By Richard Winters
My Rating: 1 out of 10
4-Word Review: His son is black.
Walter (George Segal) is living the American Dream as a rich company executive residing in the gated community of a posh suburb while also driving a Rolls Royce. However, he’s not happy with his wife Vivian (Susan Saint James) who’s frigid, nor his daughter-in-law Mary Ann (Vicky Dawson) who’s mouthy and spoiled. Yet he remains in the marriage because Vivian’s father Nelson (Jack Warden) is also Walter’s boss and climbing the career ladder is important to him. Then one day Roger (Denzel Washington) drops by and introduces himself as Walter’s son from a relationship Walter had with a black woman many years ago. Walter enjoyed his time with her, but broke it off due to pressure from Nelson who said it would stymie his career. Now Walter feels guilty from what he’s done and wants to make it up by allowing Roger to move in with him, but once his wife finds out she gets him fired. All of his money is tied up in company stocks that is either under his wife’s or father-in-law’s control, so without any income he’s forced to move into a hotel with Roger and then eventually to a rundown apartment in a dangerous area.
The script was written by Stanley Shapiro who received accolades in the early part of his career for scripting many Doris Day movies during the 50’s and 60’s, but he clearly got in over-his-head with this one. The concept and overall reactions from the characters is dated even for 1981. I was around in ’81 living in a small Midwestern town and I didn’t see half the overt racism that the characters here display despite the fact that it all takes place in California known as the liberal capital of the world. I’m not saying there isn’t some racism everywhere, but it gets exaggerated.
The Saint James character is particularly problematic. She plays the part in a funny way, but it’s a caricature. It would’ve been more revealing had she not been this stereotyped rich white person who feels comfortable displaying her bigotry, which would’ve been socially taboo in L.A. and she’d know it, but instead pretending to be okay with it, or even being an outward liberal who tries to be hip with race relations, but then, in more subtle ways, becomes increasingly less comfortable as it goes along.
Segal’s character comes-off as a massive conformist who will do whatever is takes to a part of ‘acceptable’ society. He even changes his last name to hide the fact the he’s Jewish, so where is this rebel side who moved-in with this black lady back in the 60’s when that would’ve created outrage and scandal? Some may argue that people change, sure that can sometimes happen, but there needs to be some factor that created it and the movie does not make that clear. The fact that he morphs into somebody that was so different from what he used to be makes him seem like two different people with no connecting thread at all. A more plausible storyline would’ve had him getting drunk one night and picking-up a black women at a bar for a one-night-stand, or secretly hiring a black prostitute just because he was curious about having sex with someone of a different race and then thought nothing more of it once it was over.
Susan’s character has the same issue. She coldly kicks Walter out of the house and then for some unexplained reason turns-up at the doorstep of his ratty apartment with her father and begs for him to come back, but with no clear rationale for what created this radical change-of-heart. I don’t think a racist, snotty woman like that would ever dare come into a dangerous area for any reason. She would’ve only done it had she been accompanied by armed guards, or maybe carrying a gun herself and openly flashing it, which could’ve been funny, but of course this stupid movie doesn’t even think to go there.
The over-the-top situations become increasingly ridiculous without a hint of nuance and as satire it’s about as sophisticated as an episode of ‘Gilligan’s Island’. That’s not to say there can’t be some excellent films about race relations as I found The Landlord to be terrific, but this thing lacks any serious insight. Many consider Soul Man to be the worst 80’s film about a white man trying to understand the black experience and get in-touch with their own inner bias and the bias of those around them, but this I consider to be just as bad. Denzel Washington, who makes his film debut here, is the only good thing about it, it’s just a shame they couldn’t have given him better material.
My Rating: 1 out of 10
Released: September 25, 1981
Runtime: 1 Hour 32 Minutes
Director: Michael Schultz
Studio: AVCO Embassy Pictures