FYS: ‘American Soul’

So, I’m seven episodes into BET’s American Soul and honestly, I’m still not sure if I like it. Wait, let me take that back. I mean, I do like parts of it. Just not all of it. The limited series is the story of how Soul Train was founded, established, and became the longest-running, hippest trip in America. And… I guess it is that. But it’s a lot more, too. And that’s where my confusion comes in. I mean, it’s also a story of a family that lost their patriarch to war, and about the investigation of the shooting of a police officer, and about a young lady who quits her job to dance, and a story about dancers, and gangsters, and Bobby Brown in bad makeup. 

Whet? Right. Thankfully, we have EBT BET to go to for a more intensive dive into what the show’s really about. I’ll let them tell it:

An unflinching look at the Don Cornelius, his Soul Train dancers, crew and musicians in an unforgiving Hollywood in the 1970s.

Yeah, that’s all they give us. Which is nothing, really. Thanks, Obama.

OK, since we’re left to our own devices, let’s look at it logically. There are parts of American Soul that work, and a lot of parts that are questionable at best, like Don’s relationship with his son Tony (who happens to be an executive producer on the show), the reason for JT being part of the show at all (besides his relationship with Simone), and why Kendall has a whole ass baby at such a young age (I don’t get it, especially since he seems to be able to go and do as he pleases). However, since we usually come to praise shows and not to bury them, how about we list the things the show is doing right. And that keep me invested. 

1. KELLY PRICE. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I saw that Price was cast in the show, but I did know that she could bring the drama based on her history on reality shows (literally) playing herself. But acting? She had to show me. And for the most part, she has, playing the widow of a fallen war hero and the mother of the talented Clarke kids, Simone and Kendall. Her attachment to the soldier that showed up at her front door might seem a bit weird, but trying to reconcile your husband dying suddenly in a war nobody wanted is likely made easier if you have someone around who went through it with him. That saw him and interacted with him just before his death. Kelly’s been good as Mama Clarke. And she can still sing. Good times.

2. SINQUA WALLS. I promise, he looked like Dwyane Wade with a wig during those promos that aired during the Soul Train Awards last November, and the clips they aired made him look dead in the eyes, but I must admit that Walls is carrying the role of Don Cornelius and adding the appropriate swagger it must’ve taken to get Soul Train to its greatest heights. I’m also sure that as bad as Cornelius is being portrayed in this series (the punches thrown, the talking down to his staff–especially Tessa… goodness, the fratenizing with the gangsters, the mean streak that rares its head in almost every episode, the killing of the possum with merely a blank stare), he was likely even worse. I could probably blame the sanitizing of his soul on his son Tony, who again is an executive producer, but it’s probably just as likely EBT BET is giving him more moral high ground as well, making him a more likeable character. Which is fine. Sinqua is good, not great. And that’s good enough for this.

3. THE CAMEOS. Having Kelly Rowland play Gladys Knight was somewhat outside of the box thinking, and even having K Michelle play Martha Reeves when Michelle has no real acting experience was forward thinking. Michelle Williams as Diana Ross was safe. But Bobby Brown as Rufus Thomas and Wayne Brady as Little Richard? Those casting choices took the cake and still have me laughing days after watching them both. Robi Reed and her crew have been bold, if nothing else. And honestly, seeing who’s up next on the American Soul Train stage keeps me coming back each week. 

4. IANTHA RICHARDSON. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Richardson plays adult Tess on This Is Us and now Tessa on American Soul. Clearly it’s her ministry to play characters with that name. It’s also her ministry to command every scene she’s in on Soul, whether she’s giving the Arthur fist to Sinqua Walls’ character, or dancing on an empty stage after tapings, giving us every bit of early Debbie Allen goodness. Her greatest testimonies have been how she handles the dancers, for sure, but also how she reclaimed her time by quitting the show and chasing her dreams of being a dancer, forcing Don to deal with it and her husband to go with it. Sure, she’ll probably be back babysitting the teenagers soon enough, but watching Richardson show her grown woman to everyone in her circle has made me smile. 

5. THE DANCERS. And by dancers I mean Flo, who is played by the charasmatic India McGee. She’s mean, thinks very highly of herself, commands respect from the other dancers, and finally showed that she had a heart while falling for the nerdy but talented Kendall Clarke. That range is rare for EBT BET shows, and even more impressive since she only gets a few minutes air time each week. She might be one of the breakout stars from the series, and if it’s true that she was only supposed to appear in one episode when the show was first constructed, she’s already won by having her role expanded and her range on display.

6. KATLYN NICHOL. This was originally going to be about Katlyn, who plays Simone Clarke, and Jelani Winston, who plays her brother Kendall. However, it can’t be, because Katlyn deserves her own paragraph. In fact, she deserves her own show. She is THE breakout star from American Soul and at 20, can probably outsing most soul singers making music today. Her voice is incredible, and you know how I know the producers know how incredible she is? One, because she’s been given the primetime spot in the credits by being the last name listed, and Two, because they find a way each week to give her a spotlight song. That’s largely unheard of on a show with a cast that large, and one with so many unnecessary stories going on at once. You’d think that taking away from the advancement of certain storylines for the sake of her singing would make the show worse. Nope. Honestly, if it were just about her, her brother, her mama, Tessa, and Don, I’d be happy. Throw in a little Delores (played by Perri L. Camper, who is so, so fine), and that show would keep me coming back for many seasons. Katlyn is a star. She deserves the spotlight she’s been given. This show will hopefully catapult her career and give us what we deserve, many albums from this talented young lady. She gives American Soul it’s, um, soul.

So that’s what I like about the show. It’s good, it’s bad, the acting is sometimes shaky, and the storylines are mostly bad. But dammit it’s about Soul Train, and I’ll continue to be here for it. Even if it’s on EBT BET. 

For Your Saturday, Ladies and Gentlemen… it’s American Soul

American Soul airs Tuesdays at 9PM on BET.


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