Simplicity is often an effective creative tactic, particularly when it's
skillfully utilized. While Soul Food's themes are basic--familial
obligations, sibling tensions, cultural heritage, etc.--they are depicted
within a framework that nicely balances dramatic conflict, smartly written
dialogue, and humorous insight. The result is a first-rate film that makes
its points without sermonizing or insulting the audience's intelligence.
It's that rarest of late-'90s Hollywood vehicles: a family film that's not
a cartoon, a collection of stock characters, or a pastiche of clichs and
This first movie from the Edmonds Entertainment company (the duo of
music impresario Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds and his wife Tracey, who
coproduced the film) offers a dynamic narrative about an African-American
family with a 40-year tradition of lavish Sunday dinners, in which culinary
delights are the backdrop for intimate and enriching conversation and
interaction. Three sisters are the main characters, superbly played by
Vanessa L. Williams, Nia Long, and Vivica A. Fox. One's an uptown attorney,
the second a beauty-shop owner, the third a homemaker and mother.
These are sharp, contemporary, sensual women, each supremely confident
in some ways and extremely insecure in others. While their lives and loves
form the film's foundation, writer/director George Tillman doesn't make
them superwomen, avenging angels, or cynical, disillusioned wrecks. They
are by turns triumphant, upset, jealous, joyous, scheming, opportunistic,
and complimentary, but they ultimately support each other at critical
The main theme concerns the family's fortunes and turmoil after the
matriarch Big Mama (an exceptional turn by the underrated Irma P. Hall)
lapses into a coma during surgery. There are subplots involving Williams'
attorney husband (Michael Beach), who wants to forsake a lucrative legal
career for a more tenuous musical one; the struggles of Long's ex-convict
husband (Mekhi Phifer) to persevere outside of prison; and the sisters'
attempt to settle long-standing differences. There's also an alluring
cousin who eventually shatters one sister's marriage, along with other
elements that enhance the story without siphoning off too much attention
from the main story line.
The male characters, particularly Beach and Phifer, have roles just as
nuanced as their female counterparts, despite the fact that they get less
screen time. The film is narrated by young actor Brandon Hammond, who's as
delightful here as he is on the new Gregory Hines Show while
displaying far more range and sensitivity. And Soul Food does have a
happy ending, but one that's neither implausible nor improbable.
The direction and pace build things so smoothly that, by the movie's
conclusion, you've accepted these characters, with their plights and flaws,
and you celebrate their success. Add excellent music from Babyface that
fulfills the mandate of a classic soundtrack--it enhances the action and
dialogue rather than standing apart from it--and celebrity cameos from
members of Jodeci and New York Undercover's Malik Yoba, and you have
a masterful film that's attractive and enjoyable enough to hold up through