On October 24, 1986 (35 years ago this week), the American comedy Soul Man was released in theaters. The film was a box office success, as it debuted at No. 3 on its opening weekend (behind only Crocodile Dundee and The Color of Money). It ultimately grossed $35 million on a $4.5 million budget. The movie instantly became entangled in controversy, and was canceled almost immediately because the plot depicted a White actor in blackface:
Mark Watson (Howell) is the pampered son of a rich family who is about to attend Harvard Law School along with his best friend Gordon (Gross). Unfortunately, his father’s neurotic psychiatrist talks his patient into having more fun for himself instead of spending money on his son. Faced with the prospect of having to pay for law school by himself, Mark decides to apply for a scholarship, but the only suitable one is for African-Americans only. He decides to cheat by using tanning pills in a larger dose than prescribed to appear as an African-American. Watson then sets out for Harvard, naïvely believing that black people have no problems at all in American society.
However, once immersed in a black student’s life, Mark finds out prejudice and racism truly exist. He meets a young African-American student named Sarah Walker (Chong), whom he first only flirts with; gradually, however, he genuinely falls in love with her. In passing, she mentions that he received the scholarship she was in the running for at the last minute. Due to this, she not only has to handle her classes but work as a waitress to support herself and her young son George.
Slowly, Mark begins to regret his deed since he has landed in jail under suspicion of stealing his own car, been the subject of stereotypes of black men and pursued by his landlord’s daughter and classmate Whitney (Melora Hardin) simply because he’s not white.
After a chaotic day in which Sarah, his parents (who are not aware of his double life) and Whitney all make surprise visits at the same time, he drops the charade and publicly reveals himself to be white. Most people he has come into contact with realize this makes sense, but Sarah is furious.
Once the charade is over, Mark speaks to his professor (Jones). He has learned more than he bargained for since he admits that he didn’t know what it was like to truly be black because he could have changed back to being white at any time.
Because Mark must forfeit his scholarship, his father agrees to loan him the money for school, but with exorbitant interest. He goes to Sarah and begs for another chance, to which she agrees after Mark stands up for her and George when two male students tell a racist joke in front of them.
The movie is a comedy, so obviously it’s going to try to make people laugh. Different comedies do that in different ways, but there is usually some degree of ridiculousness involved. Soul Man‘s shtick was to grossly exaggerate stereotypical behaviors in the hopes of being funny. The depictions presented in the film were intended to make fun of both Black and White people, with the idea of highlighting the cultural misconceptions that each group held of the other, then present them in an outlandish way, so that the audience could laugh at the ignorant nature of racist generalizations. In doing so, the movie could moonlight as a tool of social justice, which would also help debunk racism by showing the stupidity and evil associated with racial stereotypes.
As an illustration of the aforementioned humor, the following clip is perhaps the most memorable scene of the movie and illustrates why the movie could never be made today—for a lot of reasons, including that most people would find the “humor” forced and awkward. It’s also reminiscent of the goofiness of 80s comedies, which also included movies such as Airplane, Spaceballs, and Police Academy:
However, not everybody thought the comedy was funny. A young filmmaker named Spike Lee became the biggest spokesperson against the movie. Lee had just made his directorial debut with She’s Gotta Have It, and was making rounds on the talk show circuit in support of his project. During one of the interviews, Lee went into a tirade about Soul Man‘s portrayal of Black people as “idiots.” He admitted that he had never actually seen the movie, but “watched clips.” He insisted that the movie was “so phony” that it had to be maliciously mocking the intelligence of Black people by implying that Black people were so dumb that they couldn’t tell that it was actually a White guy in blackface:
“The whole premise is that he’s passing as Black, and it’s so phony, that means all the Black people in the movie are idiots … that they could think that this guy is Black,” said Lee, who had watched clips from the movie but refused to see it in full.
“They’re trying to pass it off as an attack on racism. I really don’t see it that way. That’s not funny to me.”
Of course, the filmmakers and actors denied the film was racist (yes, White people groveled to Blacks in the 80s, too). But, as we all know, “sorry” and “actually,….” never suffice.
Thus, it became futile when the film’s creators posited that “a white man can’t understand racism until he’s the one being discriminated against.” Or, that they intended “to use comedy as a device to expose racial stereotyping.”
Nor did it matter that the star of the movie (C. Thomas Howell) reiterated the producer’s message of anti-racism when asked about his decision to play the blackface character (the role had been offered to, and turned down by, several popular actors of the time, including: Anthony Micheal Hall, Tim Robbins, Val Kilmer and John Cusak):
“A white man donning blackface is taboo. Conversation over, you can’t win,” said Howell. “But our intentions were pure: We wanted to make a funny movie that had a message about racism.”
Even though there is no reason to suggest the creators or Howell were lying, it didn’t matter. Lee had the moral high ground because he was Black. He then used his black skin morality to determine what was supposedly funny. And if anybody wanted to contest his definition of humor, he would’ve slandered them with epithets (e.g., “racist”). Hence, there was no other choice but to cancel a movie that people evidently thought was funny and were willing to pay to watch.
Lee added clarity to his primary critique of the movie. It wasn’t just that it wasn’t funny to him, he also insisted that the ulterior motive was that it was “really an attack on affirmative action.”
Interestingly, during the clearly uncomfortable interview, Lee failed to comment on the intellectual stereotypes (and realities) associated with affirmative action. It would seem if he was opposed to Black people looking like “idiots,” he would be adamantly against affirmative action—especially considering that affirmative action was/is a real thing and not just some ignorant stereotype in a movie. Non-Black people actually did/do lose out to intellectually inferior Blacks who can’t compete without special privileges. If Lee were seriously concerned about the intellectual image of Blacks, he would’ve been the one leading the “attack on affirmative action.”
Furthermore, affirmative action programs are racist by design. Consequently, by the mere existence of such programs, they create negative stereotypes on their own. If Lee (or the creators of the movie) were actually hoping to eliminate racial stereotypes associated with Black people, they would’ve advocated for the elimination of affirmative action programs. Instead, they are allowed to exist, which give us more fodder to laugh at. Like Rachael Dolezal, who pretended to be Black so she could be the leader of her local NAACP chapter. And Dave Wilson, who pretended to be Black so he could win an elected position in a predominately Black district. Or Vijah Jojo Chokal-Ingam, who pretended to be Black to get into medical school.
Just recently a survey found that 34% of White college applicants lied about their race in order to get admitted or to get financial aid, and 77% were accepted. A whole generation of college students is using Elizabeth Warren as a role model. Amazingly the Black activist Ibram Kendi tweeted the story, presumably because it makes these Whites look dishonest—forgetting that it also demolishes his narrative about systemic racial oppression. He quickly deleted the tweet.
Each of these Whites presented a real-life version of Soul Man as a direct result of unequal privileges that come with being Black in America. That “privilege” is explicitly based on the intellectual inferiority of Black people (although of course the advocates claim it’s about making up for that elusive “systemic racism”). If Lee really cared about the stigmas associated with Black intelligence, he would use his skin color powerful privilege to point out how dumb affirmative action programs make Black people look.
Ironically, Ronald Reagan’s son played a minor role in the film. Reagan was President at the time and was openly opposed to affirmative action programs. The President and First Lady screened the movie from Camp David and a White House spokesman reported that they “really enjoyed the film and especially enjoyed seeing their son Ron in the movie.”
The film’s co-star was Tommy Chong’s daughter, Rae Dawn Chong. Chong played the “Black” love interest of Howell (Howell and Chong later married after meeting on the film). Chong (who is White, Black, Chinese and Indian) and Howell both remained staunch supporters of the movie years later—albeit from an anti-racist/anti-White perspective. Chong even publicly blamed Lee for making the film controversial, and said if he had actually watched the film, he would’ve seen that the film was really just “making white people look stupid”:
“It was only controversial because Spike Lee made a thing of it,” the actress said in a 2016 interview with The Wrap. “He’d never seen the movie and he just jumped all over it… He was just starting and pulling everything down in his wake. If you watch the movie, it’s really making white people look stupid.”
Imagine that. A mulatto actress defended her position that the movie she starred in wasn’t really racist, because if anyone actually took the time to watch it they would’ve seen that it was “really just making White people look stupid.”
Isn’t it funny how everyone’s feelings matter until you get to White people?
All joking aside, the actors and filmmakers said their comedy was an attack on racism, and some whiny anti-racist Black guy said it wasn’t. So, who was right?
Therein lies the foundational problem of multiculturalism, abstract isms (e.g., racism) and feelings-based social hierarchies (e.g., cancel-culture). When those dynamics become the arbitrators of society, the feelings of a few determine the social norms of the many. Those social norms become revolutionary, to the degree that they redefine truth and reason. They do this using social-engineering techniques (i.e., censorship) that ultimately reconstruct reality, in the sense that reality becomes a social construct.
What started with a whiny Black guy who didn’t like the humor in a movie paved the way for a Jewish man in a dress to not only be the nation’s leading authority on public health, but also the nation’s first female 4-star admiral.
Now do you get it?