Mark Watson (C. Thomas Howell) awakens one morning to the sound of his radio alarm, which he switches off with a well-aimed tennis ball. It is then he notices that he is not alone on the bed, as there is a blonde woman lying beside him. Before he can gather his thoughts, the bedroom door bursts open and his best friend Gordon (Arye Gross) jumps on top of him: he has the letters from Harvard they have been waiting for, and the news is good. They have both been accepted, and as they both have rich parents, they don't need to worry about money. Or at least Mark doesn't until his father tells him he isn't going to pay up this time...
And so begins the much-maligned Soul Man, which had to suffer accusations of racism due to its central notion. What happens is that privileged Mark cannot get funding for his courses as he does not qualify for any of them, so the obvious thing to do, he decides, is to overdose on tanning pills so he turns black, then apply for an African-American scholarship. Yes, it was all about a white man passing for black, not to see how differently he would be treated by society, but for his own personal gain and because he liked The Cosby Show. Not the most appealing of protagonists, then.
And for the first half of the film, he is very much the "asshole" that Sarah (Rae Dawn Chong), his classmate, judges him to be, which makes for some uncomfortable viewing. The trouble is, well, the first trouble is, that Howell is entirely unconvincing as a black man - he would have been rumbled in minutes because simply painting brown makeup on him and giving him a black and curly wig does not make him look a different race, he looks as if he's wearing blackface. Therefore a certain suspension of disbelief is necessary before you can get on with the rest of the story, and that may not be enough for many viewers.
The other trouble is that Soul Man is meant to be a comedy, but screenwriter Carol Black had actually rustled up a premise better suited to searing social drama. Howell is better in his scenes as the spoiled rich kid, but if his ambition was to be annoying when he adopts his disguise then he succeeds with conviction. The humour is strictly frothy, culminating in a setpiece where Mark has to welcome into his apartment the patronising rich girl who fancies him because she thinks he's black, his unexpectedly visiting parents, plus Sarah, who he has grown attached to and wants to impress. It's the stuff of farce, but it needed a lighter touch than director Steve Miner is able to offer.
While Soul Man can be seen as crass for a while, it's as if its conscience gets the better of it eventually and things start to get tougher for Mark. He keeps overhearing a couple of students telling racist jokes that become harder and harder to shrug off, he gets harassed by the police and spends a night in the cells for a triviality, and he finds out that Sarah (Chong is better than the material, really) would have won the scholarship he got if he had opted to find a part time job to support himself as she has been forced to do (and she has a young son to look after, just to rub the hardship in). So it turns out that the film had its heart in the right place after all, and while tackling the theme as comedy might have been misguided, it does make a fair point about racial attitudes. Just not very well. Music by Tom Scott.