It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
"Soul Food'' tells the story of a big African-American family from Chicago with warm-hearted good cheer; in the way it cuts between stories of romance and trouble, it's like "Waiting to Exhale," but more down to earth and believable--and funnier. It knows about how black families stay in constant communication down three or four generations and out to third cousins--how when a matriarch like the movie's Big Mama (Irma P. Hall) hosts a holiday dinner, there are going to be a lot of people in the house, and a lot of stories to catch up with.
The story is told through the eyes of Big Mama's grandson Ahmad (Brandon Hammond), who introduces us to the key players, especially his mother and her two sisters. His mom and dad are Maxine (Vivica A. Fox) and Kenny (Jeffrey D. Sams). The oldest sister is Teri (Vanessa L. Williams), a successful attorney, married to Miles (Michael Beach), who is also an attorney but wants to leave the law and follow his first love, music. The youngest sister, Bird (Nia Long, from "Love Jones"), has just married Lem (Mekhi Phifer) and opened a beauty shop with a loan from Teri.
Ahmad is young but observant, and starting with his clues we learn that Teri and Mile's marriage has lost its spark--Teri is a workaholic who's not interested in her husband's music. Bird and Lem are struggling, not least because of the shadowy presence of her former boyfriend (Mel Jackson). The whole family is apprehensive about the arrival back in town of Faith (Gina Ravera), who is thought to have been a stripper in California, and is well remembered for several loans she still hasn't paid back.
Oh, and the family extends further: It's a tribute to the script and direction by George Tillman Jr. that he makes them memorable, including the Reverend (Carl Wright), who is a faithful anchor at Big Mama's Sunday dinners, and the mysterious Uncle Pete (John M. Watson Sr.), who hasn't left his room in years. All of these people and more--including neighbors, church friends and sometimes even the homeless--turn up at Big Mama's on Sundays for her famous soul food feasts, at which long-simmering family issues sometimes come to the boil before Big Mama puts the lid on.