In Soul Food, writer-director George Tillman Jr. shows a middle-class black family in Chicago as a matriarchy held together by communal meals. Mother Joe (Irma P. Hall) cooks an elaborate soul food dinner for her extended family every Sunday, providing nourishment for both their bodies and spirits. (In a strange omission, Tillman doesn't mention church in connection with these Sunday gatherings.)
Mother Joe has seen her three daughters grow into capable, successful adults. Cool and distant Teri (Vanessa L. Williams) is an affluent attorney married to her second husband, Miles (Michael Beach), a lawyer who's more interested in his budding music career.
Maxine (Vivica A. Fox), solid yet feisty, is most like her mother. A homemaker in a seemingly idyllic marriage to Kenny (Jeffrey D. Sams), she's about to give birth to their third child. The vivacious Bird (Nia Long) owns her own hair salon and, early in the film, marries the magnetic Lem (Mekhi Phifer), rebuilding his life after a stint in prison.
Soul Food concentrates on domestic issues, packing its soap-opera plotline chock-full of emotion-manipulating situations. But what ultimately makes it so banal isn't the story itself, but the method of telling it. Maxine's 10-year-old son, Ahmad (Brandon Hammond), narrates the film, and the most intense issues that this family is faced with -- birth, death, love, responsibility -- are filtered through his sensibility and stripped of any complexity.
Tillman's rosy vision of familial harmony, where togetherness becomes a panacea for all of life's problems, is as smooth and calculated as the music of executive producer Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds, which peppers the film.
Dissenters aren't tolerated (Teri is portrayed as a heartless shrew when she resents the family's assumptions that she'll always pick up the check) and the film conveniently skirts troubling issues, such as the connection between Mother Joe's diet and her health problems.
In asserting the strength and importance of a strong united front, George Tillman glosses over the very real struggles within even the most loving families. Soul Food may have been intended as a feast, but it's mostly leftovers.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected].