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‘Soul Man’ (R)

By Paul Attanasio
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 25, 1986

The pity is, it isn't even outrageous.

That's the least you'd expect from "Soul Man," a movie about a rich kid who pretends to be black so he can win a scholarship -- that it would be a scandale, a cause ce'le`bre, or at least naughty. Alas, there's nothing scandalous about a botch, even when it's as botchy as this one.

"Soul Man" is a coming-of-age story centered on Mark Watson (C. Thomas Howell), who sees his admission to Harvard Law School as a license to print money. Enter Dad (James B. Sikking) who, through the wonder of modern psychoanalysis, has decided that Mark's school funds would be better spent on a vacation condominium. Scrambling to scrape together his tuition, Mark takes an overdose of tanning pills, curls and pomades his hair, and wins a full scholarship usually reserved for black applicants.

What a scam| Well, not really. For Mark learns that being black is not easy and other remorseless facts of contemporary American life; and all of this comes to a head when he falls in love with a black classmate, Sarah Walker (Rae Dawn Chong), a single mother struggling with genuine poverty.

But by the time Mark learns to iterate all the familiar liberal pieties, it's way too late. "Soul Man" digs itself into a hole right at the start, when it introduces a hero who is, quite simply, a jerk, and it doesn't help that the jerk is played by Howell, among the most flavorless of young actors. It also doesn't help that "Soul Man" is one of those mealy-mouthed movies that try to take comic advantage of racial stereotypes all the while they're condemning them.

Sarah's plight is much more human and interesting, and had director Steve Miner chosen to focus on it, using Mark as a catalyst (rather than the other way around), "Soul Man" might have had some oomph. Instead, Miner makes Sarah and all the other characters around Mark into cardboard, from the stentorian professor out of central casting (James Earl Jones) to the sex-crazed undergraduate looking to do her part for civil rights between the sheets (Melora Hardin).

Overall, "Soul Man" is virtually a beginner's guide of how not to direct a movie, from the way the music adds nothing to the mood or excitement, to the editing rhythms that leave huge holes for laughs where none are forthcoming, to the lugubrious pace and clumsy farce staging, and on and on.

Chong breathes some occasional life into "Soul Man," as does Arye Gross, who displays a rich variety of comic attitudes as Mark's roommate. What surrounds them, though, is a black comedy with so little gumption, it ends up a vague shade of gray, composed of a collection of cheap jokes excused by smug platitudes about race -- in short, a movie called "Soul Man" whose soul, it seems, is quite lost.

Soul Man is rated PG-13 and contains sexual themes and profanity.

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