On ‘Soul Food’ & Centering the Black Matriarch In Cinema

Soul Food Movie
Photo: 20th Century Fox.

Mother’s Day is this Sunday. In addition to showering our moms with flowers, gifts and flooding our social media timelines to declare just how much we love them, there will be plenty of viewing parties as we snuggle with our moms watching movies and reruns of our favorite TV shows. One movie that is always shown around this time of year–that centers the Black matriarch is Soul Food.

For those who don’t know, Soul Food is a 1997 drama helmed by The Hate U Give director George Tillman, Jr. and told through the eyes of 11-year-old Ahmad Chadway (Brandon Hammond), as he fights to keep his family together through his grandmother’s illness. Josephine Joseph (Irma P. Hall), or “Big Mama” as she is affectionately called, and her three daughters Terri (Vanessa Williams), Maxine (Vivica A. Fox), and Bird (Nia Long)–along with their families, come together each week for their 40-year Sunday dinner tradition. Unbeknownst to the Joseph sisters, Sunday dinner serves as Big Mama’s tactic to keep their familial bond strong.

Something as simple as a sweet mother/grandmother making dinner for her family might seem small to some. However, the reason Soul Food has withstood the test of time is because it exemplifies the narrative of the Black woman as the nucleus of the Black family. 

The Black matriarch is a powerful figure. She is normally the chosen one by default because of the way she carries herself. Oftentimes, the matriarch carries the weight of their families, both close and extended. They transcend generations–able to relate to those closest and furthest in age with their wisdom and wit. Ever the multi-tasker, they manage a household while working one or multiple jobs, act as pillars in their churches and communities while remaining present for their families achievements and crises. In between their motherly, spousal and community roles, they are magically able to maintain an immaculate appearance regardless of their age and commitments. This is in direct contrast to the Black Mammy stereotype that was a staple when cinema was first invented. 

soul food still On Soul Food & Centering the Black Matriarch In Cinema

Image: 20th Century Fox.

As Soul Food, 1974’s Claudine and even television shows like Good Times and The Cosby Show suggest, there’s something about an older Black woman’s love and wisdom that is unmatched. In Soul Food, Big Mama becomes the singular pillar of her family after her husband’s death. She was strong, selfless and readily available for whatever her family needed her for. She could spot trouble from a mile away and prevent chaos from ensuing. In one particular scene, newlywed Bird is prepared to cause a riot after seeing her husband dance with another woman at their wedding reception. Feeling the tension, Big Mama easily defuses the situation by joining her new son-in-law on the dance floor and putting on a show. All of this sums up the majesty of the Black matriarch.

Our childhoods are often defined by our mothers in particular. However, Soul Food showcases that the older the Joseph sisters grew, the more they seemed to need Big Mama. Nearly everyone, no matter what their race or ethnicity, can relate to needing your mother as the harsh realities of adulthood start to show their complex faces. Our relationships with our mothers also begin to shift. We tend to take on the role of “parent” as our parental figures age, which can sometimes cause chaos and confusion.

In Soul Food, Big Mama struggles to step away from her matriarch role or listen to the advice of her daughters. She’s used to living her life on her own accord –even to the detriment of her health. She remains committed to her stubbornness–refusing to listen to her doctor’s advice even when her diabetes takes a turn for the worse. I can’t count the number of times I myself have pleaded with my mama or aunts about taking a medical problem seriously, but they insist on doing things their way. As the Joseph family showcases, this can also lead to a breakdown in familial ties. 

soul food movie 1 On Soul Food & Centering the Black Matriarch In Cinema

Image: 20th Century Fox.

Wellness in the Black community and a shift in parent/child relationship aren’t the only themes in Soul Food. It also reflects on deep-seated issues that can arise with problematic relatives. The respect that you have for the matriarch of your family oftentimes determines the way in which you interact, and sometimes tolerate, the other members of your family, regardless of your personal feelings towards them. In the movie, whatever Big Mama says, or implies through teaching, is law.

Big Mama’s close relationship with her troubled niece Faith (Gina Ravera), compels Terri to begrudgingly allow her cousin to stay in her home when she arrives in Chicago unexpectedly. Because Big Mama preaches the importance of forgiveness, the rest of the family ultimately forgives Faith for her many faults and indiscretions. Likewise, Bird musters up the patience to deal with her husband Lem’s (Mekhi Phifer) constant battle with staying on the right side of the law. She watched her mother help her father through his gambling problem during their marriage. Also, when the family needs it most, it’s young Ahmad who makes it his mission to continue the work his grandmother began by resurrecting the Sunday dinner tradition when his mother and aunts no longer make it a priority. The family’s ability to press on through tough times is a testament to Big Mama’s presence and impact. 

Soul Food still resonates today because it has varied parallels to real life. It takes Big Mama’s death for the Joseph family to realize the importance of traditions like Sunday Dinner. Though her absence is felt, it does not stop the rest of the family from taking what they learned from her and applying it to their core values. In honor of this Mother’s Day, take the time to watch Soul Food and spend some time with your own version of Big Mama. It’s a film that honors our mammas not just every year, but every day.

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