Fried chicken, cornbread, smoked ham, deep-dish cobbler, macaroni and cheese these are the dishes that bind, at least in this splendid story about a black family whose 40-year tradition of scrumptious Sunday dinners brings everyone in the family together.
Spiced with big pinches of humor and ladled over with a generous portion of affection, “Soul Food” is appealing and a refreshing change from the gang-banger, exploitive nonsense that passes for portraits of blacks today.
With its terrific cast, centering on Vanessa Williams, Vivica A. Fox and Nia Long, “Soul Food” will prove a wonderful dessert for black audiences, while its heartfelt, saucy story should cross over to sophisticated viewers of all races.
In studio pitch-ese, “Soul Food” is “Bonanza” with urban black females instead of range-riding white guys. The head of this household is Mother Joe (Irma P. Hall), a steadfast matriarch who takes the good with the bad - that’s folks as well as news - and makes it all work out. That’s no mean feat, considering the oil-and-vinegar nature of her three daughters, who don’t, to say the least, always see eye to eye. And, natch, they’re married to three equally diverse guys.
They include: Teri (Williams), an ambitious buppie lawyer whose second marriage to a fellow lawyer (Michael Beach) is fraying at the seams; Maxine (Fox), the solid second sister whose down-home sensibilities and solid marriage to Jeffrey D. Sams’ character have nurtured her children’s growth; and Bird (Long), an effervescent hairstylist who is a risk-taker, giving unconditional love to her struggling, ex-con husband (Mekhi Phifer).
With all her survival wisdom, Mother Joe is a bit of a slacker when it comes to following a proper diet to control her diabetes. She takes ill, and the verdict is she’ll have to have her leg amputated. During surgery, the woman falls into a deep coma. Without her Rock-of-Gibraltar strength, the family comes apart - bickering, backstabbing, cheating.
It gets pretty messy and, ironically, the only one with the maturity to want to patch up things is Maxine’s son, Ahmad (Brandon Hammond). Things get so nasty that while Mother Joe lies in the hospital, the family does not even keep up the Sunday dinners.
Throughout, screenwriter and director George Tillman Jr. percolates the mix with the natural stuffings of life, some more palatable than others. He’s served up a terrific, heartwarming family story and, best, there are no artificial-sweetener additives.
While pickier viewers might grouse about a tendency to idealize unrealistically the young grandson’s wisdom, it’s a wonderful notion and generally carried out with credible aplomb by the acting ability of young Hammond.
The grown-ups aren’t bad either. Williams is credible as the edgy, vainglorious lawyer, while Fox is positively winning as the sensible middle sister. As the baby of the family, Long is effervescent as the most adventurous of the trio.
As the family matriarch Mother Joe, Hall is perfectly cast, an inspirational figure all the way to the core.
Among the menfolk, Beach is convincing as a man torn between his profession and his dreams, while Sams is strong as a solid family man.
Phifer’s performance captures nicely the tough temptations faced by a man with a criminal record. Gina Ravera is sizzling as a prodigal dancer.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: “Soul Food” Location: East Sprague and Newport cinemas Credits: Directed by George Tillman Jr., starring Vanessa Williams, Vivica A. Fox, Nia Long, Michael Beach, Mekhi Phifer, Brandon Hammond, Jeffrey D. Sams, Gina Ravera, Irma P. Hall, Carl Wright Running time: 1:54 Rating: R