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Soul Food [Movie Review]

Summary

Soul Food is a 1997 George Tillman Jr. drama about the Joseph family’s descent into dysfunction after the matriarch goes into a coma. The story is told through the eyes of the eldest grandchild, Ahmad, who serves as the film’s narrator. Josephine “Big Mama” Joseph and her three daughters gather with their families on Sundays and holidays to share a good meal. The tradition serves to keep them close while their sibling rivalries, meddling, and their raggedy Cousin Faith threaten to push them apart.

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Show Notes

As a fan of photography, I love seeing pictures of people through the years so I’ve always enjoyed Soul Food’s title credits. There’s a feeling of flipping through a family album. It was a nice touch to set the tone for a family dynamic by showing personal photos of the actors and actresses from different points in their lives. I’ve also never visited Chicago but it’s one of those cities that I’ve seen in movies and tv shows that I’d like to visit and feel I would enjoy.

Soul Food is a movie that I’ve seen a million times and then was a huge fan of the tv series as I enjoyed the family dynamic. It’s one of those movies from the 90s Black film canon that showcases Black culture and the Black experience. The characters feel like people you might know personally. Combined with the food and an incredible soundtrack, it’s just a vibe.

But Lem (Mekhi Phifer) and Bird’s (Nia Long) wedding at the beginning of the film let you know from the jump that this is going to be a mess. These two have no children from a previous marriage or relationship and even if that was the case, there was no reason for their exes to be at the wedding. To start Lem should have known better than to be grinding on his ex at his wedding. But judging by her wearing what appeared to be a shiny extra-long cropped top and him drinking from a champagne bottle they were a tacky couple. Do better. Bird’s ex Samuel (they were quite lazy with these names) is also a mess for showing up uninvited. I didn’t like him nor his lipglass either.

And then to add insult to injury these shenanigans were actually funded by Teri (Vanessa L. Williams) as Bird and Lem couldn’t afford this shindig on their own. And then Maxine (Vivica A. Fox) chimes in that Teri doesn’t have to mention every time she pays for something. Teri is persnickety but they do always expect her to pay for everything. You’re in love and want to get married. Great, that’s beautiful. I hope you have a happy life together. But why have a wedding that the two of you can’t afford? An easy way to avoid Teri talking about what she’s paid for is to live within your means and not ask her for money.

And this is why Big Mama was so vital to this family because she could step in and get her bobble-headed kids together. Though at points she contributed to the mess. The way she cut into Lem’s dance with ol’ girl was a really cute touch. It was a nice way of intervening and de-escalating the situation before it got out of hand.

This is something that I really like about Black entertainment from the 90s. There are different stories to be told from within the Black community. And because projects were more diverse, there was something for everyone. Soul Food is a movie about a regular degular family just living. They’re doing ok for themselves and are at different stages of marriage but their lives aren’t perfect so they’re relatable.

It sets just the right tone and strikes a balance while avoiding over-the-top melodrama and cheesy preachiness. None of the characters are saints nor are there any villains (except for Cousin Faith, more on her later). They’re not balling out of control as millionaires nor are they keeping their head above water in a housing project. Just everyday people going through everyday situations.

I like the backstory of Big Mama and Pops being from Mississippi and moving North to Chicago where they were independent, started businesses, and raised these three daughters. Stories of people from the Great Migration and their descendants are interesting and more need to be told.

Something that I’ve always snickered at is Bird not being able to cook. This is a running joke that started in the movie and continued into the TV show. While preparing for the first Sunday dinner Bird is making the greens and throws a whole cup of Lawrys into the pot, not to mention those mangled fish cakes. And then everybody at the table was no-look passing the stuff she made. It reminds me of a scene in the series where they’re making a cake or some kind of dessert and she says it needs salt. Those little quirks and traits helped to flesh out the characters and make them feel more realistic.

When kids grow up and go off on their own, they can sometimes drift apart from their parents and siblings. But I like the idea of having regular gatherings to keep the family connected. Even just sitting down as spouses with your kids to share meals doesn’t always happen. But to make time to do that and also gather with your extended family at least once a week is nice. It’s a great way to ensure that cousins know each other as well as their aunts, uncles, and grandparents. And those informal gatherings are a good opportunity to share family stories and history.

If the last year has taught us nothing else I would hope we’ve learned to value our time with friends and family. As I get older and people that I love pass away I cherish those memories of the time we spent together doing absolutely nothing in particular. To put away your phones, turn off the TV, and share a meal with friends and family is special. If I’m blessed to have a family of my own one day, I’d like to borrow the practice of having dinner every night with the people in my house and Sunday dinner with extended family. Though any Bird-esque chefs will be banned from the kitchen and the men will have to pitch in on the cooking.

I’m an introvert and there is nobody that I like to spend time with more than myself. If it wasn’t for losing loved ones and temporarily being unable to travel, I would say that I did fine during COVID as I had no problem not socializing with others. But tomorrow isn’t promised so you never know when the most recent time you’ve seen someone will be the last time that you see them. With that in mind, it’s important to make time to keep in touch with family. Except for Cousin Faith.

Nobody needs to keep in touch with Cousin Faith.

You could tell Cousin Faith was going to be a problem the moment she first appeared onscreen. If everybody else is eating dinner at the table and Uncle Pete is locked up in his room how did she get in the house? This is Chicago, I don’t think someone just left the door open. She’s a cat burglar.

Not to mention she was wearing a leopard print coat. Leopard print might have been the business back in the days and is still the move for women of a certain age looking for action. It signals that a woman of a certain age is the female equivalent of a cat daddy. But just take a second and think of all the people you know who were kids in the 1970s but rocking leopard print in the 90s. I bet you all of them are a hot mess.

Something that I didn’t notice during previous viewings is that in addition to Teri neither Maxine nor Bird looked happy when Faith popped up. And Maxine was the first to state that Faith wasn’t welcome to stay with her family at their house. She doesn’t go into detail about her reasoning but makes it known. Yet, she then turns around and volunteers Teri’s house as a shelter for their problematic relative. Mama Joe is the only person who seems excited to see Faith so why can’t she just stay at her house?

During a later conversation with Faith the Floozy, Teri mentions some of the trifling ways in which she’d previously taken advantage of sweet ol’ Mama Joe. So obviously Faith being a mess is not a new thing. Despite the two wayward Joseph sisters fussing about Teri (my favorite character by the way) she always comes through in the clutch. But in this instance, Teri should have told Cousin Faith ain’t no room at the inn and she doesn’t have a manger, figure something out and don’t come to her house. That pastor man was a creep and Faith seemed willing to do something strange for some change let her stay with him he’d probably welcome the company.

When it rains it pours, Cousin Faith and her leopard print coat are a bad omen. But all jokes aside, Big Mama’s decline in health due to complications from diabetes is an important conversation to have in general but especially within the Black community.

The family gatherings are nice and as with many cultures are centered around food but the dishes prepared aren’t the healthiest options. Many are high in fat, salt, and/or sugar. Having these foods on occasion in moderation is fine but years of eating this food on what I’m sure is a daily basis is unhealthy and was most likely a contributing factor to Big Mama’s diabetes. Then you also have Bird making things even worse with her super salty terrible cooking.

This is something that my mom and I argue about all the time and while she’s come around a bit there’s still work to be done. My family is from the Caribbean where it’s hot and our recent ancestors were primarily farmers and fishermen. Before that, at least some were likely enslaved. Some of our traditional foods such as cornmeal porridge, dumplings, and provisions are very carb-heavy.

Our ancestors who earned their living farming and fishing needed those carbs because the work was physically demanding. Not to mention they walked everywhere or used donkey/horse carts to get around. We can keep the essence of those dishes but need to adjust for our lifestyles because they aren’t as physically demanding thus we will not burn off those carbs and calories.

For just about everyone, these kinds of meals shouldn’t be a daily thing. For many, not even a weekly thing but maybe just on holidays would be fine. And for those already managing diabetes, high blood pressure, and/or similar ailments these are not dishes they should be consuming at all.

Reimagine old family recipes and find ways to maintain the flavor while reducing sugar, salt, and fat. For example, collards and other leafy greens are very healthy but lose those benefits when combined with unhealthy ingredients and cooking methods. Try some new seasonings or other ideas that add flavor without too much salt or fat.

We see the aftermath of poorly managed diabetes but this isn’t a story about living with the illness. Diabetes and health overall are important topics but here they’re just a device to cause drama in the family dynamic. This isn’t the movie for those subjects but it would be interesting to see a film delve more deeply into the reality of living with these illnesses.

I’m not a gym rat or health nut but I try to maintain a healthy lifestyle. There are so many things health-wise that are a matter of genetics and thus at present mostly beyond our control. But many other illnesses can either be avoided or managed by adopting a healthy lifestyle. Just exercising, drinking enough water, getting enough sleep, and eating healthy can help you avoid a host of medical issues.

Teri is not the easiest person to get along with but in both the movie as well as the series, hands down, she was my favorite sister and character overall. I dig ambitious women who are about their business. The movie didn’t have as much time to flesh out her character so at points, she comes across as being a bit of a jerk. Teri is very hard-driving which likely comes from dealing with her sisters, Maxine in particular, and also being an attorney.

She’s doing quite well for herself and could be living a high-falutin lifestyle with Miles where they’re out on the town every night. Instead, she babysits Maxine’s kids and spends some of her nights helping Ahmad with homework. She’s made sacrifices to get what she has and her family benefits from her financial success. The family constantly asks her for money but then complains about her pointing out that she constantly gives them money. When financial issues arise as a result of their mom’s medical bills, their automatic solution is to ask Terry to pay for it.

Miles is also a lawyer but is not passionate about the law which is something that happens to a lot of people. Some tough it out until retirement but others decide at some point that they’d rather chase their dreams. During Soul Food, we never see Teri at work but it can be assumed that she enjoys her career. Thus when Miles expresses his growing ambivalence about law, she doesn’t understand.

Teri is a bulldog and her defense mechanism during disagreements is to dig in and go for broke. She’s quick to refer to her career and money, it’s what she values so that’s her yardstick for success. I saw her point during their initial argument about money missing from their joint account. If we have a joint account and either of us wants to buy something over a certain dollar amount, the right thing to do would be to discuss it in advance with the other person. Miles was wrong not to speak with Teri first but her approach to the discussion was also wrong.

They have serious communication problems in their relationship. Relationships are built on honest and open communication and if they aren’t talking to each other about their plans then that’s a problem. Part of the issue is that Teri wasn’t listening with the intent of trying to understand Miles’ need for change. But with everything going on with the family and also trying to manage a demanding career, Teri was likely stressed. They probably would have benefited from getting away from everything for a weekend and trying to talk stuff out. But that would have messed up the storyline. Faith came to stay with Teri and Miles at the very moment that they needed time to themselves if they were going to get back on track.

I felt for Lem trying to do right after making some mistakes but having a hard time while trying to find a job. Unless his crime would make him an insurance risk or a potential danger to the staff, why not give him a shot? On a personal level, he also tries to be a supportive husband. He’s a trooper for sitting there and even trying to eat that struggle plate of Bird’s dried up and burnt cooking. (Though Uncle Pete was having none of it and disrespectfully passed.)

It’s not right but I understood why Lem lied on his job application and I think Bird would have as well. Yet he made things worse by speaking to Kenny and listening to his advice to not tell Bird. Sometimes it helps to discuss sensitive topics with someone a bit removed from the situation. But in trying to build a life with Bird, he shouldn’t be keeping secrets like this from her.

With Big Mama’s health issues taking a turn for the worse, it added stress to the family dynamic and intensified the drama which happens in real life. Some of the bad blood between Teri and Maxine is a result of Teri having dated Kenny first but him cheating on her with Maxine. Granted they were all high school students at the time but old enough to know better. As a result, Teri seems to be a bit jealous of Maxine because she’s married with kids. But Maxine seems to also be insecure that she’s a stay-at-home mom while Teri has a successful career and Bird is running her own salon.

That envy results in the two of them pouring salt into each other’s wounds. Everybody should just live the best version of the lives they have rather than worrying about what other family members have that they don’t. Not to mention, at least as adults, Teri and Kenny seem like a very mismatched couple.

Teri should have made more of an effort to be supportive of Miles but she also had a lot going on. They should have sat down, talked, and created a plan for balancing his music aspirations. On a basic level, I don’t think that Miles was a bad person but he made some poor decisions. There were already problems in their relationship and he added to them. Though early on he made some effort to have fun and rekindle things with Teri.

Some of the early interactions between Teri and Miles serve to set up the entanglement that came later. Quite often in these stories, the wife is the saint while the husband is an ogre. Soul Food tries a role reversal but it still plays into the “she doesn’t understand me and isn’t fun” excuse for cheating. Leaving behind his law career is a big life change for Miles and Teri seems fairly dismissive of his dreams. I could understand Miles breaking up with Teri because they’re on different paths in life but I don’t condone his cheating.

Typically when a person in a relationship cheats, it’s their fault rather than the other man/woman. In this case, I also had smoke for Faith because she’s Teri’s cousin and specifically because Teri offered her a place to stay in her time of need. She might have her ways but Teri took her in when none of the other sisters wanted to. One minute she’s calling Miles her cousin, cuz, fam, etc., and the next minute she’s pushing up on him. It’s gross. (Kenny cheating on Teri with Maxine was also gross but they were high schoolers and it would depend on how serious his relationship was with Teri.)

You have some families where this is your permanent residence but your room is the living room. You might have to wait for everyone else to go to their room so you can get your blanket and pillow to set up your room. And here it is that Faith wasn’t even sleeping on the sofa in the living room. Teri gave her a bedroom to herself. And this is the thanks she gets? Bogus. Where did Faith go after the dust up at the party? She managed to find a place didn’t she? That’s where her and that coat should have been from the beginning.

Miles was in the vulnerable place of feeling a bit unheard by and disconnected from Teri. Faith was a hobosexual, a person trying to start a romantic relationship to have a place to stay. The two met and clicked because they both had these artistic aspirations about which others were dismissive. If Miles had left Teri and he and Faith went and got a place to stay, it would still be gross because they’re cousins but ok. Yet, to be carrying on in this woman’s house is incredibly disrespectful.

Faith picked up on the issues between Teri and Miles and started making a play for Miles at the first opportunity. Miles, at least at first, wasn’t giving her that energy. She pursues him by finding little ways to stroke his ego. He was initially just being nice and liked the attention that she was giving him. Meanwhile, Faith is in the house ear hustling on his conversations with Teri. See how she managed to pop up at his show. Cousin Faith was just chatting up Miles for some sympathy and a place to stay.

Miles helps Faith out with her audition and after her pursuit intensifies. For example, Miles and Teri live in a big house for it to be just the two of them. He leaves Faith in the living room and goes upstairs to the rooftop studio. There was no reason for her to follow him up there. She could have found something to do like get the newspaper and look for a day job. But she left the whole rest of the house to go upstairs and talk to him.

Yet Miles was the one in the relationship and he should have told her to stop and go away. But this is a character portrayed by Michael Beach and it’s the 90’s so you know eventually it’s going to be some mess. This was just two years after he was giving Bernie the blues in Waiting to Exhale. And eight years after flipping the desk in Lean on Me. In his younger days, Michael Beach was hired to have no behavior.

I will say that at least initially, Teri showed some self-control. Regardless of their issues she loves and cares for Miles so to walk in and witness his entanglement would be heartbreaking. Vanessa Williams did a great job conveying those emotions without words. But being caught off guard and having Ahmad with her caused Teri to make the wise decision to walk away instead of immediately reacting in anger.

Obviously, tell both of them to get out of your house but wait until you’re calm and thinking rationally. No good could have come from her confronting them as we see from the near dust-up at the party later.

There’s a saying that adversity makes or breaks you. There are problems we all deal with, especially the death of a loved one. If you live long enough, you’ll likely have someone that you love pass away. Yet during those stressful times, people don’t always present their best selves.

Samuel was a chump for trying to show off on Lem. I won’t give him any more energy than that. Lem should have ignored that cornball. Regardless of whatever Samuel said, Lem’s life wasn’t in danger so he should have just ignored Samuel instead of physically attacking him. Firstly because he’s an adult and secondly because he has a record and needs to stay out of trouble. His interaction with Bird was over the top and unnecessary. It shows that Lem is immature and lacks self-control.

Sometimes when people are trying to goad you into giving them a reaction, the best response is to not give them the energy that they want. Maintain your self-respect but don’t risk your future and freedom over an injured ego. I would have completely understood if Lem had quit because he has principles and doesn’t need his wife to compromise herself to get by in the world. And Bird is simple for thinking that going on a date with Samuel to get Lem a job was a good idea.

Call me petty but it was nonsense and incredibly disloyal to accept Miles and Faith back into the fold. I get we’re family and should be there for each other but Faith is a bum who voted herself off the family island. Teri and Miles didn’t have kids but she gets to keep the Joseph family to herself and he can get Faith and her leopard print coat in the divorce.

If Teri is my sister we might fuss between ourselves but in a situation like this? I don’t care, I’m taking her side. So no Ahmad, we’re not family anymore because you don’t do things like that to family. Faith can’t blow into town like a hobo, purposefully unleash destruction and then everyone is cool. Nope. She and Miles have to kick rocks. Somebody else can play piano while you sing in the living room.

I think part of this has to do with the gender of the people involved. People are a lot more willing to forgive when the person doing the cheating is a man versus when it’s a woman. I am fairly certain that if this had been three brothers and one of their wives cheated or it was still two sisters but Teri was instead their brother whose wife had cheated with their cousin, this story would have gone a whole other way. That cheating woman would have been cut off, called everything but a child of God, and uninvited from all future gatherings. Don’t worry about an invitation or bother coming up with an excuse as to why you can’t make it because I know that YOU are not coming.

Lem shows up after being released from prison and sits down to speak with Ahmad and Bird to apologize for what happened as he lets both Bird and Ahmad down. But then he started arguing semantics while apologizing to Ahmad. Letting Ahmad know that he didn’t beat up Bird but rather just pushed her, which was also wrong. People use these rationalizations but the two actions aren’t that far apart. The fact is that he used an act of aggression to express his anger and intimidate Bird.

Bird’s logic and actions were incredibly inappropriate and unacceptable for someone in an exclusive relationship. But Lem’s reaction was also unacceptable. His justifications start us down the slippery slope of this ideology that men can soothe their bruised ego after being cheated on by becoming violent with their partner or the other man.

What happens the next time he gets angry or whether right or wrong he believes someone else is interested in Bird or vice versa? And to be fair, it added some drama to the movie but Teri pulling a knife was crazy as well. Violence or the threat of violence regardless of gender can’t be the solution to dealing with heartbreak.

Teri is a lawyer and should have known better than to get her cousins involved. (The Josephs seem to have nothing but problematic relatives.) While Lem was in the wrong for his interaction with Bird, Teri unnecessarily escalated the situation. Getting family members who like to fight or carry on involved in these payback situations is a terrible idea. What if during the scuffle, Lem’s gun had gone off? One of them could have ended up dead and someone could have wound up serving decades in prison.

Imagine your husband cheats on you with your cousin and your siblings want to talk things out? She didn’t just overhear them having an inappropriate conversation or spot them coming out of a hotel. Teri walked in on them mid-entanglement. You offer this ne’er-do-well a place to stay and instead of being grateful she ups the ante by doing her best to be a hobosexual?

No, neither one of you can have a plate. Certainly not to eat at my momma’s table or even in foil to go. All that fried chicken, fish, black-eyed peas, collards, and whatnot? Put it all back. Take all of the mayonnaise potato salad because it’s disgusting, especially if Bird made it. I wouldn’t even offer a drink of water. You better cup your hands and get some from the neighbor’s hose.

You’re sitting here asking Faith and Miles not to run away but where’s the compassion and understanding for Teri? To then turn around and throw their entanglement up in her face as though it’s her fault. Why are you so quick to forgive and to welcome them back into the fold?

It’s clear that there were problems in Teri’s marriage to Miles and there were important conversations that they needed to have if there was any chance of them working things out. But by the end of the film too much had happened between them. And their issues weren’t going to be resolved sitting around the dinner table with 50 million family members pretending not to listen while ear hustling.

They both did wrong in their marriage as I do think Miles was trying to reach out and reconnect with Teri early on in the film. And Teri was either preoccupied or coming into conversations way too hot. Some of that unnecessary hostility comes from the way she and her sisters communicate. You shouldn’t have that contention with family and can’t have that in a marriage. Miles certainly didn’t help matters by getting involved with Faith.

It’s family but they say some downright vicious things to each other. Things you would hesitate to say to an enemy they say to their sisters. I disliked those exchanges. The savage way they treat each other isn’t new and should have been checked when they were kids.

There are several situations throughout Soul Food where the better option is to walk away. Because you might say or do something in the heat of the moment without even giving it full consideration and regret it. Not just between the sisters but all of the characters. This is a fictional story but there’s a lot to learn here about the importance of honest, open, and respectful conversation in relationships no matter their form.

I didn’t agree with all the points or how the characters conducted themselves throughout Soul Food but I felt like the movie did well tackling a few subjects. The family dynamic was frustrating but the dysfunction was also real. There are Big Mama’s health issues and a family coping with the loss of an elder that kept them together. But also their relationship drama is complicated by being unemployed, drifting apart, exes popping up, people wearing leopard print, etc.

It’s 20+ years later and Soul Food still has replay value. As you might have noticed I get in my feelings about some of the situations in the film. But that’s a testament to it holding up quite well over the years. The topics covered are still relevant today and will be for years to come. Soul Food tells a story to which most people, regardless of their background can relate. It also helps that the acting is good and the soundtrack was fire. Honorary mention to the theme song for the series. Now I really want to re-watch the series but don’t expect a review.

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