Watching the sibling rivalry erupt around the dinner table among three grown sisters, in the presence of their husbands, their children, a libidinous minister, and their wise, old mama, you'll think George Tillman, Jr. tapped into your childhood memories to write the script for Soul Food. Maybe you didn't grow up in a small town, maybe you're not black, and it's possible that the minister wasn't a frequent guest at your family's dinner table. It doesn't matter-this story is right out of America's collective unconscious. These characters aren't African-American, they're American.
Soul Food is about families, in this case Ahmad's (Brandon Hammond) family, who is struggling to carry on a family tradition of Sunday dinners during the hospitalization of the woman who has hosted those dinners for as long as they can remember. Big Mama (Irma P. Hall) is Ahmad's beloved grandmother and the mother of three daughters, Teri (Vanessa Williams), Maxine (Vivica A. Fox), who is Ahmad's mom, and Bird (Nia Long), as well as providing a home for a cousin, Faith (Gina Ravera). Modeled on the director's grandmother, Big Mama is everyone's ideal mother. It is her spirit, her 'food'-both the fried chicken and the 'soul's food'-that binds the family together. Although the film is about the importance of families, especially for young children, Tillman isn't advocating the kinds of things you associate with 'family values.' Rather, he's getting to the heart of how families help or hinder you-the film is shot through Ahmad's eyes-by providing you, early in life, with models for how people successfully form relationships and communicate emotion. For instance, Maxine and Bird resent Teri's frequent and heavy-handed interference-Teri's a successful lawyer-but when all is said and done, they realize they're drawn from the same cloth, and Teri's strengths and weaknesses reflect their own. The sisters' relationships remain strong because of Big Mama's commitment to the family, which they inherited, and it's that commitment that Ahmad has internalized. It's what allows him to keep the family together after Big Mama's death.
Tillman, a young director whose first feature film (Scenes for the Soul) is yet to be released, handles his large ensemble cast skillfully. Hammond (Space Jam, The Fan) is a convincing and lovable Ahmad. Mekhi Phifer, who was so good in Spike Lee's Clockers, gets to show his emotional range in his role as Lem, an ex-con struggling to make it in the straight world. Long (Made in America, Boyz N the Hood) gives a memorable performance as the entrepreneurial sister whose love for her husband Lem gets him through the most difficult time of his life.
In addition to his skill with actors, Tillman displays an exceptional talent for directing emotionally charged, heart-rending scenes, with remarkable insight and sensitivity. When Lem complains to Bird that a black man can't get a break, Bird tells him she's tired of hearing that excuse. Lem responds angrily-how can she know what it feels like to be a black ex-con looking for a job?-and the argument takes an ugly but realistic turn. Watching it, you experience Lem's frustration and Bird's, but you realize that, for Tillman, the argument expresses much more than the couple's struggle to keep their marriage together-it wouldn't even be taking place if there hadn't been a black diaspora, if the black man didn't start out with so many strikes against him. In a poignant and beautifully directed scene near the end of the film, Lem explains his mistakes to young Ahmad, and Tillman's message is very clear: Families can help African-Americans break the terrible cycle of racism.
Heartbroken over the family's estrangement, Ahmad invents a clever scheme to get them back together; he tells them he's found Big Mama's stash and he wants their ideas on how to spend it. In Tillman's universe, it's the wisdom of the very young and the very old that sustains the family, and it's the family that ultimately shapes the way you approach life outside it. That may not be an earth-shattering message, but Soul Food is so much better than most family-entertainment films that have far less to say. The film's greatest achievement is that it effortlessly portrays archetypal dilemmas through a cast composed entirely of people of color, while managing to keep their ethnic and cultural identities intact. It doesn't patronize or alienate white audiences either. That's quite an accomplishment for a young filmmaker.