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'Soul Man' (PG-13)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 24, 1986

If Louis Gossett Jr. can be made up to look like a lizard man, surely C. Thomas Howell could be made up to look like a "Soul Man." But in his bad rug and deep tan, Howell doesn't look black. He doesn't even look Mediterranean. Tops, he has Michael Jackson's nose. Now, that's authentic.

Howell, a second-string Rob Lowe, has the title role in this embarrassing variation on "Black Like Me," a half-witted collegiate farce guaranteed to offend just about everybody. Blacks are stereotyped as they haven't been in decades, and whites are portrayed as Boston bigots and selfish preppies. But the really pathetic thing about this tired old knee-jerker is not that it's racist, but that it's racist and doesn't even know it.

Carol Black, writing her first and potentially last screenplay, seems to think she's the '80s answer to Harriet Beecher Stowe, a great white mother bestowing largess indiscriminately. And in a juvenile comedy format, at that. She makes jokes about basketball prowess and organ envy, and then expects to tug at our heartstrings when our undercover hero learns that blacks face discrimination in the Ivy League.

Howell, playing a poor little rich kid, is accepted at Harvard Law School, but he can't afford the tuition when his father suddenly withdraws his financial support. To qualify for a minority scholarship, Howell chemically darkens his skin. And the fun begins. Of course, simply everyone is completely bamboozled by our hero's disguise, even though he now looks like a Ken doll with liver disease.

Actual black people are fooled. Rae Dawn Chong, pleasant enough as a fellow student, falls in love with the faux soul man. James Earl Jones, humiliating himself as the law professor, is as easily deceived. When Howell is unmasked and his immoral conduct discovered, the prof forgives him readily, because he has learned what it means to be black. Howell demures, "No. If I didn't like it, I could always get out."

Pangs all around, eh?

Any director with even a shred of adventure would have cast a black in whiteface. Maybe Billy Crystal, who does a mean Sammy Davis Jr., could have pulled it off. But then what self-respecting actor would involve himself in such a shambles? It's as bald and flat as an old tire. This horror, not so surprisingly, is directed by Steve Miner, of "Halloween II" and "3D." It certainly makes me want to get out my hatchet, I can tell you.

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