You can't talk about a movie like "Soul Man" without feeling your feet inevitably hitting a soap box. So let's get the film's controversy out of the way: Is it wrong for a white person like Mark Watson (C. Thomas Howell) to disguise himself as a black person? In most cases, yes. Is it wrong to do so to obtain a scholarship? In all cases, double yes. Does it make a bad idea for a movie? Not necessarily.
The problem with "Soul Man" is not so much its premise as much as its execution. You have a white college student, Mark, from L.A. who learns that he and his friend Gordon (Arye Gross) have been accepted into Harvard Law School. The only problem is that even though he comes from a well-to-do family, his father decides not to support him financially. Mark tries every way to pay for his tuition and living expenses, including applying for financial aid, for which he is immediately turned down. I'm not so sure if that would happen in real life, but then again, I haven't applied to law school. Plus, anyone can apply for student loans, right? Regardless, Mark eventually comes across Harvard's only viable full-ride scholarship he can find, which happens to be solely for African-American students. In a fraudulent and risky move, he decides to turn himself black. He does so by taking tanning pills that increase the melanin in his skin, and dons a Jheri curl.
There are two problems with this transformation: 1.) Howell does not look African-American at all when he darkens his skin. In fact, I thought he looked like an Indian-American with a really bad hair stylist. Yet, in this movie, no character seems to think for a second that this guy isn't black, not even Harvard Professor Banks (James Earl Jones), who seems way too educated to be fooled.
2.) Most importantly, you never actually see Mark Watson come to the conclusion that posing as a black man is a good idea. The film just suddenly jump cuts from his vain attempts to seek financial support to his racial transformation, all with no explanation whatsoever. I wanted to see him take those pills and at least get an idea of what was going through his head. Also, why did he decide on a Jheri curl as a haircut? I would imagine that a Jheri curl, which already requires an ozone-killing amount of hair spray as it is, would be more difficult to maintain than simply shaving his head. John Howard Griffin employed the latter hairstyle choice while doing research for the novel "Black Like Me".
I could go on about the character weaknesses of Mark Watson, such as the fact that he doesn't seem smart enough to mop the floors of Harvard Law School let alone be a student there, nor does he have the motivation. He made the dumb decision to attend Professor Banks' criminal law class simply because Professor Banks was "a brother". He doesn't seem to register how intimidating James Earl Jones is as a Harvard professor, whereas I got the impression immediately as Jones was taking attendance in his first scene.
It's not C. Thomas Howell's fault that the Mark Watson character is the way he is, although his career suffered because of it. It's just that Mark should have been developed more, and not just be made a carbon copy of a member of the Delta Tau Chi frat in "Animal House" (1978). If Arye Gross's character was made that way, that's fine, but making both characters inept really ruins the base of the story.
Otherwise, I actually liked the parts of the film where Mark begins to realize that racism is not something that just died after the 1960's. He does say at one point that, "This (the 1980's) is the Cosby decade! America loves black people!" Well, not so much. While racism is not as obvious as it was before the Civil Rights Movement, it's still alive and well even in liberal Massachusetts.
I liked how Howell gets fazed little by little over two white classmates who like telling racists jokes to one another. I also thought his time in jail with unruly white disgruntled baseball players was stinging enough. The basketball montage (featuring Ronald Reagan's son, Ron Reagan) was also very funny.
I thought most of the supporting actors were convincing. Rae Dawn Chong was charming as ever, although her career also fizzled after this movie for some reason. Leslie Nielsen was also good as Mr. Dunbar, a building superintendent who does not take kindly to his beautiful daughter's (Melora Hardin) attraction to black Mark. The scene when he envisions Mark as a watermelon-eating pimp who shouts "Whatchu lookin' at!?!" was biting, but funny.
The fact that all these characters, black or white, were fooled by Mark being a black man is still what contributed to this movie's lack of credibility. Apparently also, not everyone was laughing at this movie either. Spike Lee and Eddie Murphy publicly denounced it. Then again, though, Richard Pryor reportedly found it funny.
Films about characters who make bad choices are not necessarily bad choices for movie plots. This wasn't a bad idea for a movie, but it could have been stronger if vital pieces of exhibition were not skimmed over haphazardly. What results is a film that is not black or white, but too gray.