There’s a short but brilliant gag in Annie Hall that showcases Woody Allen’s observational humor. Alvy (Woody Allen) is having dinner with Annie Hall’s waspy family for the first time, and although everyone polite, there’s a palatable tension in the air. A quick cut to Alvy shows him dressed as an Orthodox Jew to exaggerate how he thing Annie’s waspy parents view him. Everyone can get the joke, but it’s Allen’s subtle shorthand to Jews watching, telling them, “am I right? This is what waspy people imagine all Jews are like.” It’s the only suspension of reality in a straightforward narrative, but it is one of the ways I point to the greatness of that film (as if anyone needs convincing that Annie Hall is great.)
Nine years later, the same bit is attempted in Soul Man (1986). You may have forgotten about the eighties ‘comedy’ as many people don’t want to even bring it up. L.A. partyboy Eric (C. Thomas Howell) pretends to be black (via wigs and suntan pills) in order to receive a scholarship to Harvard Law school. Hilarity ensues. Someone pitched this as a comedy and someone else decided it would get made.
Some of this hilarity ensues when Eric is invited to dinner with his date’s white, rich society family. The patriarch of the family judges him openly, this being the eighties and direct racism was so en vogue is was used for fodder in mainstream comedies. Eric (Howell) senses their discomfort, and cut to him how he imagines how the family must view him, as a “black” man. The matriarch sees him as a knife-wielding rapist declaring his need for white women. What could be worse than that? Oh, the fact that she is turned on by it.
If you didn’t get the joke there, don’t worry, there’s more. As if the idea wasn’t just slapped down in front of us, it goes for a few more turns. A child of the family imagines him as a Prince-esque figure, complete with tongue flicking and an insatiable sexual appetite. If this doesn’t make you uncomfortable enough, there’s MORE. I mean, the golden rule of comedy is to do something funny three times. The family patriarch sees him as a rude, woman-abusing, watermelon eating, lizard-suit wearing, heroin-addicted, jive-talking pimp. Think of the most racist Halloween costume and then go hundred times worse even further.
One could argue that this scene is to point out and disgrace the the racist stereotypes that white people have of black people. But there’s a limit; three different stereotypes are shown, and there is a lot of commitment and acting it out by C. Thomas. Whereas the brief moment in Annie Hall is a quick reference, there is a sense of reveling in acting out the stereotypes, in that we are expected to laugh as he does them, not because he does them. In other words, the actors/writers seem to take too much fun in acting the stereotype. In their (albeit weak) attempt to show racism as bad, the joke is transferred to the actual racism. This is the eighties, there was no “ironic racism” or biting satire. People are laughing at the stereotype because we believe it, and the filmmakers seem to not care what the audience laughs at, just that they do laugh.
I wish I could analyze this film for things “outside” of the fact that it is based on a man doing blackface, but there’s no way to separate it. Soul Man’s premise is appalling and not even that clever. The reason Eric pretends to be black is that his rich father refuses to pay for his Harvard Law tuition. Eric is a rich L.A. kid who for some reason can’t fathom taking out loans like every other fucking person in law school. There is one scholarship, however, for a black person from California that he hatches his plan around. He’s not a disadvantaged person, he’s a privileged white asshole, so why should anyone feel any sympathy? In the selfish world of the eighties, this is a young, white, privileged man- it’s assumed that they will and should fight for what they want.
Eric gets to law school and tries to “act black,” which includes: playing basketball, calling his black professor “brother”, and dressing like a Black Panther to attend a meeting of the black student council. In order to not be recognized by a hometown friend, he dons sunglasses, and mouth agape, rocks his head side to side mimicking Stevie Wonder. But, he does this to pretend he is deaf and can’t hear his friend. That’s right, they attempted a joke in which they confused blindness for deafness.
The other black people in the film are just background, nameless pawns for him to “trick” into believing he is black. Save for the lovely Sarah (Rae Dawn Chong), who catches his eye. She is a very light-skinned girl, probably white “enough” for audiences to accept her as a love interest. This is, technically, an interracial love story.
Eric is in immediate lust for Sarah, staring at her incessantly in class and when he studies with her. He finally learns that she is a single mother and did indeed apply for the same scholarship he won. This, and only this, makes Eric suddenly have an inkling of realization that just maybe what he did was wrong. Not because it put an individual face to racism, but because it gets in the way of him getting the girl he wants.
Lucky for Eric, he comes out as white, and everyone forgives him and he still ends up with his true love. I understand that for a while, C. Thomas Howell was a rising star and hearththrob, but he shows zero charisma in any of the film, walking around with a shit-eating grin for most of the film. Even William Zabka, the eternal school bully and shit head, had some appeal and watch-ability when we were supposed to hate him. Sure the “cool funny guy” was a trope of eighties movies but Eric is so unlikable that if the horrendous racism hadn’t already made this terrible, C. Thomas Howells performance alone would.
There is nothing, not even a line or a moment, that redeems this film. It is like a second-rate Frankenstein of other eighties film cliches, with sports montages, mistaken identity, hiding two girls he is dating from finding out about each other, and the cartoonish look of shock when people find out he is not black. People are all shocked at his ability to deceive, not at the fact that he decided to cook up a scheme to be black to unethically claim a scholarship. The film drags, with one scene set up for exposition to the next. There is no attempt to set up the world of Harvard Law school, as all other classmates just decorate the scenes with Eric and his sidekick. When we see scenes that take place inside the law school, it’s the same small classroom set with perhaps seats for fifteen students, and apparently everyone takes every class together all the time. Even Legally Blonde set up a world around Harvard, albeit not realistic, but one that complemented the story.
James Earl Jones and Leslie Nielsen (and Julia-Louis Dreyfus in an early film role) appeared in this film without a gun to their head, so maybe in some way they thought it had a redeeming quality. I just can’t find one. Soul Man has been banished to the forgotten annals of Hollywood, and there’s no need for anyone to dig it up. Not for a fun “bad movie night.” Not even for irony. let’s let this one be forgotten.