‘Soul Man’ Actress Rae Dawn Chong Blamed Spike Lee for Film Backlash
“Soul Man,” the 1986 film where a white student uses blackface to win a scholarship at Harvard, got mixed reviews after its release. Although the movie wasn’t a failure at the box office, it did create a huge controversy, and according to Rae Dawn Chong, the film’s leading lady, it was all Spike Lee’s fault.
More than thirty years after its release, the film is still the center of discussions about race and how the entertainment industry has used humor to deal with such delicate topics involving racism, prejudice, and the black experience.
“Soul Man,” tells the story of a spoiled rich white kid named Mark Watson (played by C. Thomas Howell), who decides to get into Harvard Law School by any means after his father refuses to pay his tuition.
He applies for and wins a scholarship for black students only, which leads him to pretend to be black, maintaining the scam by wearing brown contact lenses and a fake afro. He also takes tanning pills to earn colored skin.
It was 1984 and before you say anything please keep in mind that the film Soul Man came out in 1986 pic.twitter.com/BWLXGrxqlF— joe randazzo (@Randazzoj) February 2, 2019
The movie was produced for $4.5 million and earned $27 million at the box office. However, several organizations such as the NAACP, and UCLA's Black Student Alliance, protested over the film’s racism and “false statements about the economic realities black students face at school."
Howell, who was 19 at the time of release, is aware of the taboo of wearing blackface, and still, he defends the film.
"A white man donning blackface is taboo. Conversation over — you can't win," he told The Hollywood Reporter in 2015. "But our intentions were pure: We wanted to make a funny movie that had a message about racism."
As Howell, the leading actress, Rae Dawn Chong, also has a similar opinion.
“Our little film was maligned by the black community led by a jealous Spike Lee, who has never seen the film," she told THR.
Lee, who indeed criticized the film at the time, fired back saying, "In my film career, any comment or criticism has never been based on jealousy."
However, Chong hasn’t stopped repeating the film owes its controversy to Lee.
In 2016, when the film celebrated its 30th anniversary, she told The Wrap:
“It was only controversial because Spike Lee made a thing of it. He’d never seen the movie, and he just jumped all over it. He was just starting and pulling everything down in his wake. If you watch the movie, it’s really making white people look stupid.”
Chong also stated she would never forgive Lee for criticizing her performance as being “too white.”
“I always tried to be an actor who was doing a part that was a character versus what I call ‘blackting,’ or playing my race because I knew that I would fail because I was mixed,” she explained.
“I was the black actor for sure, but I didn’t lead with my epidermis, and that offended people like Spike Lee, I think. You’re either militant, or you’re not, and he decided to just attack. I’ve never forgiven him for that because it really hurt me.”
According to the actress, she didn’t realize at the time that not “pushing the afro-centric agenda” was going to be so detrimental for her reputation. She mentioned that, when black actors start to have success, people would call them Uncle Toms “because you’re acceptable.”
Chong also encouraged viewers to give “Soul Man” a second chance. “It’s romantic, lovely and fantastic. It’s really funny,” she said. “People should give it a view — especially people who were afraid it was racist.”