Soul Food (US 1997)

Mama Jo and her three daughters in the kitchen
Mama Jo and her three daughters in the kitchen

I really enjoyed this film. A touch too schmaltzy perhaps but I’m prepared to forgive writer-director George Tillman Jr when the characters are as well drawn as these and the ensemble playing is so good. This is a genuine family melodrama which would not have shamed Hollywood in its classical melodrama period.

The narrative is female centred with the soul food of the title comprising the key focus for all the extended family’s concerns. In the original family home in Chicago, Mama Jo still presides over her grand Sunday feast. Upstairs her brother never ventures out of his room and his meals are taken up on a tray and left outside his door. The three grown-up daughters all have partners and in one case, children who come over on Sunday, along with the local Minister and, at holiday times, other assorted guests.

The narrative conflict arises from the different attitudes of the daughters. Teri (Vanessa Williams) is the careerist lawyer who has chosen work over family. She doesn’t have children and is in danger of losing her partner, another lawyer who would rather be a musician – but she earns the money that her sisters need to borrow. Maxine (Vivica A. Fox) is the happily married mother of two. Her son, Ahmad, is in the narrator of the story. The third daughter is Bird (Nia Long) and it is she who brings in to the family the potential narrative disruption when she marries Lem (Mekhi Phifer). Lem comes to the family with a criminal record behind him and although he has  turned a new leaf, the past catches up with him. When trouble starts, the different reactions of the family members help to make matters worse. Added to this is a further irritant – the arrival of Cousin Faith, a viper in the bosom as far as the sisters are concerned.

In parallel with this disruption, Mama Jo becomes seriously ill – her diabetes not halted by herbal medicine and, dare we suggest, not helped by her generous portions – and is unable to perform her usual healing effect on family squabbles. As Mama slips away, it is clear that the men cause the problems, but the squabbling sisters make them more difficult to resolve.

The focus on eating together in a family setting is of supreme importance and that’s why it provides the title of the film. We know full well that whatever happens, the family (presumably a metaphor for community) will all still have a chance to solve their problems if they can get back to the table and share some traditional dishes. Ham hocks, pigs feet, chitterlings, biscuits, fried chicken, greens, fishcakes, string beans, salads, black-eye peas and pasta are clearly on the menu. As Mama Jo says, “soul food cooking is cooking from the heart”.

There are many references through food and eating to other African-American movies, not least Daughters of the Dust and To Sleep With Anger. The film was successful and later became a successful TV series running for four seasons, but not coming to the UK as far as I know.

There is a perceptive review of the film here and also an interesting lesbian perspective on the TV Series which revels in the drama between three sisters.

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