As the colder months emerge and the holiday season commences, it’s hard not to be nostalgic about good times with family. With Coronavirus cases surging once again, it looks like social distancing will continue to be a reality long through 2021. More than ever, we’ve all become aware of the times lost with loved ones, as well as the times we’ve taken for granted. It’s an age of both collective and individual mourning.
As the year comes to a close, I started to revisit the holiday films that mean a lot to me. Although it isn’t necessarily a holiday movie, the film that has resonated with me the most is Soul Food. It’s a celebration and magnifying glass of the Black American family and how they gather to not only celebrate the good times but mourn the bad regardless of the season. Released during a renaissance in Black-led films, in 1997 alone, Soul Food was joined by the likes of heavy-hitters such as Eve’s Bayou, Love Jones, B.A.P.S., Men in Black, Amistad, and Jackie Brown, among others. Notably, the soundtracks of many of the Black films of the period were as memorable as the features themselves. Music is part of the fabric of Black culture, and of course, the fare of the time mirrors that. With the crossover of music and film, both united together to tell stories. How many important soundtracks came out at the time? There are too many to count. There’s Waiting to Exhale, Friday, Juice, Set it Off, The Nutty Professor, Above the Rim, New Jack City, are just a few of the list. Soul Food is no exception.
Now a permanent fixture among Black culture, Soul Food never seems to age. Although it’s the portrayal of one Chicago family, it manages to speak to the universal experiences of the resilience of Black families who’ve gone through loss.
At the core of the film is its homage to Black motherhood. It opens with the tear-jerking Boys II Men song, “A Song For Mama,” which is possibly the greatest tribute song to mothers ever written. Long associated with the film’s longevity, “A Song For Mama” echoes how mothers, particularly Black matriarchs, are the family’s pillars. It is particularly special to me because it was sung to my family and is associated with another Boys II Men song, “End of the Road,” which my mother states (all the time) were playing on the radio when she found out she was pregnant with me.
As the song concludes during the opening credits, the film’s narrator, a child named Ahmad (Brandon Hammond), reminisces about his grandmother, Mother Joe (Irma P. Hall). Also affectionately called Big Mama, Ahmad recounts how she holds the family together, namely with ritual Sunday dinners. As expected, Mama Joe’s subsequent passing marks an era of difficulty for Ahmad’s family. Without Mama Joe’s positivity, insight, and leadership, her family temporarily crumbles.
A bitter financial battle ensues, old grudges resurface, and struggling relationships are exposed. Meanwhile, young Ahmad tries to bring his family back together. As he narrates with his childlike innocence, the audience sees how things really are. In his naivety, Ahmad doesn’t realize the complex relationships between his older family members, nor their fatal flaws (at least for the majority of the movie). While he loves everyone, he can’t really see much of the wrong they do to each other (especially his own mother). As a young man, he tries to step in and fill a void that Mama Joe left.
I’d watched Soul Food many times over the years, but it has taken on more meaning as I progressed through adulthood and finally began to understand the movie’s family dynamic and the soapy events that make up its plot. Soul Food, despite its imperfections, is sometimes a little closer to reality than we’d (or I’d) like to realize. We all have heard stories in passing that we didn’t quite understand until adulthood. There’s always the favorite aunties, the bougie auntie, the onery uncle, the fun cousins, and that one badass cousin that no one seems to like.
In fact, Soul Food was an extremely difficult rewatch, as I’ve been dealing with my own homesickness and years worth of grief that came to a head this fall. Soul Food, while originally a dramatic portrayal, became a mirror to my family and confronted me with some longstanding grief. I thought about my family down in Savannah, Georgia.
Back in 2006, I believe, my grandmother was diagnosed with Early Onset Alzheimers in her early fifties. I was only in middle school and didn’t quite understand it at the time until I slowly began to realize that she was losing her memory and a lot of her physical abilities. A couple of years later, she was confined to her bed and no longer able to speak. Constantly, I think about all the stories she’ll never be able to tell and all the things I’ve never gotten a chance to share with her in my adult years.
While she is still here physically, her emotional absence led to a plethora of turmoil over the years, including a nasty financial battle over her money and assets. One of my family’s matriarchs, her presence was a uniting one. She was the main line of connection between my father, the rest of our family, and me. Always positive and loving, she was one of the first to encourage me in my endeavors, even if I hadn’t quite figured out what to do yet. Her illness would change the entire family’s course and mine.
Unfortunately, from the sidelines, I watched my family fall apart similarly to Ahmad’s. As a child, I remember visits with my Granny in Savannah were filled with fun get-togethers, but as time passed, there were fewer gatherings, and more and more relatives weren’t talking to each other. I hadn’t really noticed much of the petty squabbles or tensions between my family members during my childhood. When you’re a kid, you just love spending time with them, no matter who they are.
Soul Food shows the film from a child’s perspective. He’s not blind to the strife in his family but is a bystander trying to understand “grown folk’s business.” There are points where the adults try to shield him from the distressing events (Big Mama in her hospital bed, and when Teri walks in on Miles and Faith)…but the messiness is unavoidable. As a child viewing the film, I didn’t comprehend either. However, as an adult, I finally did. In childhood, you’re asked to stay away while the adults are talking, but when I reached adulthood myself, I was allowed to sit on the porch with the other “grownups” and listen to their stories. It was pretty eye-opening, to say the least.
Ahmad’s parents, Maxine (Vivica A. Fox) and Kenny (Jeffrey D. Sams), started as a secret affair, one of which involved Maxine’s sister Teri (Vanessa Williams). Meanwhile, Teri still harbors resentment towards Maxine, especially since Maxine asks, or better yet, tells Teri to pay for things. Teri is a hardened career woman in a struggling marriage and bears the family’s financial burdens, such as Mama Joe’s medical bills. Aside from Ahmad, his aunt Bird (Nia Long) seems to be the most eager to bring the family together. Although she’s a terrible cook, she crafts a Sunday dinner that almost no one comes to and tries to pull strings to get her husband (Mehki Phifer) a job. Lastly, there’s the infamous cousin Faith (Gina Ravera), who sleeps with Teri’s husband (Michael Beach). This, in turn, begets the iconic line, “FUCK THE FAMILY!”
During this scene, where Teri screams then chases her husband, then Faith with a knife, Ahmad stands stunned.
In my own family, I saw the anger that had arisen. Particularly with the fight for my grandmother’s money, I saw the worst. Most of it was from confusion and continued grief and not knowing healthy ways to handle it, myself included. I wondered if we could ever have times like we used to. Of course, Teri didn’t mean “fuck the family.”
On and off, I struggled with my relationship with my father’s side of the family. I significantly reduced contact. Then, in October of this year, my Godmama passed away suddenly. My Granny’s best friend and a rock in my family for decades, her loss was a devastating blow. The voice of reason, she helped me understand what my family was going through and encouraged me in both good and bad times. She preached forgiveness and pushed me to keep the connections alive. She didn’t have any biological children, but she was a mother in the community. She was in the lives of my aunts, uncles, cousins, and to many other children as a substitute teacher, and so many others. In Soul Food, although Big Mama isn’t there physically, the family realizes it needs to stick together and continue on. Ahmad points out the devastation they caused and how Mama Joe wanted them to continue Sunday dinner. He attempts to rekindle the tradition on his own, even inviting a fresh out of jail Lem, (Phifer) Miles, (Beach), and Faith- whom he still views with loving eyes.
It’s saddening that it took another loss and a pandemic to help me come closer to my family. It shouldn’t be that way, but that’s often how it is. Of course, nothing is an overnight fix, but Soul Food shows us that we can also come back together and overcome. In addition to its homage to mothers and the Black family, Soul Food teaches us to appreciate our family while they’re still here and make memories. And even when they’re gone, their legacy still sticks with us.
Soul Food closes out with another Sunday dinner and a reprise of “A Song For Mama.”
And you took up for me
When everyone was downin’ me
You always did understand
You gave me strength to go onThere were so many times
Looking back when I was so afraid
And then you’d come to me and say to me
I can face anything