett concert. Yet, at no point in Soul Man does anyone question whether Mark is a genuine African-American. Mark doesn’t even make a convincing Puerto Rican. He just looks like a white guy who had a bad tanning experience, which essentially is all he is.

That reminds me of a story I heard once about a 4-year-old boy who went out to lunch with his mother and her friend, who happened to be a black lady.

“Mommy, why is Mrs. Johnson black? Is it because she spent too much time out in the sun?” little Johnny asked his mom.

Okay, I made that story up. I made it up, however, to illustrate a point that Soul Man is basically an attempt to deal with the very serious subject of modern day racism through the eyes of a child. Mark gets his scholarship, begins taking classes at Harvard, and decides that he “loves being black!” After he’s seduced by a white lady with a serious Mandingo fetish, Mark begins to think “being black” isn’t so bad. But then he begins to encounter prejudice — like the landlord (played by Leslie Nielsen!) who doesn’t want to rent out an apartment to Mark because of the color of his skin. Man, being black sucks!

Soul Man asks you to accept that Mark is truly living the black experience, so much so that he begins to “feel black” on the inside. Racist jokes start to get under his skin. He even finds himself tiring of music like The Beach Boys, which — according to movies like Rush Hour — is the very epitome of “white music.”

Eventually and predictably, the jig — so to speak — is up. Mark is found out. But what has he learned from being a “soul man”? Who cares. What have we learned from watching Soul Man? I can’t say that I learned a whole lot although, to the less naive, a movie like Soul Man could serve as a reminder that as a society we continue to be just as retarded about race as ever. As a moral tale, Soul Man is seriously misguided. It’s like if a group of white people decided to honor Black History Month by going into a black neighborhood and serving fried chicken and watermelon to its residents. Offensive, oblivious and likely to result in someone getting punched in the face.

Is it entertaining? It was entertaining to me in its audacity. That deserves some recognition.

I also love The Beach Boys.

 Next week: MICHIGAN

“What’s happenin’, brotha? Get down!”

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