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This story first appeared in the July 3 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
Back in 1986, when Rachel Dolezal was still a Caucasian living in Montana, Soul Man was having its own problems with being white and passing as black.
The Steve Tisch-produced comedy centered on a wealthy white kid (C. Thomas Howell) who uses tanning pills, brown contact lenses and an Afro wig to pose as an African-American so he can receive a $54,000 affirmative-action scholarship to Harvard Law School. There, he falls in love with a black classmate (Rae Dawn Chong), learns that blacks in America have more problems than he realized and decides he’s better off working his way through school as a white guy.
This arc didn’t play well among some segments of the black community. “A white man donning blackface is taboo. Conversation over — you can’t win,” says Howell, who was 19 when the film was made. “But our intentions were pure: We wanted to make a funny movie that had a message about racism.”
When the New World comedy screened at Westwood’s Village Theatre, UCLA’s Black Student Alliance protested over “false statements about the economic realities black students face at school.” And the NAACP’s Beverly Hills chapter president said the plot revealed “the racism and sexism of the film’s creators.” (Soul Man did play well at the White House: President Reagan‘s son Ron made his film debut as a student who tries to get Howell on his basketball team because he’s black.)
“Our little film was maligned by the black community led by a jealous Spike Lee, who has never seen the film,” says Chong. Responds Lee, who denounced Soul Man at the time, “In my film career, any comment or criticism has never been based on jealousy.”
In the end, the $4.5 million movie became one of New World’s biggest hits, grossing more than $28 million domestically — and, according to THR, three weeks after opening, Soul Man was doing such strong business internationally that “New World appears well on the way to coming out nicely.” In 1997, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. acquired the company founded by Roger Corman from investor Ron Perelman for $2.8?billion.
As for Dolezal, the former president of the Spokane, Wash., chapter of the NAACP who resigned June 15 following allegations that she had lied about being black, Chong says she doesn’t understand why it’s such a big deal. “I am somewhat baffled by the big upset about Rachel Dolezal,” Chong tells THR. “Why is it such a thing now about her wanting to ID black? I say welcome her in — let her dress up in brownface and frizzy hair. It’s a compliment and refreshing. … I am tired of how the white liberal community, which is racist, and the black community, which is also racist, [is] overreacting yet again. We have bigger fish to fry these days like ridding the streets of guns [and] funding for mental health organizations to assist those in need.”
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