Even though the 1986 film “Soul Man” is a lighthearted comedy, actress Rae Dawn Chong sees its similarities to this year’s slavery drama, “Birth of a Nation.”
Mainly because both films opened under a cloud of controversy, and both also drew picketers — albeit for different reasons.
“Soul Man” was labeled “racist” by the NAACP as its white star C. Thomas Howell donned dark makeup to appear black as part of his character’s ruse to win an African American scholarship at Harvard Law School. “We find the Al Jolson-like portrayal of the main character offensive and trivializing,” the group said when the film was released.
“It makes me sad it had that kind of pressure on it,” Chong, who appeared in the movie as Howell’s love interest, told TheWrap during a recent interview. She argues that “Soul Man,” now upon its 30th anniversary, is definitely not racist.
“Even the Nate Parker thing — that movie is fantastic,” she said in reference to the writer-director-actor’s “The Birth of a Nation.”
That film’s reputation was also derailed ahead of its release as stories about a 17-year-old rape accusation against Parker (who was acquitted) surfaced and gained momentum in the media. The title has had a hard time meeting the initial expectations from when it was bought by Fox Searchlight at this year’s Sundance Film Festival for a record-breaking $17.5 million.
After sweeping the top two prizes at Sundance (the grand jury prize and the audience award), the drama was initially expected to be a strong performer at the box office and also go on to be an Oscar contender — something that’s not yet entirely out of the cards.
“Everyone who supported it at Sundance and are now going against him because of his exonerated rape issue are just complete cowards,” said Chong.
Made for a reported $10 million (not counting marketing costs), “The Birth of a Nation” stars Parker as Nat Turner, who led a 48-hour slave rebellion against his white masters. Entering its third weekend in theaters, it has only made $13 million at the box office as returns continue to diminish dramatically.
Chong shared her angst over Parker’s career prospects, arguing that it’s harder for a person of color to overcome such a controversy. “Bill Cosby doesn’t have a career and rightfully so. His whole mystique is ruined and I think deservedly so. But you know what, Woody Allen still makes movies and he’s disgusting,” she said.
“We’ll probably forget and forgive Donald Trump even,” Chong added, referencing the many claims of sexual misconduct against the presidential candidate. “But if it’s a black guy like Nate Parker … it goes right to the stereotype. I’m frustrated. I feel bad for Nate Parker.”
At the end of the day, the backlash experienced by both “Soul Man” and “The Birth of a Nation” does a disservice to black artists, according to Chong, and also the greater black community.
“If we want people to take us seriously and look at our materials and films and green light us, we should be more unified,” she said. “The black community is so complicated. We have been under siege for 240 years. We weren’t considered human beings, let alone people who deserved financial support or just simply neighborliness … We’re still dealing with a giant racial wound.
“The fact is that ‘The Birth of a Nation’ is a very good film,” Chong said, who also stands by the quality of “Soul Man” and recommends people give it a second-chance viewing. “Nate Parker is a very good filmmaker. Let’s move onto what’s good. Let’s watch this movie.”