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Hollywood put up plenty of obstacles. 'Soul Food' still became a Black TV pioneer

Greg Braxton, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

Before "Power" surged, before "Empire" sang, before "Greenleaf" rejoiced, "Soul Food" cooked.

The Showtime drama, about a multi-generational family whose members made it a point to always come together for Sunday dinner no matter how deep their differences, was a trailblazer, bursting into prime time during an era when dramas about Black people were a rarity. Even with a cast that was mostly unknown at the time, the series was a success, running for five seasons and demonstrating that viewers would tune into a drama centered on a Black family.

Producers and cast members marked the 20th anniversary of the premiere -- June 28, 2000 -- by celebrating its legacy.

"I'm so grateful to have been part of this amazing moment in TV history," said Felicia D. Henderson, who created the series. "It was such an uphill battle at the time. The feeling among executives in TV was that people were not interested in Black-themed dramas. There had been other dramas with Black people, but they only lasted a season."

Boris Kodjoe, who currently stars in "Station 19," says "Soul Food" was a professional and personal milestone for him. It marked his first major acting role, and he wound up marrying costar Nicole Ari Parker, whom he met on the set.

"The show really opened doors to a more diverse representation of Black people, and people in general," said Kodjoe, who played Damon Carter, a messenger with a bodybuilder's physique. "It showed real courage in going into uncharted territories, and it empowered voices like Shonda Rhimes and Kenya Barris and all the others who came after 'Soul Food.' "

 

The series was a continuation of the film "Soul Food," which, with its glittery cast, became a sleeper hit in 1997 -- its popularity extending beyond Black audiences to attract white viewers as well.

Said Parker, who played uptight attorney Teri Joseph: "That movie really changed the landscape for Black entertainment. It showed the full spectrum of what's inside a large family, good and bad, Black or white. There was no sugarcoating of what's inside a big family, but at the same time, it gave the gravitas, the love and the beauty of a family that is trying to thrive."

"Soul Food" was focused on the Josephs, led by loving matriarch Big Mama Joe (Irma P. Hall). The core of the film was the electric dynamic among the three Joseph sisters and their families. Teri (Vanessa Williams) was a successful lawyer whose relationship with younger sister Maxine (Vivica A. Fox) had been strained since Maxine stole Teri's boyfriend and married him. Youngest sister Bird (Nia Long) owned a beauty shop.

No matter their differences, the family always come together on Sundays at Big Mama's house for a huge dinner. But when Big Mama suffers a severe stroke and winds up in the hospital, the battle among the sisters escalates.

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