30 years later, neither 'Soul Man' (or Bill Cosby) is very funny
Oh no, he’s not really going to go there. Calling the movie Soul Man a classic? It can be called a lot of things - racist, lame-brained - but classic? No, no, no. It's definitely not a classic.
But yes, Soul Man was released Oct. 24, 1986, making it exactly 30 years (and one week) old today. C. Thomas Howell starred as a rich SoCal kid who gets into Harvard Law School only to find out his parents won’t pay his tuition. So he does something that feels just as creepy today as it did 30 years ago: He overdoses on tanning pills to pose as an African-American so he can get a scholarship that so far nobody else has claimed. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, for starters, it's “blackface” - something that hasn’t been acceptable since … well, it should never be acceptable. And yet Soul Man was a respectable hit at the box office. Why? “This is the Cosby decade. America loves black people!” Howell’s character crows at one point. Thirty years later, that’s a joke that has lost its punchline.
Soul Man had a respectable opening weekend, finishing third behind Crocodile Dundee and The Color of Money, and went on to pull in nearly $30 million in the U.S. Still, critics weren’t fooled. The movie still has a 14 percent fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes.
If anything good happened on set, it’s perhaps that Howell’s on-screen love interest - Rae Dawn Chong - became his real-life love interest and they later married. Perhaps in a dose of unexpected karma for this film, they did later divorce.
Here are five more things you probably didn’t know about Soul Man, according to IMDB.com.
1. Famed movie critic Roger Ebert hated the film, giving it just one star and praising only James Earl Jones and Rae Dawn Chong for their performances. "Soul Man hardly even seems to realize, for example, that the real subject of the film is not race but ethics - the ethics of pretending to be someone you are not, and lying to others about it,” he wrote in his review.
2. Howell’s eyes normally have a gold color, so it was decided he should wear colored contacts because his eyes looked very unusual against his darker skin color.
3. Lucky Tim Robbins! The actor was the first choice to play the lead role but had to drop out because filming of his previous movie was running over. That movie: Howard the Duck.
4. If the movie’s overall story isn’t uncomfortable enough, one deleted scene had Howell forcing his friend to sing "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" when they first meet up after the skin color change.
5. Soul Man was indeed filmed at Harvard (and nearby Wheaton College). Four years after this film was released, the first black president of the Harvard Law Review was elected. His name: Barack Obama.