It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
Although the premise of "Soul Man" has been greeted with widespread derision, it actually has a lot of potential - even if it has been made into a lame-brained movie. The film's hero is a UCLA graduate who poses as a black in order to qualify for a scholarship to Harvard Law School, and the movie follows him through his first semester, as he spars with a black professor, falls in love with a black woman and experiences racism.
This is a genuinely interesting idea, filled with dramatic possibilities, but the movie approaches it on the level of a dim-witted sit-com. Thoughtful scenes are followed by slapstick, emotional moments lead right into farce, and the movie doesn't have an ounce of true moral courage; it sidesteps every single big issue that it raises.
"Soul Man" hardly even seems to realize, for example, that the real subject of the film is not race but ethics - the ethics of pretending to be someone you are not, and lying to others about it.
In the movie, a rich Southern California kid (C. Thomas Howell) is admitted to Harvard, but his millionaire father won't pay the tuition. Howell is distraught until he finds out about a full scholarship available to a black applicant in the Los Angeles area. He applies, wins the scholarship, and makes himself look black by getting a curly perma nent and overdosing on suntan tablets. Is he convincing as a black? No, but in this movie, who cares? As a "black" at Harvard, Howell encounters a landlord who doesn't want to rent to him, a father who doesn't want him dating his daughter, and a lot of ethnic jokes. He also encounters a black professor (James Earl Jones) who holds him to the highest standards, and a fellow student (Rae Dawn Chong) whom he falls in love with. During these early passages in "Soul Man," I kept urging it to work because I felt the situation was so interesting. But this movie doesn't have the wit to work; it doesn't grapple sincerely with any of its issues, but just uses them as setups for predictable punch lines.