A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that although the 1997 Soul Food frankly depicts sex, both married and unmarried, as a normal part of life, it's primarily a movie about the importance of strong family connections and loyalties. Sisters argue about money, handling a parent's illness, and disposing of property while marriages thrive and fall apart. The family endures plenty of tragedy and shares joy, but they get through it with the help of a long-standing tradition of Sunday dinners, which we learn are about more than just eating. Language includes "f--k," "s--t," the "N" word, "ho," and "d--k," and adults smoke cigarettes and drink alcohol. An angry husband shoves his wife when they have a disagreement. A man instigates a fight, but the other guy throws the first punch. An ex-convict has a gun in his glove compartment and later wields it when attacked. A woman who thinks a man has hit her sister hires some thugs to beat him up. A fight ensues in a bar and all the men get arrested. A married couple is seen having sex in the bathroom, clothed. A married man is seen having sex with his wife's cousin. An ex-boyfriend touches the décolletage of his ex-girlfriend at her wedding. A couple is caught having sex in a car, clothed. A woman tries to rebuff her ex's advances by telling him, "My husband's name is written all over my kitty cat." Women look at a man who just came out of the shower, naked, and remark, "Did you see that thing?" The man is shown from the chest up.
- Parents say
- Kids say
What's the story?
Though only around 12, Ahmad (Brandon Hammond) narrates SOUL FOOD, a story that follows the dissolution of his close-knit family after his beloved grandmother, Big Mama Joe (Irma P. Hall), falls ill. The cement that holds her three daughters and their families all together, Big Mama doles out wisdom and soul-food Sunday dinners that give Ahmad his grounding and maturity and his determination to preserve the closeness Big Mama worked so hard to create. His parents, Maxine (Vivica A. Fox) and Kenny (Jeffrey D. Sams), are close, even after a new baby arrives, and Bird (Nia Long) has just married an ex-con named Lem (Mekhi Phifer). They struggle but work to stay together. The oldest, Teri (Vanessa Williams), is a well-to-do lawyer, married to Miles (Michael Beach), who would rather perform his music than work at his law practice. Teri's anger at everyone drives the family apart, especially when diabetes brings Big Mama down. Should they sell the house? Who will pay Mama's bills? Who will take care of Uncle Pete? How will they keep traditional Sunday dinners going without Big Mama to advise and support them with her truth-telling and kindness? The grownups flounder while Ahmad plots to honor his grandmother's wishes.
Is it any good?
Part of the considerable charm of this film is the fact that it's narrated by a precocious child, Ahmad, but its inconsistencies also stem from that decision. He narrates a story that describes every event, even ones hidden from him by grownups who know he wouldn't understand. So, how is he describing what he has no way of knowing? It's a small point but it also poses the problem of who Soul Food is for. Sexual content and language make it a bit too much for kids who are the narrator's age, around 12, yet 12-year-olds would certainly appreciate the reverence for the warmth, security, and loyalty that family represents and that the movie promotes.
Also, some may question the way women here nod sagely as they cater to supposed male vanity and frailty. According to the movie, wives need to refrain from helping husbands when they're down and out, lest such assistance rob the men of their dignity. Younger audiences may not appreciate some of these dated ideas but most will identify with the love and craziness that comes with being part of a family.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about how the family deals with racism built into the social system. Lem complains he can't get a job, not because he's a convicted felon but because "crackers who got everything don't give you a second chance," and his wife tells him that while racism is real, he's using it to excuse himself. What do you think of the value of each of those arguments?
Soul Food depicts the ups and downs of a black family. In what ways does the movie show that all families are alike?
What other movies about families have you seen? How does this one compare?
What family traditions make your family unique?
- In theaters: September 26, 1997
- On DVD or streaming: December 13, 1999
- Cast: Vanessa Williams, Vivica A. Fox, Nia Long, Mekhi Phifer, Gina Ravera, Irma P. Hall, Michael Beach
- Director: George Tillman Jr.
- Studio: Universal
- Genre: Drama
- Run time: 115 minutes
- MPAA rating: R
- MPAA explanation: for some strong sexuality and language
- Last updated: September 21, 2019
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