Soul Food (1997)

reviewed by
Tim Scott

A Home Cooked Movie
(A film review of Soul Food)
by Timothy Scott

Writer/Director: George Tillman, Jr.

Starring: Vanessa L. Williams, Vivica A. Fox, Nia Long, Michael Beach, Jeffrey D. Sams, Mekhi Phifer, Irma P. Hall & Brandon Hammond

Surely, most of us have memories of going home to visit Grandma. ThereUs always that moment when we walk into the kitchen. Our senses are flooded by the mouthwatering sights and smells of all those favorite dishes sheUs made just for us. What magic elixir did she put in that sweet potato pie? What was the secret to the bliss of biting into a piece of her golden fried chicken? Soul Food, a delectable film from director George Tillman, reveals the hidden formula, blending sweet slices of life with spicy family drama.

The film centers around the relationship between three sisters in the Joseph family. The JosephUs are a multigenerational, African-American family living in Chicago. We follow them as they laugh, cry, fight and mostly love their way through the joys and struggles of life.

Vanessa L. Williams (Eraser) , following in the singer-turned-actress footsteps of Whitney Houston, stars as Teri. Teri is the oldest, most educated and financially successful sibling. She's become a lawyer with the annoying tendendency of letting everyone know just how successful she is. When asked by her younger sister, Maxine,why she's always reminding people that she pays for everything, she smartly quips, "Because I do."

The most palpable tension within the family is between Teri and Maxine, the middle sister, surprisingly well-acted by Vivica A. Fox (Independence Day). Maxine is widely considered the strongest of the three daughters. This is evidenced by the stable family she has raised with her husband, Kenny, charmingly played by Jeffrey D. Sams (Waiting to Exhale). It seems Teri is jealous of the simple life Maxine enjoys; a jealousy feuled by the fact that Kenny was Teri's boyfriend first.

All of this and more is explained through the eyes of Ahmad, Maxine's pre-teen son. Ahmad provides the films emotional center and exhibits a surprising maturity and positive attitude he attributes to his Grandmother. Mama Joseph (Irma P. Hall, A Family Thing) or "Big Mama" is the glue of the family. It is tradition in the Joseph family to get together for a soul food dinner every Sunday. It is a chance for the whole family to sit down and enjoy a meal as they share their joy and sorrows. Because, as Ahmad has learned from Big Mama, "it's one of the things that's missing from black families nowadays."

The youngest daughter is Serena, who is affectionately nicknamed RBird.S Bird is portrayed by actress Nia Long (love jones) who is building an impressive resume in her young career. As Bird, she is the inexperienced sister, trying to do the right thing but not always knowing how. The film opens on her wedding day. Her new husband, Lem (Mekhi Phifer of Clockers) is a former drug dealer who spent some time in jail. Phifer also adds flavor to the mix as he juggles with his sense of dignity and the responsibilities of being a husband.

In a unexpectedly powerful moment, Ahmad takes a ride in LemUs truck. As they begin talking, Ahmad discovers a gun in the glove compartment. Obviously, this is foreshadowing of trouble yet to come. The danger is not lost on young Ahmad who uses his keen insight to offer Lem a warning. "Big Mama always tells me you have to love yourself," he comments. "Maybe you should try that."

Soul Food is full of compelling moments like this. The wonderful thing about it is how it never falls into preachiness. Although it's very easy to tell who is going to screw up and why, Soul Food still works as great storytelling because we know all these characters from our own families. The familiarity enables us to care about these people in the deepest way. Some would say using standard family stereotypes is not good filmmaking. In most cases, I would certainly agree. What sets Soul Food apart is the ease with which this familiarity is developed. There is no overacting. There are no moments where you feel the film has gotten away from its inherent groundedness. It is very easy to see how well these actors know who these people are. It is a credit to writer/director George Tillman and his virtuoso cast. The roles are handled with sincerity and reverence.

Much has been said about how thankful the black community is to have a film like this even get made at all. The film is produced by the husband/wife team of Kenneth and Tracey Edmonds. If you're unfamiliar with the name Kenneth Emonds, he is better known as pop music artist and record mogul, "Babyface." This trend of having black entertainers investing in positive film projects (such as Spike Lee's Get On The Bus), is one that I hope will become more the norm than the exception. There is something about watching this film that screams to the audience, "We're finally getting to tell our own stories...the real stroies."

The real story behind Soul Food is best described by the food itself. As Big Mama tells us, "Soul food is about cooking from the heart." It's about making the most of what you have and being thankful for having it. It's about acknowledging that we all bring something unique to the table. Unless we all share, the meal just isn't as good.

My one criticism of the film is early on I felt the film tried to tackle too many issues at once. I have nothing against being ambitious, but sometimes if you pile too much on the plate it's hard to taste everything.

If there is one truly noteworthy aspect of the film it is the acting of Brandon Hammond as the young narrator, Ahmad. This is not just another precocious child actor dropping one-liners faster than an action hero. Hammond brings genuine charm, honesty and poignance to his performance. Just as Ahmad is given the job of pulling the family together, Hammond is called on to tie the film together. Needless to say, he does. His talents are estimable.

It would be wrong to call Soul Food "a family film." There is enough language and sexuality in the film to justify itUs "R" rating. Yet, Soul Food is certainly a film that adults should see. Then, perhaps they can talk about it with their family over Sunday dinner.

Grade: B+
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