'Soul Food' may be corny, but it's seasoned with insight

September 29, 1997|By Brian McTavish | Brian McTavish,KANSAS CITY STAR

"Raisin in the Sun" meets "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" with a '90s sizzle in "Soul Food," writer/director George Tillman Jr.'s emotionally honest portrayal of an extended African-American family's struggle to stick together.

For 40 years a Chicago family has gathered for Sunday afternoon dinner. Dish upon dish of delicious soul food is lovingly prepared by widowed family matriarch Big Mama Joe, who dispenses we-will-survive axioms to her three daughters and their families like so many servings of corn bread.

"In life we all make some bad choices," she says. "You do what you have to do to stay strong. If you let bad things stop you, you won't be here for the good things."

OK, so it's a little corny. But Big Mama's unconditional love, not to mention her fried chicken and deep-dish cobbler, is the recipe that holds this family together. Certainly, it can use the help.

Oldest daughter Teri (Vanessa L. Williams), the financial success of the family, is a sober, workaholic lawyer who gives too little attention to her lawyer husband, Miles (Michael Beach), and his dreams of a music career.

Teri constantly bickers with her younger sister Maxine (Vivica A. Fox), who years ago stole Teri's catch of a boyfriend, Kenneth (Jeffrey D. Sams), and has been happily married to him since.

Trying to find her way is youngest sister Bird (Nia Long), an ambitious hairstylist who marries Lem (Mekhi Phifer), a well-meaning ex-con who can't find a job because of his criminal record. When Bird unwisely enlists the help of an old flame to help her husband find employment, Lem takes out his frustration on his confused wife.

Enter cousin Faith (Gina Raver), an exotic dancer whose attentions to Teri's unattended husband only serve to crack open the family's widening fissures.

Still, it isn't until Big Mama is felled by diabetes -- ironically brought on by her unceasing intake of rich soul food -- that the rest of the family is forced to work out its problems.

An unlikely savior emerges in Maxine's young son Ahmand (Brandon Hammond, also the film's capable narrator), who dedicates himself to keeping the troubled clan from self-destructing.

While "Soul Food" is nothing new -- basically a sexy soap opera with some laughs -- Tillman dishes up insights about the modern black experience in America.

'Soul Food'

Starring Vanessa L. Williams, Vivica A. Fox, Nia Long and Brandon Hammond

Directed by George Tillman Jr.

Released by 20th Century Fox

Rated R (language, sexual scenes)

Sun score ** 1/2

Pub Date: 9/29/97

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