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'Soul Food': Sparse Helpings

By Lonnae O'Neal Parker
Washington Post Staff Writer
September 26, 1997

In "Soul Food," family matriarch Mama Joe or Big Mama (Irma Hall), presides over her battling Chicago brood by dishing out equal parts advice, recitations from the "good book" and cooking instructions during Sunday family dinner gatherings. While "Soul Food" aims to be the kind of hearty, satisfying story that sticks to your ribs, it comes across more like an appetizer or a midnight raid on the fridge. Tasty, but easily forgotten.

Vanessa Williams plays the successful lawyer Teri. Her constant fights with sisters Maxine (Viveca A. Fox) and Bird (Nia Long) over money, careers, corn bread, any and everything, are fueled by Teriís long simmering resentment over Maxine first stealing and then marrying her boyfriend nearly a decade earlier. Throw in cousin Faith, the newly returned former exotic dancer and troublemaker, and mysterious Uncle Pete, who never leaves his room, and you have a recipe for loud talking, eye-popping, neck-rolling drama.

Narrated by young Ahmad (Brandon Hammond), Maxineís son, who tells the story vis-a-vis his "special relationship" with Big Mama, the movie delivers steady portions of urban situational comedy against a backdrop of illness and marital strife. Teriís husband, Miles, also a lawyer, is really a frustrated musician and braves his wifeís disapproval when he decides to chuck it all in favor of his musical career. Maxine, the resident tell-it-like-it-is sister, stands her ground with Teri and offers a strong shoulder for Bird, who has just married an ex-con, and hatches a scheme to help him land a job.

Williams, who never seems to quite fit in with the rest of her clan, comes across as shrewish and vulnerable while Long, who also starred in "Love Jones," again plays the sexy, naive, inner-city 20-something with good balance and authenticity.

In "Soul Food," writer-director George Tillman Jr., seems to be aiming to spice up predictable family foibles and weave them into a neat five-course package. And although he winds up serving a rib tip sandwich, it is, at least, easy to digest.

SOUL FOOD (R) ó Contains profanity, brief nudity, and strong sexual situations.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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