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'Soul' Folks

June 29, 1986|JOHN M. WILSON

Why did the Negro wear a tux on his way to get a vasectomy?

I don't know--why?

Because if he's gonna be impotent, he might as well look impo'tant!

Nobody laughed on the Inglewood set of "Soul Man," a comedy just wrapped for New World Pictures. Not white star C. Thomas Howell, sitting nearby in black makeup, brown contact lenses and an Afro wig. Not black co-star Rae Dawn Chong (who's also part Irish, Chinese and Indian). Not executive producer Steve Tisch. Not director Steve Miner, who was putting the racist joke through its third or fourth take.

But some ticket buyers will undoubtedly guffaw at this and other racist japes that turn up in "Soul Man" when it's released this fall.

"Some people will laugh at the (vasectomy) joke," conceded Miner. "But by the end of the movie, they should feel bad about having laughed."

It's a chance Tisch--co-producer of the hit "Risky Business" with ex-partner Jon Avnet--is willing to take for a movie he hopes will be entertaining and carry a message about racism in the 1980s.

This time out, Tisch is into riskier business: The original screenplay for "Soul Man," by Carol Black (who is white), is about a rich Caucasian kid who darkens his skin chemically to get into Harvard Law School on a minority scholarship, triggering plenty of misadventure. The idea is to comment on white attitudes about and behavior toward blacks, a "Black Like Me" of the youth genre. It also takes another risk that mainstream movies rarely do: an interracial love story.

Since a white actor performs the lead role in blackface, and because much of "Soul Man" is written and played broadly--well, if it misfires, it's going to stir quite a ruckus and could be a personal embarrassment for all involved.

There's the extra worry that "Soul Man" will end up looking like blatant exploitation--perhaps creating a new "whites-ploitation" genre.

Besides the broad comedy (including jokes about breast and penis size, both related to racial myths), you've got a director whose primary credits are in horror films ("Friday the 13th" II and III, "House"), a distributor not famous for tasteful marketing, and a $4.5-million budget for the non-union shoot that hardly allows for rich production values or leisurely development of character.

"In this movie particularly, it can be a problem," Tisch admitted. "It could easily be a pure exploitation picture. Or it could be a very manipulative message picture. But I think with the story and with Tommy's performance, it's going to be first-rate.

"It's not a racist picture at all. It pushes buttons in us to make us as whites look at how we relate to blacks. I'm hoping (black) groups rally behind and support the picture."

Rae Dawn Chong, who plays a single mother and a law student, and Howell's eventual love interest, considers the black-white issue both "the most important thing about this movie--and its danger zone."

"It's a tough line that we're walking and I just pray that we're doing it right," she said. "If we are, you can't not be enlightened by this movie."

"Walking a fine line" seems the operative phrase on the production.

Take that vasectomy joke. Miner, the director, knew that actor Wally Ward, playing an obnoxious Harvard preppie, has to get his comeuppance--and audiences will need to share his discomfort. Otherwise, it will be just another racist joke that will generate yuks in theaters across America.

On the subsequent take, Ward emphasized his nervousness to Howell's angry reaction. It worked. It was a print.

"The joke is not supposed to be funny," Miner explained. "It's one of the sensitive areas of the film. The point is that racist jokes are not funny. They make fun of a stereotype that is not true in day-to-day life."

Yet the joke has to be well-told "or it won't work at all."

"And that's the fine line that we're treading. We hope, through a funny movie, to open the (viewers') eyes and help them look beyond their own little insular world.

"There's no way to do this film without offending somebody--on the white side or the black side. If we didn't, then we're not doing our job. But (we can't tiptoe because) it's got to have some reality, you know?"

Screenwriter Carol Black (who co-produces "Soul Man" with companion/partner Neal Marlens) started two years ago to write a comedy about a young white guy who can't find a job, darkens his skin and takes advantage of minority-hiring quotas.

"But I didn't like what that said about affirmative action." So she came up with a new plot: a rich kid, Mark Watson, whose father cuts him off financially just as he's about to enter Harvard Law School. He figures that racism is a thing of the past--"It's the Cosby decade! America loves black people!"--until he is faced with prejudice at every level, including white liberal racism from a patronizing co-ed who is sexually attracted only to blacks.

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