Think of it as a clarion call to dinner. On its opening weekend, a little $7.5 million drama called Soul Food — about an African-American family held together by Sunday meals — grossed $11 million, only $1 million less than The Peacemaker, the heavily hyped, $70 million George Clooney-Nicole Kidman actioner that opened on 1,000 more screens. And for its second-week follow-up, the quiet, gentle Soul Food beat out The Peacemaker for the No. 2 slot.
Stunned? Amazed? If so, you must work for one of the several Hollywood studios that passed on the Soul Food script when it was making the rounds nearly two years ago. Soul Food’s journey to the screen, in fact, is a surprising case study of just how stubborn studio executives are when it comes to greenlighting movies geared toward middle-class African Americans.
Writer-director George Tillman Jr.’s script was first offered to studios in June 1996, six months after Waiting to Exhale (based on the Terry McMillan novel) had created a frenzy at the box office and made it glaringly apparent that middle-class African Americans would embrace the chance to see a semblance of their lives portrayed on screen. But while studios are usually quick to play follow the profits, in this case they haven’t been. The upcoming family drama Eve’s Bayou, opening Oct. 24 and produced by its star Samuel L. Jackson and its writer-director, Kasi Lemmons, was financed by the independent Trimark. Major studios are follow- ing up with features designed for crossover appeal — highly pedigreed films like Beloved, Disney’s adaptation of Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize winner, directed by Jonathan Demme and starring Oprah Winfrey; and DreamWorks’ Amistad, the December film based on a slave-ship revolt, directed by Steven Spielberg and headlined by Anthony Hopkins and Matthew McConaughey.
Twentieth Century Fox is the only studio consistently tapping Soul Food’s audience. It also released Exhale and is now adapting author McMillan’s How Stella Got Her Groove Back, starring Angela Bassett and Whoopi Goldberg. And when Kenneth ”Babyface” Edmonds and his wife, Tracey, were forming a production company, ”Fox was the first studio to reach out to us,” says Tracey. Soul Food producer Robert Teitel says it wasn’t until the Edmonds took the project to Fox — with Vanessa L. Williams, Vivica A. Fox, and Irma P. Hall attached — that they were met with enthusiasm. ”One studio executive said, ‘There’s not enough killing, there’s not enough action, no one will see it,”’ Teitel remembers. ”You would have thought they would have known better by then.”
Fox also knew that African-American appeal didn’t guarantee a hit; Spike Lee’s Get On the Bus and the Whitney Houston-Denzel Washington romance The Preacher’s Wife were disappointments last year. So the studio’s marketing minds sharply targeted Soul Food’s core audience. ”We basically gave it away for free so that people would start talking about it,” Fox 2000’s president, Laura Ziskin, says of the dozen or so screenings held mostly in New York and L.A. Screenings were also held at the National Association of Black Journalists convention in Chicago and at the Urban World Film Festival in New York City.