Revisiting 'Soul Man,' the controversial comedy starring a white man in blackface

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It seems preposterous and inconceivable today: a comedy about a wealthy white student so desperate to attend Harvard Law School that he pretends to be Black in order to earn a scholarship after his father elects not to pay his way.

That, however, is exactly the premise of the 1986 film “Soul Man,” which marks its 35th anniversary this October.

In the movie, C. Thomas Howell, an '80s teen idol who'd previously starred in "The Outsiders," "E.T." and "Red Dawn," plays Mark Watson, who poses as a Black man in order to get the scholarship. He spends the lion’s share of the film in blackface, learning along the way what it’s like to be Black while falling in love with a Black student, played by Rae Dawn Chong, who he is devastated to discover would’ve gotten the scholarship if it wasn’t for him.

It’s a ludicrous — and unacceptable — idea today, but one that made it to the big screen in 1986, with a finished project that Chong stands by to this day.

C.Thomas Howell, Rae Dawn Chong in Soul Man (Alamy)
C.Thomas Howell, Rae Dawn Chong in Soul Man (Alamy)

“I’m very, very, very, very proud of it,” Chong told TODAY. “I love this movie. It's beautiful. I think it's a gorgeous film. I don't feel any sense of anything negative about it. I think it's absolutely adorable and super funny.”

The movie, directed by Steve Miner and written by Carol Black — who would go on to create "The Wonder Years" and "Ellen" — generated controversy, which Chong says hurt its performance at the box office, even though she believes the film is not racist.

“I recently saw the movie and it was just dreamy, and I like the message,” she said.

C.Thomas Howell, Soul Man (Alamy)
C.Thomas Howell, Soul Man (Alamy)

There are several scenes in which Mark experiences what it’s like to be Black. There is a repeated gag in which two students laugh over jokes about Black stereotypes. Mark catches them multiple times throughout the movie and when they apologize after noticing him near them, he grows increasingly agitated with them. At first, he shrugs it off. At the end of the movie, he slugs both men.

The joke is supposed to be on the other unfair perceptions white people have about Black people, highlighted again in a scene (featuring then-President Reagan's son, Ron) when two captains bicker over who gets to have Mark on their team during a pickup basketball game, with them mispronouncing his name to the more Black-sounding “Marcus” and “Washington.” The players are all then shell-shocked when they discover Mark stinks at basketball, shattering a stereotype.

Related: The comedy is where one Oscar winner cut her teeth, while it also paved the way for other series with Black stars.

“How else are you going to learn about anything unless you walk in another man's shoes, you know?” Chong asked.

"Soul Man” came out the same year acclaimed Black director Spike Lee burst onto the scene with “She’s Gotta Have It” and five years before John Singleton debuted with “Boyz n the Hood.”

“It was right at the point when other Black filmmakers were coming up and making more Black content,” Chong said.

“And what happens in Hollywood, or I feel historically, what was happening at the time, was that a lot of filmmakers that would’ve made a film like ‘Soul Man,’ they saw that these other guys were coming up and making films and they went ‘Great, we don't have to worry about that content.’”

C.Thomas Howell, Rae Dawn Chong in Soul Man (Everett Collection)
C.Thomas Howell, Rae Dawn Chong in Soul Man (Everett Collection)

Lee himself blasted the movie.

“Look at the kind of movies Hollywood makes now, like this awful ‘Soul Man,’ about the white kid passing as Black to get into law school,” he told the Los Angeles Times in August 1986, before the film was released.

“That movie’s just an attack on affirmative action, that’s all ... That girl’s (Chong) card has been revoked from the sisterhood for doing that stupid movie!” he said.

Chong, who said she once cornered Lee at an awards show, believes he was out of line.

C.Thomas Howell, Rae Dawn Chong in Soul Man (Alamy)
C.Thomas Howell, Rae Dawn Chong in Soul Man (Alamy)

“He tends to be a party pooper if anybody else is on the scene, and he was coming up, and he's an ankle biter,” she said. “And that was one of the ways that he got attention was to attack and pull down people, which was really sad, to be honest, because he's talented. He didn't have to do that.”

Lee was hardly alone in his disdain for “Soul Man.” Then-NAACP President Benjamin Hooks called the comedy “a cheaply made, cynical viewpoint of Black involvement in American life.”

The Los Angeles chapter of the NAACP was also critical.

C.Thomas Howell, Soul Man, Melora Hardin (Everett Collection)
C.Thomas Howell, Soul Man, Melora Hardin (Everett Collection)

“In the final analysis, it is our opinion that the American moviegoer is really unlikely to waste good time and money on going to see this questionable effort at film making,” it said in an October 1986 statement.

While “Soul Man” may be remembered for touchy subject matter that doesn’t hold up or is considered unacceptable, it also featured what Chong calls “a great love story” between Chong and Howell’s characters. The actors, who would be married for a year in real life, were front and center for the kind of romance ready made for the big screen.

Related: The sitcom, which turns 45 this year, had a short run, but star Ernest Thomas says its second life in reruns had quite an impact.

“I think it's a classic rom-com, and it has this wonderful comedic platform or foundation,” Chong said. “There's always these rules of the bone structure of good comedy, the bone structure of a good rom-com and I think ‘Soul Man’ is one of the better ones of that era. We were able to capture I think both things well, and it's kind of a pity because of the racial stuff because they kind of threw water on a party that was happening.”

“Soul Man” was a modest box office success, earning nearly $28 million. It’s a film that incites many emotions and may not have a place in today’s world.

“I don't think it'd be able to be made now, which is kind of sad because I didn't feel like the filmmakers were insensitive when I was making the movie,” Chong said.

James Earl Jones in Soul Man (Everett Collection)
James Earl Jones in Soul Man (Everett Collection)

Perhaps also overlooked is that “Soul Man” featured a talented cast. The film also starred James Earl Jones as a tough as nails professor and Leslie Nielsen as a prejudiced apartment building owner. Julia Louis-Dreyfus, about three years before “Seinfeld” would launch her into superstardom, had a supporting role and a pre-“Office” Melora Hardin played Nielsen’s daughter, who is smitten with Howell’s character.

“The fact that it came out and then it was attacked was just a bummer,” Chong said.

“I don't even know what to say, except it was one of those things where when people stumble upon it, and they watch it, I always get a response. I always get fan mail from it. ‘This is so good. I heard it was controversial.’ And anyone who says anything negative about ‘Soul Man’ hasn't watched the film.”