Soul Food

Nashville Scene

DIRECTED BY: George Tillman

REVIEWED: 10-06-97

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 crashes.

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 junctures.

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 repeat showings.

--Ron Wynn

Full Length Reviews
Soul Food

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