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Review: 'Soul Food' tastes great, less filling

October 6, 1997
Web posted at: 11:24 p.m. EDT (0324 GMT)

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- I've complained a couple of times recently about the movie industry's absurdly limited perspective on the modern African-American experience. To judge from what's been playing at the local multiplex for the past several years, you'd think that the vast majority of black families spend their free weekends dodging bullets, losing honorable children to street gangs, or trying to quickly unload a stolen brick of heroin. I guess just sitting around the table with the relatives and having a normal conversation is too exotic a concept for Hollywood to deal with.

Clip from "Soul Food"
video icon 1.6M/44 sec. QuickTime movie
Clip from "Soul Food"

For this reason, I loudly applaud (in theory, anyway) George Tillman, Jr.'s "Soul Food." Tillman's characters are intelligent, middle-class black people with lives that, for the most part, are free of desperate crime and strategically over-enunciated racial intolerance. Admittedly, a crime does occur, but it happens within a very specific, believable context. You actually sense that a human being has made a grave error in judgment, not that some homeboy from central casting has done exactly what you expected him to do the minute he showed up with his baseball cap skewed to one side.

This is the soap opera story of how a quarrelsome family falls to pieces when the holdin'-it-all-together-with-hugs-and-fried-chicken matriarch, Mama Joe, (played by Irma P. Hall) lapses into a diabetic coma. Her three competitive daughters, Vanessa L. Williams, Vivica A. Fox, and Nia Long (all of them drop-dead gorgeous), are not the best of friends, so bickering, bantering, and back-biting soon take precedence over the family's 40-year tradition of gathering for Sunday meals.

Whatever you do, don't come to this movie hungry. The chicken, macaroni and cheese, and sweet potatoes get more seductive close-ups than Marlena Dietrich in a feather boa, and the cast shovels it in with hardy abandon. How these three sisters can look like Solid Gold dancers on this diet is anybody's guess; the rotund Mama Joe is the only one who wears the calories believably. I guess something about her had to be believable.

The philosophical construct of Mama Joe (she's a lot closer to a Buddha than a Mama) is one of those things that stands beyond the realm of criticism. I'm sure a lot of people will say I'm being an ogre if I suggest that the character is near-ridiculous -- I mean, this is a big, fat, agreeable Mama, for God's sake! Well, I'll give you that, but I couldn't help thinking that anyone who radiates this much undiluted love and warmth 24 hours a day is either a Zen Master, touched by God, or plain old not thinking straight.

The children and their spouses argue relentlessly, but Mama just grins her Mama-grin at them, dispenses homespun nuggets of greeting card wisdom, and lays on another helping of glazed ham. It's an almost psychotically narrow portrayal of motherly devotion. This hokey "I Remember Mama" bludgeoning hangs a faint odor of silliness over the entire movie, even after the woman is in the hospital and way out of the picture. And, after a point, I mean way out.

The three sisters' marital traumas range from the interesting and decently handled (Long's ex-con husband, played by Mekhi Phifer, trying desperately to get a job) to the badly contrived (Williams' bitchy responses to just about everything that happens in the movie.) All of these stories are periodically narrated by Fox's young son, played by Brandon Hammond. As is so often the case, there's no real call for the narration, so we end up having to listen to Hammond tell us exactly what we're seeing on-screen, even though we could just as easily figure it out for ourselves, thank you very much. Hammond is a cute little guy, but his voice-overs leave a great deal to be desired. Half the time he sounds like he's reading his lines out of an instruction manual.

"Soul Food"'s opening weekend grosses prove that audiences are primed for this sort of humanism, I suppose, but Tillman's awareness of this target audience is the exact reason he's ended up with a mediocre movie. It's definitely nice to see some good-hearted sustenance in a so-called "black" film, but an overt desire to please often leaves Tillman relying on force-feeding techniques. He's the Oliver Stone of familial love -- anything that can be suggested can be suggested with a polo mallet.

There's lots and lots of name calling, unthinking cheating by uncaring spouses, and the specter of losing Mama to the reaper, but there's never any sense that things will go completely wrong. Even when Williams sees her naked husband getting better acquainted with her sex-kitten cousin (Gina Ravera, yet another "Solid Gold" type), you just figure that there's gonna be some yelling, some crying, and then an artery-clogging nosh. That's how Mama would want it.

This is a heck of a lot more like "Little House on the Prairie" than "Ordinary People," and, when all is said and done, that isn't any more enlightening than another variation on inner city, gun-waving bravado. Let this be the first of a genre of films that will grow more complex as time goes on. As it stands, Tillman has managed to produce a truckload of clichés that seem vaguely authentic simply because we've never been allowed to see them in a film full of black people before. Hopefully, a bunch of other African American directors (and maybe even Tillman, when he calms down a little) will be allowed to pick through the debris and start showing us the real deal. They've been given a late start and there's a lot of work to do.

"Soul Food" contains some bad language and one surprisingly graphic sexual encounter, considering the tone of the rest of the movie. Get your cholesterol checked when you leave. Rated R. 120 minutes.


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