“This is the Eighties! It’s the Cosby decade — America loves black people!” exclaims Mark Watson (C. Thomas Howell) in the 1986 comedy “Soul Man.”
The film opened 30 years ago to mixed reviews and some highly publicized controversy.
Centered on a white Harvard Law School student who poses as a young black man in order to qualify for a scholarship, “Soul Man” ruffled feathers within the black community. The NAACP publicly denounced the movie as “racist,” and some screenings were picketed.
But Rae Dawn Chong, who played Howell’s love interest in the film, told TheWrap that the uproar was much ado about nothing.
“It was only controversial because Spike Lee made a thing of it,” she said during a recent interview. “He’d never seen the movie and he just jumped all over it,” she added, recalling that it was a time when Lee was coming up in his career and making headlines for being outspoken.
“He was just starting and pulling everything down in his wake,” Chong asserted. “If you watch the movie, it’s really making white people look stupid.”
The movie’s main offense, according to critics, was that Howell’s role required him to wear black face. But in its own breezy way, “Soul Man” is sympathetic to the experience of African Americans, depicting the daily discrimination Howell’s character endures. (Though it’s not overtly racist, the film has also been criticized in some academic circles for its lighthearted treatment of such a serious topic.)
Thirty-year-old spoiler alert: Chong’s character is eventually discovered to be the African American Harvard student from whom Howell’s character gained his scholarship. And the ending has him paying her back, with interest, for his crime.
In spite of the controversy, “Soul Man” became something of a low-budget hit. Made for a reported $4.5 million, it went on to earn $27 million at the box office.
Lee’s 1986 statements about the movie aren’t easy to find, but the director has acknowledged them, even re-upping his position in a conversation he recounted having with President Barack Obama when he revealed to Lee that the first movie he took Michelle Obama to was his own “Do the Right Thing.” “Thank God … otherwise you would have taken her to ‘Soul Man,'” he recalled saying.
As Chong remembered it, Lee also criticized her performance for being too white.
“I always tried to be an actor who was doing a part that was a character versus what I call ‘blackting,’ or playing my race, because I knew that I would fail because I was mixed,” she explained. “I was the black actor for sure, but I didn’t lead with my epidermis, and that offended people like Spike Lee, I think. You’re either militant or you’re not and he decided to just attack,” she told TheWrap.
“I’ve never forgiven him for that because it really hurt me,” said Chong. “I didn’t realize [at the time] that not pushing the afro-centric agenda was going to bite me. When you start to do well people start to say you’re a Tom [as in Uncle Tom] because you’re acceptable.”
Chong, who supports the Black Lives Matter movement and says she has donated money to that cause, is far from ambivalent about the issues that face the black community.
“We can’t ask for change if we’re not willing to support our own,” she told TheWrap. “If we want people to take us seriously and look at our materials and films and green light us, we should be more unified.”
When it came to the NAACP denouncing “Soul Man,” Chong contends the organization was simply taking Lee’s lead. “The NAACP — trust me, they’re so spineless,” she said. “We have so many problems. Where the f— have they been for 60 years?”
Chong urged moviegoers to give “Soul Man” a second chance. “It’s romantic, lovely and fantastic. It’s really funny,” she said. “People should give it a view — especially people who were afraid it was racist.”