In 1986, pundits laughed at—not with—the race comedy Soul Man, about a white college student who performs a Black Like Me charade to get into Harvard Law School. The film’s emphasis on spotlighting, then upending, racial stereotypes was widely misread as improbable, unnecessary, and “racist.” Yet two years later, in 1988, Barack Obama entered Harvard Law School, and the rest is history. Saying the rest is history should include confirmation that Soul Man, despite its naysayers, was right. This comedy of racial errors—written by TV pro Carol Black, directed by Steve Miner, and starring ’80s Hollywood star C. Thomas Howell—foretold a change in America’s thinking on a number of issues: race perception, black potential, class advancement, the Harvard institution. All these topics come together in the astounding leap of Barack Obama’s biography: He’s the first African American to be elected president of the United States. Awesome. But it’s not far-fetched for a movie lover to think that Obama’s rise was prepared—if not predicted—by Soul Man.
Race remains such a major sticking point in American culture that it behooves anyone who believes in progress, change, America, Harvard to revisit and learn from Soul Man. It’s easily the best movie ever set at Harvard, Legally Blonde being the silliest. Love Story, the hugely popular 1970 film version of Erich Segal’s romantic potboiler novel, might be the sappiest. Soul Man doesn’t kowtow to Harvard mythology but uses it to measure late-20th-century social values.
During the ’80s, with the ascension of Status and Capitalism as the national vanity fair, Soul Man’s plot charted a young man’s pursuit of the most common social virtues. Howell’s not-so-callow Mark Watson comes from Los Angeles’ white middle class, and the backyard-swimming-pool scene in which his parents deny him his college fund (“Son, I want to give you your manhood. I’ve decided to let you pay your own way”) knowingly evokes—and flips—Ben Braddock’s generation gap in The Graduate. The topsy-turvy image of Mark as an aghast, disinherited scion conveys post-boomer shock. Soul Man isn’t about a rebel; instead, it satirizes Me Generation privilege. Its only fault was that this interpretation came too soon. If Obama had seen it at the time, he might have thought to defy rather than admit its truths.
Soul Man’s toughest insight on race and society revealed how popular attitudes had come to contradict social convention. After Mark parties with affluent friends, including his best bud Gordon (Arye Gross) and chemistry major Seth (John David Bland), who has developed a tanning pill (an invention as novel as the advice that Ben Braddock pursue plastics), he comes up with the idea to alter his skin color. Fearing the prohibitive $54,000 tuition, Mark applies for a Harvard Law scholarship offered only to black California residents. He doesn’t consider this hoax a racist deception because he himself isn’t racist: “It’s the Cosby decade! America loves black people!” Soul Man offered an up-to-date response to the ratings phenomenon of Bill Cosby’s domestic sitcom The Cosby Show. Not only was it the decade’s most popular U.S. prime-time comedy; it was also the most fashionable U.S. TV import in South Africa—along with the soap opera Dallas. During the period that international protests against apartheid were peaking, The Cosby Show’s depiction of middle-class blacks as Everyfamily was winning an ideological revolution. Ambitious Mark seized the moment.
What Mark intuits about entering Harvard—where he and Gordon fancy accessing those parts of the American dream they weren’t already handed—reflects what we know of Obama’s Harvard sojourn. He was selected as an editor of the Harvard Law Review at the end of his first year and was elected president in his second year—becoming its first black president. This achievement launched Obama’s publishing career and burnished his academic reputation; he graduated with a juris doctor magna cum laude in 1991. It is this racial exceptionalism—standing out as a black man—that Soul Man alludes to in the first scenes of dark-skinned Mark in a Jeep cruising the narrow streets of Cambridge.
Mark’s vehicle is propelled on the soundtrack by the R&B classic “Soul Man.” It signifies his momentum as a singular feat. Although he’s not the first black to attend Harvard, he’s the first that the moviegoing public has ever seen. The movie vividly assesses his endeavor by using post-civil-rights-era (post-’60s-soul-music) scrutiny: Guess What’s Coming to Harvard? Or as Mark excitedly exclaims, “Harvard fucking Law School!”
Perceiving Mark as Soul Man teases those nagging worries about contemporary racial segregation and social assimilation. This is the test. Mark naively overlooks the implications of his deception, yet viewers cannot; we’re harnessed to the history of racial inequity and Ivy League exclusivity. Soul Man’s farce unavoidably conjures suspense about whether or not modern liberalism actually exists, pushing viewers toward and beyond it. Trouble is first encountered at Mark and Gordon’s off-campus housing, where a bigoted porter views an ’80s soul man with skepticism. This low-class crudeness has a correlative in a vaudevillian duo of law school students who huddle together telling each other anti-black jokes—they’re racial bigots but also an upscale example of class defensiveness. However wide soul music has reached (and despite social progress from the ’60s), it hasn’t penetrated the hidebound stubbornness of ignorance and privilege.
Linking social comedy to pop-music universality is more than a marketing gimmick; it activates the conundrum of political and cultural progress. The song first heard in Cambridge—and again when Mark plays basketball in a Harvard gym, where he is mistaken for a ghetto b-ball adept—is not the original Sam & Dave “Soul Man” that crossed over from Billboard’s R&B charts to the pop charts in 1967 but a uniquely 1986 cover version. This remake is a deliberate reclamation by Sam Moore and Lou Reed. Yes, Lou Reed the New York hipster who, in 1978, had recorded the provocative race fantasy “I Wanna Be Black”—a tune to rile social complacency and admit his own racial insecurity and political/sexual envy. Reed’s decadent art is cleansed of cynicism by his collaboration with soul veteran Moore but mostly by being placed in proximity to Mark’s innocence. Soul Man addresses what black identity means in a culture that struggles to transcend the limitations of racial thinking.
To get away with his scam, Mark briefly takes on an alter ego, Karim Abdul Ali. (A classmate played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus asks the proto-Obama question “Is he Muslim?”) Even though Howell’s sharp nose and odd tan resemble the ’80s version of Michael Jackson, Mark’s fake name combines a basketball legend with a boxing legend, appealing to the obvious prejudices of those whites he attempts to fool. He also puts on sunglasses and sways his head to affect a Stevie Wonder blind man’s act. The doubling is funny primarily because it exposes how limited popular notions of black legitimacy are—always tied to sports and entertainment. A scarier example of this stereotyping occurs when Mark is sexually pursued by Whitney (Melora Hardin), his white landlord’s daughter. (“I’m studying political science at Radcliffe,” she says, but the name Whitney is an ’80s riff on Whitney Houston.) At dinner with Whitney’s family, we see how Mark triggers each person’s delusions: The mother fantasizes a Mandingo, the brother imagines Prince, and the father fears a rapacious pimp—all comic, racist imitations of life.
More than 20 years later, it is apparent that Soul Man’s resisters—especially those who complained that the movie was racist—were especially resisting the exposure of their own fears. Some in the culture could not yet accept that this comedy sought to confront those fears and transcend them. Their refusal overlooked the groundwork being laid during Obama’s law school years for his eventual effort at racial transcendence. Soul Man engages this dilemma when Mark meets Sarah (Rae Dawn Chong), a black law student, and falls in love. When he learns that the scholarship he pilfered might ordinarily have gone to Sarah, Mark regrets his con. What follows is an extraordinary sequence combining Mark’s dishonesty and misgiving that is, ironically, scored to Louis Armstrong’s “(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue.” This time it’s the real musical thing, Armstrong’s 1929 recording of the Fats Waller classic, one of America’s first protest songs—albeit one that originated as a devious comic turn. It nonetheless voices the problem of racial identity in an unfair society.
Armstrong’s recording raises the level of Soul Man’s pop inquiry while deepening it. The song evokes the stress, difficulty, and heartbreak of the experiences that Mark casually exploits, moving the farce’s allegory into the world of real pain. He receives his portion of human misery. Mark’s artifice, combined with the reality of Chong’s own multiracial identity (in Quest for Fire, Choose Me, and The Color Purple, she was the pan-racial princess of ’80s cinema), became a timely and funny, yet sobering, moral lesson that can be traced all the way to Obama’s March 18, 2008, speech, in which he said, “Race is an issue I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now.” Addressing “the complexities of race in this country that we’ve never really worked through—a part of our union that we have yet to perfect,” Obama virtually summarized Soul Man’s ideas. All these years later, Soul Man survives to indict our culture’s refusal to recognize movies that honestly work through the complexities of race.
Soul Man mocks the blithe trivialization of racially influenced behavior while, more important, cautioning against it. Mark and Sarah’s love story may be poignant, but it’s also a pop movie convention. The film’s most instructive relationship pits Mark against Professor Banks, the stalwart, seasoned, conservative black law instructor—James Earl Jones reprising John Houseman’s martinet professor in 1973’s The Paper Chase. Presiding over a law school hearing once the trick is exposed and with Mark facing expulsion, Banks explains, “A Harvard Law School graduate can do a great many things: make a lot of money, teach, become a senator, a judge. A Harvard Law graduate, Mr. Watson, has power. I hope I teach my students to use that power responsibly, even generously. But you’ve learned something that I can’t teach them. You’ve learned what it feels like to be black.”
That’s where the film trumps the audience’s assumptions. Mark admits, “No, sir. I don’t. I don’t know what it really feels like, sir. If I didn’t like it, I could always get out. It’s not the same, sir.” At last, the old sentiments of passing-for-white dramas are quashed. Soul Man penetrates that self-serving fallacy that also panders to popular notions of expediency to offer, instead, a modern reproof of pompous white privilege. This turn considers that the pain of black American experience is not trivial and is almost impossible to credibly transmit. (Gainsaying this is the weak part of Obama’s speech on race.) Mark’s repentance—expressed through a sincere look of sorrow and empathy—conveys the ache of Armstrong’s jazz lament.
Soul Man is not solemn, but like Armstrong’s recording, it is unsettling. It brushes against the fantasy of easy progress and suggests that privilege and opportunity really matter in this world and are not necessarily equally dispensed. Armstrong’s growl “My only sin is in my skin” explains the essence of Soul Man’s social critique. Mark learns that he can’t equalize blackness and whiteness and that he can barely fathom other people’s social distress. (It’s a common condition, as in Whitney’s post-orgasmic babble: “I could just feel 400 years of anger and oppression in every pelvic thrust.”) Ignoring Soul Man has been convenient for those who would wish away the problems of black identity and black social engagement. Doing so requires that they also ignore the unconscious facts of white identity. That was always the essential difficulty posed by Soul Man’s satire.
Juxtapositions of black and white lettering in Soul Man’s advertising campaign graphically conveyed that it was targeting racial perceptions—primarily those of Mark (the surrogate for the audience). Mark’s carefree wrongdoing represented the new prerogative of that period, when stars like Michael Jackson, Prince, Madonna, and Boy George put race and gender perceptions in flux—the greatest change in pop perceptions since the ’60s—and this unnerved most critics. Derision gave them an easy way out. Mark’s nonchalance about offending the precepts of affirmative action (“I never thought I’d fall in love with her,” he says when he discovers his feelings for Sarah. “I never thought about anything”) marks the birth of a new biracial consciousness. Mark’s easy shifts of identity and his uncomplicated affection for Sarah deserve richer exposition than Carol Black’s screenplay. Still, the film illustrates facts about social integration (race, class, spirituality, emotion, biology) that eluded the mainstream until the ascendency of Obama promised to transform popular perceptions of race.
Curiously, Mark’s elaborate practical joke (at one point shocking his parents, who react to his overtanned face with racist miscomprehension) stays within the straitened nature of Ivy League protocol. He never affects the slangy, jivey traits associated with hipster concepts of blackness that fetishize the underclass. He has no trace of Norman Mailer’s “white Negro.” And this makes Mark an almost prophetic comic character. How radical Soul Man is can be felt in the fact that its title doesn’t suit Obama, who inherently juxtaposes black and white identities and has, radically, slipped the bounds of easy racial categorization. It’s perfect that Mark’s race-reversal shenanigans are set at Obama’s alma mater. As with the socially competitive protagonists of Love Story, Legally Blonde, and James Toback’s Harvard Man, Mark’s comedy is, essentially, the all-American comedy of aspiration.
In his race speech, Obama cited the “profound mistake” of speaking about racism in our society “as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country—a country that has made it possible for one of its own members to run for the highest office in the land and build a coalition of white and black, Latino and Asian, rich and poor, young and old—is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past.” Those words describe the static terms that critics used against Soul Man and the mistake of misunderstanding a race comedy that isn’t bound to the tragic history of racism. That history has been the excuse of do-gooder race dramas like Denzel Washington’s Antwone Fisher, The Great Debaters, and Remember the Titans; Jamie Foxx’s The Soloist; and the Spike Lee–directed Miracle at St. Anna, which all exploit racism for sanctimonious uplift. Soul Man is sharper than that.
Through Mark’s awkward advance over our tragic past, Soul Man offers a protagonist who comes to see the world in a new way. And Obama’s conclusive thought, “What we know—what we have seen—is that America can change. That is the true genius of this nation,” justly substantiates the farsightedness shown by the makers of Soul Man. Imagining that a black man at Harvard could teach the nation to rise above its racist preconceptions, then putting that fantasy on film more than 20 years ago, describes the genius of Soul Man’s challenge.