Friday September 26, 1997
"Soul food cooking is cooking that comes from the heart," says Mother Joe, matriarch of an African American family. So does "Soul Food," a warm and embracing family drama, written and directed by George Tillman Jr.
Tillman drew inspiration from his own Milwaukee family, his beloved grandmother in particular. Humor, sentiment and melodrama strike a balance as he brings to life nine major characters and a host of others as well.
For 40 years, the now-widowed Mother Joe (the majestic Irma P. Hall) has served a sumptuous Southern-style Sunday dinner in her fine old Chicago home and in doing so has held together her family of three daughters and their families. But Mother Joe is hit with a life-threatening illness, and soon her daughters are battling right over her hospital bed as she slips into unconsciousness.
Her eldest daughter Teri (Vanessa L. Williams) is a successful lawyer and her relatives' financial mainstay--a fact she is reminding them of constantly. Her relationship with her sister Maxine (Vivica A. Fox) has been strained since Maxine stole her boyfriend and married him happily.
Teri doesn't get along much better with her youngest sister, Bird (Nia Long). Bird has made a success of her beauty salon, but Teri won't let her forget that it was she who lent her the money to get it started.
On top of all this, Teri's marriage is troubled. She looks upon her husband's desire to give up law to pursue a career as a musician as foolhardy. The demands of her career and her lack of support for her husband Miles (Michael Beach) leave him vulnerable to the attentions of her visiting cousin, Faith (Gina Ravera), a onetime stripper determined to make it as a Broadway dancer. Maxine's marriage is rock solid, but Bird's is undermined when her new husband Lem (Mekhi Phifer) is thrown out of work because he lied on his job application about felony convictions.
Soon there are enough conflicts and crises to launch a soap opera, but "Soul Food" works because Tillman really cares about these people. He sees them in three dimensions and judges none of them.
On the surface, Teri is unsympathetic, but Tillman--plus Williams' fierce intelligence and honesty--allow us to see the isolation she feels because she possesses greater drive and intellect than her relatives. (Teri, who disapproves of Faith even before she becomes involved with Miles, would be surprised that her cousin has developed a similar craving for success.)
For much of the film, Lem becomes its focal point; he is representative of countless black men with a criminal record who find it all but impossible to find work once they have served their time.
"Soul Food" will find particular resonance with those of us who happened to be the favored grandchild, and as children were the center of attention of a large extended family forever coming and going in a big old house. Brandon Hammond's bright young Ahmad--son of Maxine and her husband--is Tillman's alter ego in "Soul Food" and its narrator.
"Soul Food" reaches a deftly motivated send-'em-home happy ending, but not before Tillman convinces you he knows what life's inevitable changes and losses are all about and how in your heart of hearts you never really get over them. He couldn't have made this movie otherwise.
Soul Food, 1997. R, for some strong sexuality and language. A 20th Century Fox release of a Fox 2000 Pictures presentation of an Edmonds Entertainment production. Writer-director George Tillman Jr. Producers Tracey E. Edmonds, Robert Teitel. Executive producer Kenneth (Babyface) Edmonds. Cinematographer Paul Elliott. Editor John Carter. Costumes Salvador Perez. Music Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman. Production designer Maxine Shepard. Art director Cydney M. Harris. Set decorator Joe Bristol. Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes. Vanessa L. Williams as Teri. Vivica A. Fox as Maxine. Nia Long as Bird. Michael Beach as Miles. Mekhi Phifer as Lem. Brandon Hammond as Ahmad. Jeffrey D. Sams as Kenny. Gina Ravera as Faith. Irma P. Hall as Mother Joe.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun