Through clever plays on stereotypes and a variation on the prince-and-the- pauper theme, the movie inverts the anti-white-establishment jibes of Eddie Murphy in Beverly Hills Cop and 48 HRS. Instead, Soul Man's nastiest scenes offer a twist that peels away prejudice.
Take its most inspired: A white kid who has chemically darkened his skin to win a minority scholarship to Harvard Law School shows up for a game of pickup basketball. The white captains practically have a fist fight in their eagerness to pick the black. He is by definition a superior player, isn't he?
The white-black student (C. Thomas Howell) is, of course, a klutz who dumbfounds his teammates by his incompetence and by lay-ups that sail into the balcony. In the most felicitous casting I've seen in a movie this year, one of the captains is played by Ron Reagan, whose father's economic policies have done so much to exacerbate the problems upon which Soul Man touches.
When Miner's film is toying with the irony of its premise, it can be very funny. Howell boards a crowded elevator and immediately notices that the woman next to him clutches her handbag and moves as far away as possible. A police car trails him around Cambridge and tosses him in jail on a minor traffic violation.
But it's a measure of the stretch needed for some of the jokes to work that there isn't a single black already in the city prison. Miner's film is also undermined by its casual approach to making the audience believe its premise, which hinges on a rich young man's being is accepted at Harvard, then discovering that his father refuses to support his education any further. Inexplicably, this seemingly honorable young man solves his dilemma by doing something unscrupulous, if not downright despicable.
The weaker parts of Soul Man are those that capitulate to the kind of comic thinking from which its best scenes escape. When the movie has the courage of its convictions, it's not only on the mark, but admirable for what it forces its audience to consider. The film has already aroused a fair amount of controversy. In a Hollywood where black performers rightly complain about the lack of good roles and the absence of movies about the black experience, producer Steve Tisch has come up with a movie about a white playing a black.
Soul Man is being marketed with the slogan that it's a movie with heart and soul. It also asks moviegoers to use their brains occasionally and dwell on the almost-reflexive nature of prejudice in our society. And that's rare enough in mainstream American comedy.
In the Center City theater I attended yesterday, the parts of Soul Man that are supposedly troubling to liberal consciences were found to be absolutely uproarious by the overwhelmingly black audience. The loudest cheer was for the missed dunk in the basketball game. The audience's response to Howell's misadventures in the white world appeared to be one of recognition. If Soul Man can provoke the same reaction among whites, it will be a lot more than a sporadically funny movie.
SOUL MAN * * *
Produced by Steve Tisch, directed by Steve Miner, written by Carol Black, photography by Jeffrey Jur, music by Tom Scott, distributed by New World Pictures.
Running time: 1 hourr, 37 mins.
Mark Watson - C. Thomas Howell
Gordon Bloomfeld - Arye Gross
Sarah Walker - Rae Dawn Chong
Professor Banks - James Earl Jones
Parent's guide: PG-13 (obscenity)
Showing: At area theaters.