20 Movies 20 Years Later

No Matter The Struggle, One Film Proved Nothing Is Stronger Than The Power Of Family

"Soul Food" turns 20 this year.

20 Movies 20 Years Later remembers and explores the films that touched us back then and still resonate today. Join A Plus as we rewatch movies released in 1997 and celebrate their contributions to pop culture.

Big Mama Joe (Irma P. Hall) has three daughters — lawyer Teri (Vanessa Williams), mother-of-three Maxine (Vivica A. Fox), and beauty salon owner Robin (aka "Bird," played by Nia Long) — and if there's one thing they don't tolerate, it's tomfoolery. So when a random woman starts grinding on Bird's new husband Lem (Mekhi Phifer) — on the dance floor at their wedding no less — the sisters devise a plot to handle the situation. 

Fortunately, their various talents aren't needed, because Big Mama defuses the situation, cutting in and bringing a smile to the faces of everyone in attendance.

Early on, we see just how much Big Mama loves her people, but we also see how crucial the matriarch is to keeping everyone in this Chicago family together, even when some of their personalities and motivations don't always mesh. 

That's why Big Mama's loss is so devastating, especially to Maxine's oldest child, Ahmad (Brandon Hammond), who is particularly close to his grandmother and who makes it his mission to keep the tight bond built over years of regular Sunday dinners filled with macaroni and cheese, fried chicken, biscuits, and other forms of soul food. 

But the barriers are challenging in Big Mama's absence. Teri is not one to let people forget how much things cost and how responsible she is, and is convinced the best thing to do is to sell their family home. This puts her at odds with Maxine — who is happily married to Kenny (Jeffrey Sams), Teri's ex-boyfriend from back in the day whom Maxine "stole" — and her husband Miles (Michael Beach), whose pursuit of a career in music she just won't accept for the former lawyer. There's also cousin Faith (Gina Ravera), whose mere presence further complicates Teri and Miles' relationship.

Bird and Lem have their own issues, specifically Lem's status as an ex-convict and his issues finding work. Out of desperation, Bird asks her old flame Simuel (Mel Jackson) for a favor. Bird withholds this detail from Lem, and things go well at first, but a miscommunication — and a fist to the face — result in Lem being arrested. 

All the while, Ahmad schemes of ways to try and get the entire family together over their Sunday dinner tradition. Sometimes it works, though it often leads to more arguments. Sometimes he fails entirely.

The film, written and directed by George Tillman Jr. — who went on to direct Men of Honor and the Biggie Smalls biopic Notorious — blends comedy and drama throughout its runtime, infusing it with moments of tension and feel-good laughs that mirror many a family get-together. The soundtrack — put together by Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds, who also co-produced the movie — is cohesive, further adding to the scenes' emotional intensity. It's no wonder Soul Food was the darling of the 1998 NAACP Image Awards, scoring five nominations across four categories and taking home four trophies, including one for Outstanding Motion Picture — a testament to how important the representation of this family was to the Black community, and would continue to be as the movie became a series on Showtime from 2000 to 2004. But Soul Food offers lessons for families of all types by showing just how thick blood can be and how familial bonds can't be broken.

Soul Food is available on Amazon, Google Play, HBO, iTunes, and YouTube.

Cover image: 20th Century Fox


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