This or that! Which is better, the soundtrack or the movie: ‘Soul Food’

OPINION: In a series for Black Music Month, Panama asks one of the all-important questions about Black movies: Which is better: the soundtrack or the movie? 

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Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

It’s June in Black America, which means that it’s also Black Music Month, or as it’s known more contemporarily for federal celebration and proclamation purposes, African-American Music Appreciation Month. The feds are always watching, stay fresh, y’all.

Last week, we broke down which was better (or more iconic): Love Jones or the soundtrack, Love Jones: The Music. The movie won (to me…and you, your mama and your cousin, too.) This week, we have a new one up: Soul Food. 

Here’s a quick reminder and breakdown to explain how we’re going to come to our definitive, biblically-sound, scientific conclusion. We will use five different scientifically subjective and anecdotally sound categories; five because we need a potential tiebreaker: 

When you think of INSERT NAME HERE, do you think of the movie or the soundtrack first?—While this entire exercise could probably start and end here, why would we do such a thing? Plus, people are wrong sometimes. Not me, though. Y’all. 

What had more impact?—While sales should never be the main determinant of iconic status, a soundtrack can’t be iconic if nobody actually bought the thing. Or spent any time talking about it or there were no videos, etc. A movie can become a cult classic, a soundtrack pretty much needs to bop out the gate. Similarly, if a movie falls in the forest and nobody sees it, well, who in the hell left the gate open? It makes more sense in my head. 

How many iconic stars are in it?—Is the movie full of stars (or future stars) and does the soundtrack have a plethora of big names and features? Iconic things include iconic people. I’m sure there are exceptions to this, I hope I never get stuck with one.

What is the biggest moment?—In order for something to be iconic, there has to be something that everybody can remember about it immediately. For a movie, there has to be some kind of scene (or scenes) that folks are like “YASSSSSSS!” in a Beyoncé-dropped-an-album kind of way. For a soundtrack to be iconic, it has to have a song that had the people talking.

Which has remained more culturally relevant?—Admittedly, this is mad subjective, but I also objectively feel like this won’t be that hard to determine. Some soundtracks from the ’90s really just killed the game (i.e., The Show soundtrack; I haven’t even been compelled to watch the doc since probably 1999, which is a year I always aim to party like.)

Alright, you ready? In the parlance of certain Down South Georgia Boys, “We ready.” 

Soul Food, the 1997 film written and directed by George Tillman Jr., I think we can all agree that the movie and the soundtrack are iconic. But which one is more iconic? Let’s fight.

When you think of Soul Food, do you think of the movie or the soundtrack first?

This is an interesting question. When I think of Soul Food, I typically think of chicken. That’s a joke. I’ve never thought about this before but to name your movie Soul Food, man, that’s ballsy. It’s one of the most recognizable terms in Black America. I’m not even sure the movie lives up to the name, and this is a realization I’m literally just having right now in 2022. With that being said, I tend to think of the movie first, but mostly because of a lesson it taught me that I will never forget. I’m not sure if other folks feel the same, but I will speak for The Blacks and take that weight and say folks think of the movie before the soundtrack. 

Winner: Movie

Which had more impact?

This one feels hard but is probably not. I think people only checked out the soundtrack because of the movie. Why do I say that? Well, according to Box Office Mojo, the budget for Soul Food was $7.5 million, but it did approximately $44 million at the box office, which is a clear and runaway success for a film. I don’t even remember it being that big, but I do know I went to see it at a movie theater (probably at Magic Johnson’s Theatre at Greenbriar Mall in Atlanta, RIP) and I do remember it being packed. I also remember copping the soundtrack eventually because of the Outkast song “In Due Time” and the amazing video. But hold up; as it turns out, the soundtrack ended up being a monster; four songs charted in the top 25 of the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Charts! That’s some iconic stuff right there. All four of those songs—Total’s “What About Us,” Dru Hill’s “We’re Not Making Love No More,” Milestone’s (more on this group) “I Care About You,” and Boyz II Men’s “A Song for Mama”—all charted in the top 10 of the R&B charts. The Soul Food soundtrack went multiplatinum. So it’s a bit of a tossup, but…maybe that soundtrack hits harder than the movie. 

Winner: Soundtrack

How many iconic stars are in it?

Here’s where it also gets kind of interesting. Here are the stars—in 1997—in the film: Nia Long, Mekhi Phifer, Vanessa Williams and Vivica A. Fox. I think, at that point, the only person who was like A-list status was Vanessa Williams. Vivica was right on that cusp having just been Will Smith’s boo-thang in Independence Day and in one of the best movies ever made, Set It Off. Nia Long was coming off a run of Friday and Love Jones, the latter which dropped earlier in 1997. By the time Soul Food comes out, Mekhi’s biggest film was Spike Lee’s film Clockers, but that was probably more of a cult classic than big film. 

Meanwhile, this soundtrack includes Boyz II Men (I mean, come on), Dru Hill, Outkast, K-Ci and JoJo Hailey (as part of the made-up group Milestone that had a hit on the real charts), Total, Puffy, Lil Kim, Earth, Wind & Fire (though an old song), Xscape, Usher, Monica, etc. This soundtrack actually was a bit of a monster when I think about it. We might be turning a corner here. 

Winner: Soundtrack

What is the biggest moment?

The soundtrack’s biggest moment is the Boyz II Men song, “A Song for Mama,” the Babyface-written jam that set the tone for the movie. And it bombed atomically. It was everywhere for a while. But so was “We’re Not Making Love No More” by Dru Hill. Rap City kept Outkast’s “In Due Time” in constant rotation. There were very big moments on this soundtrack, but Boyz II Men kicked in the door, waving the four-four. 

There were a few pivotal moments in the film. The infamous fire scene that ended up making them not-quite-millionaires but made some things OK. The famous scene of Teri’s (Vanessa Williams)  husband Miles (Michael Beach) cheating on her with cousin Faith (Gina Ravera). In fact, the fact that since 1997 cousins named Faith are not allowed to stay overnight in folks’ houses might make this a pantheon-level Black film moment. So I think the movie might have to win here; I’m not even sure Boyz II Men’s song is the first song folks would mention from this soundtrack. Meanwhile, Cousin Faith. 

Winner: Movie

Which has remained more culturally relevant?

Please see above re: Cousin Faith. I think she and that affair are the most enduring legacies of the film. The soundtrack obviously was a winner, but man, again if you say Cousin Faith in a room full of Black folks old enough to have seen this film, you get very dirty looks. 

Winner: Movie

Well, thanks to a cheating cousin, the movie edged out the soundtrack 3-2. I actually thought the soundtrack might pull it out this time but no such luck. 

Shouts out to Soul Food Sundays lookin’ like Big Mama’s, mayne. 

Panama Jackson

Panama Jackson is a columnist at theGrio. He writes very Black things and drinks very brown liquors, and is pretty fly for a light guy. His biggest accomplishment to date coincides with his Blackest accomplishment to date in that he received a phone call from Oprah Winfrey after she read one of his pieces (biggest) but he didn’t answer the phone because the caller ID said “Unknown” (Blackest).

Make sure you check out the Dear Culture podcast every Thursday on theGrio’s Black Podcast Network, where I’ll be hosting some of the Blackest conversations known to humankind. You might not leave the convo with an afro, but you’ll definitely be looking for your Afro Sheen! Listen to Dear Culture on TheGrio’s app; download here.

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