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Revisiting the most controversial film of the ’80s

SOUL MAN, from left: C. Thomas Howell, Rae Dawn Chong, 1986. ©New World Pictures/courtesy Everett Co

C. Thomas Howell and Rae Dawn Chong in 1986’s Soul Man. (Photo: ©New World Pictures/courtesy Everett Co)

Whether it’s the effects of a continually progressing society or the more diabolical wrath of so-called “cancel culture,” there have been countless movies from decades past — fair or not — being re-scrutinized through a contemporary lens in recent years.

And then there’s the case of 1986’s Soul Man.

Released in theaters 35 years ago today, the comedy about a rich white law student (C. Thomas Howell) who poses as a Black man in order to qualify for a scholarship to Harvard was canceled almost immediately after its release.

Almost, that is. The film, reportedly made for a budget of $4.5 million and distributed by New World Pictures, hauled in $35 million at the U.S. box office, making it a commercial success that out-grossed other popular films that year like Wildcats, Three Amigos!, Iron Eagle, Spies Like Us, F/X, Flight of the Navigator and Children of a Lesser God.

Still, the blowback was quick. Here was a film that’s main character Mark Watson (Howell) wore blackface throughout. Taking tanning pills to darken his face, wearing an Afro wig and putting on a one-man minstrel show, Watson was the ‘80s cinematic equivalent of disgraced former college instructor and Spokane NAACP chapter president Rachel Dolezal.

Upon its release, the NAACP railed against it. Students at UCLA protested outside of a theater screening it. “We find the Al Jolson-like portrayal of the main character offensive and trivializing,” wrote the university’s Black American Law Students Association, referencing the infamous blackface performer and star of The Jazz Singer. And a young filmmaker named Spike Lee, who was just breaking out with his feature directorial debut She’s Gotta Have It, put it on blast during an uncomfortable appearance on The Dick Cavett Show.

“The whole premise is that he’s passing as Black, and it’s so phony, that means all the Black people in the movie are idiots… that they could think that this guy is Black,” said Lee, who had watched clips from the movie but refused to see it in full.

“They’re trying to pass it off as an attack on racism. I really don’t see it that way. That’s not funny to me.”

Indeed, Soul Man was posited by its creators as exactly that: a well-intentioned comedy that teaches a white man he can’t understand racism until he’s the one being discriminated against. “A comedy with heart and soul,” read the tagline for the film, written by Carol Black (creator of future TV hits The Wonder Years and Ellen) and directed by Steve Miner. (The poster’s tagline was not nearly as bad as the trailer’s: “He didn’t give up… he got down.”)

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

“It used comedy as a device to expose sexual stereotyping. I think Soul Man uses it to explode racial stereotyping,” said producer Steve Tisch, who compared the film’s plot the 1982 favorite Tootsie in which Dustin Hoffman dresses up as a woman to advance his career — and whom Lee mentioned called him after he began publicly putting the movie on blast in 1986.

But let’s remember the sociopolitical climate of the mid-1980s. The Reaganomics era was in full bloom, promising a trickle-down effect to low-income families that never came and ultimately widened the wealth gap between white and Black Americans. Affirmative action, which Mark Watson exploits in the film despite coming from a family of extreme wealth and (white) privilege, was as hot-button an issue as they come — a domestic program Reagan openly opposed.

“It’s really an attack on affirmative action,” Lee told Cavett during his talk show appearance.

How rich then that Soul Man happened to feature the president’s son Ron Reagan in a minor role in the supporting cast that also included Rae Dawn Chong, Leslie Nielsen, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and perhaps most perplexing, James Earl Jones. “The Reagans enjoyed the film and especially enjoyed seeing their son Ron,” a White House spokesman said after President Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan screened the film at Camp David.

No matter its intentions, Soul Man remains an indefensible disaster to many. Consider just a few cringeworthy moments, like the dinner sequence where — through the guise of white characters’ points of view — Howell also imitates a sex-craved savage who tears the blouse off a woman to the sounds of African tribal music, a sex-craved Prince and a sex-craved, jive-talking pimp sucking down watermelon.

It’s no wonder the film was “canceled” almost immediately — and decades before blackface episodes would come back to bite the likes of celebrities Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Fallon, Paula Deen and Megyn Kelly and politicians Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Howell and Chong, who married in 1989 after meeting on the film but divorced in 1990, remained supporters of the film well into the new millennium.

“This isn’t a movie that should be considered irresponsible on any level. This is a movie that is quite the opposite for me,” Howell told the AV Club in 2013. “I think it’s a really innocent movie with a very powerful message, and it’s an important part of my life. I’m proud of the performance, and I’m proud of the people that were in it.”

The internet would disagree. YouTube essays on the film come with headers like “Is This the Worst Comedy of the 80s?,” “Soul Man Was Insensitive as Hell!” and “THE MOST OFFENSIVE MOVIE EVER!”

Chong, especially, has remained defiant about the film — and there’s a single person she blames for its swift and lasting downfall.

“It was only controversial because Spike Lee made a thing of it,” the actress said in a 2016 interview with The Wrap. “He’d never seen the movie and he just jumped all over it… He was just starting and pulling everything down in his wake. If you watch the movie, it’s really making white people look stupid.”

Fueled by Lee or not, it’s almost impressive how swiftly Soul Man met its downfall. This was decades before John Hughes movies were being re-evaluated for not aging well and Green Book, a film about a gay Black pianist touring the 1960s Deep South, was instantly being called problematic, or at least dated, upon its release, albeit on its way to winning Best Picture at the Oscars.

Still, don’t give 1986 too much credit. Four weeks after Soul Man’s premiere came a re-release of Song of the South, long considered Disney’s most racist movie and one of the most infamously offensive films of all time. Its re-release grossed over $17 million at the U.S. box office.