Soul Man

C. Thomas Howell and Rae Dawn Chong in “Soul Man.”

With multiple blackface scandals going on in Virginia politics, and Gucci and Katy Perry dealing with blackface controversies of their own, the near-200-year-old practice just keeps rearing its ugly head.

Blackface has been with us a long time. It’s “been a part of American popular culture,” read a recent New York Times article, “since what we recognize as popular culture emerged.”

In fact, it’s considered by some to be the first uniquely American form of entertainment.

It began in the early 1800s with minstrel shows, in which white actors would blacken their faces with shoe polish and perform hateful caricatures of black people, free and enslaved. Blackface reached the height of its popularity in the early 20th century, and has tapered off since the 1950s. But, clearly, it’s never gone away.

Hollywood has a long, ugly and relatively recent history with blackface.

To give some perspective on how much pop culture and our response to it has changed in just the last 30-something years, perhaps it would be a good time (if there’s ever a good time) to revisit “Soul Man” — a 1986 blackface comedy that now feels like a collective fever dream.

For those too young to remember (or who have just purged it from their memory), “Soul Man” stars C. Thomas Howell as a spoiled rich kid named Mark Watson. When Mark’s dad refuses to pay his tuition to Harvard Law School, he applies for and wins a scholarship for black students only. He pretends to be black, maintaining the ruse by wearing dark contact lenses and a fake afro, and taking large doses of tanning pills that turn his skin a green-gray color closer to the zombie makeup in a Romero film than any particular ethnicity.

This was a mainstream film that played in multiplexes all over the U.S.

Mark succeeds in people thinking he’s black. Not only that, he hooks up with Sarah (Rae Dawn Chong), an actual black student from whom he stole the scholarship. Mark also impresses his gruff law professor played by James Earl Jones.

What’s most immediately jarring about “Soul Man” in 2019 is the fact that it exists at all. Nearly as surprising is how well-intentioned it is. Or, at least, how well-intentioned it thinks it is.

The film is essentially “Tootsie” meets “Black Like Me.” Though “Soul Man” pitches most of its comedy at the level of a lame sitcom, it does attempt to say something about race, prejudice and the black experience. It just does so in the most clumsy, confused way.

The film’s offensive marketing didn’t help matters. Taglines included: “Some people will do anything to get into Harvard. For Mark Watson, all it took was a little soul.” And: “He didn’t give up, he got down.”


Star C. Thomas Howell, center, in a scene from the 1986 blackface comedy “Soul Man.” That’s Julia Louis-Dreyfus on the left, in one of her earliest film roles.

His race fraud enacted, Mark goes to Harvard thinking that people will treat him no differently as a black student: “This is the ’80s! It’s the Cosby decade! America loves black people!”

He quickly learns this is not the case.

A cop tails him and arrests him because he’s black. A landlord (played by Leslie Nielsen) tries to evict him because he’s black. A white civil rights-obsessed sexpot seduces him because he’s black. After they have sex, she says: “I could really feel 400 years of oppression and anger in every pelvic thrust.”

Uh ...

In a film full of scenes that now provoke a kind of disbelieving awe, the most shocking might be when Mark (in blackface) goes to family dinner with his white date. We see him through the eyes of her family. Her mother sees Mark as a lustful Mandingo caricature. Her father sees him as a heroin-junkie pimp eating a slice of watermelon.

This movie was a very bad idea. Even in 1986. Or perhaps it was a neutral idea horribly executed?

“Material this risky has to be done brilliantly or not at all,” wrote Los Angeles Times critic Sheila Benson at the time of the movie’s release. Satire is tricky. A lack of precision can confuse the targets. Is the movie taking aim at offensive racial caricatures, or is it trying to score laughs through offensive racial caricatures? The lines blur in “Soul Man.”

“Tropic Thunder” arguably got away with putting Robert Downey Jr. in blackface for two hours because the joke proved such a sharp skewering of actorly vanity run amok. Though it’s hard to imagine even “Tropic Thunder” getting made today, not in the age of the Twitter insta-protest.

One does wonder if a premise like “Soul Man” would work in the hands of a brilliant satirist like Jordan Peele or Boots Riley. Spike Lee made his own great comedy about blackface with 2000’s “Bamboozled.”

But “Soul Man” comes from white filmmakers, writers and producers, who were woefully inept at handling such volatile material, whatever their intentions.

The film was penned by Carol Black, the creator of “The Wonder Years” and “Ellen.” It was directed by Steve Miner, who has to have one of the weirdest filmographies in modern cinema. He also made a few “Friday the 13th” sequels, “Lake Placid,” the Mel Gibson weepie “Forever Young” and 1994’s troubling farce “My Father the Hero,” in which Gerard Depardieu plays a man who pretends to be the lover of his daughter (Katherine Heigl). That last movie deserves its own article.

“Soul Man” was met with no small amount of controversy when it hit theaters. Spike Lee blasted it. Screenings were picketed. The NAACP publicly denounced it.

Nonetheless, the movie was a hit, grossing eight times its modest production budget. “Soul Man” would later become a staple of basic cable.

The reviews were poor (14 percent on Rotten Tomatoes). Nonetheless, the film drew a few raves from respected sources. Variety said, “this social farce is excellently written, fast-paced and intelligently directed.” The New York Times: “It’s a blithe, silly, good-natured movie and, of its kind, quite an enjoyable one.”

The First Family loved the film. Ronald and Nancy Reagan got a private screening of it at Camp David, as it marked the movie debut of son Ron Reagan. In the film, the younger Reagan plays a classmate who fights to get Mark on his basketball team based solely on his blackness. Mark then disabuses Ron Jr.’s assumption. Like much of the rest of “Soul Man,” it’s a painful scene on many levels.

But all of this ignores the movie’s central problem. Despite the film’s attempts at satire, one just can’t get over the fact that we’re watching a white kid wear blackface for the better part of two hours. (It’s available to rent on Amazon and iTunes, and I’d recommend watching it now, if only to prove to yourself that it exists.)

Howell, for his part, has never stopped defending the film.

“A white man donning blackface is taboo. Conversation over — you can’t win,” Howell told the Hollywood Reporter. “But our intentions were pure: We wanted to make a funny movie that had a message about racism.”

The movie’s message is revealed as our white hero begins to realize that black people are treated differently from white people. (Perhaps we haven’t come that far since 1986, as this is basically Viggo Mortensen’s arc in the 2018 best picture contender “Green Book.”)

“Soul Man” is one of those movies, like “Mrs. Doubtfire” and “Overboard,” that should end with the main character going to prison. But, as always, we get the uber-happy ending devoid of real consequences.

Once Mark grows a conscience and comes clean about his whiteness, he not only doesn’t get arrested, he gets to stay at Harvard. And he gets the girl! She’s mad at him for a few minutes for, ya know, lying to her and her family about being black in order to steal a scholarship from her. She forgives him not because it makes sense, but because the movie needs her to. Because the audience needs to leave the theater feeling good about things.

Mark even gets the respect of his black professor. Here’s their exchange in the movie’s penultimate scene:

Professor: “You must have learned a great deal more in this experience than you bargained for, Mr. Watson. ... You’ve learned what it feels like to be black.”

Mark: “No, sir. I don’t really know what it feels like, sir. If I didn’t like it, I could always get out. It’s not the same, sir.”

Fast-forward more than 32 years later, and we see Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam apologizing for the time he wore blackface in the ’80s. And as historian Kevin M. Kruse pointed out on Twitter, Northam’s apology sounds quite a bit like Mark’s speech at the end of “Soul Man”:

“At the end of the day,” Northam said, “the white person — just as I was the white person that dressed up as an African-American dancer — at the end of the day we can take that makeup off and go back to being white.”

It’s true what they say. History will always repeat itself. Often in ways so strange and stupid they approach the sublime.