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BET's 'American Soul' Is Not A Biographical Series: Premiere Recap

The new drama series is more than just a show about Soul Train.

American Soul is not a show about Soul Train. It’s a show about Don Cornelius -- and his marriage, and a group of Soul Train dancers, and their parents, and his dance coordinator, and a shady club owner. And, apparently, Gladys Knight.

The series premiere had a lot going on. At moments, it was difficult to grasp how the narratives were coming together. We showed up for the story of Cornelius’ creation and the construction of the 37-year-long Soul Train series and legacy; why were we being introduced to soldiers and toddlers and bossy big mama figures who run diners? For viewers who lived through at least some of Soul Train’s golden era and know the show’s history, it was hard to resist trying to fit the events of this episode into the bigger story as we know it.

It’s important to note the disclaimer on the opening card: that American Soul is inspired by true events; but “some characters, places, and events have been fictionalized for dramatic purposes”. Indeed. American Soul has to stand independently of actual events to be properly enjoyed.

The show opens on February 1, 2012; the day Don Cornelius committed suicide in his Encino, Calif. home. Cornelius (Sinqua Walls) watches a classic episode of the show featuring Gladys Knight (Kelly Rowland), a wistful smile on his face and tears streaming from one eye as he places a gun to his head. This suggests the series intends to, over time, bring us all the way up to his suicide, which is probably too ambitious to be possible. If that’s not the intention, this framing of the first episode might have been overkill (no pun intended). That was a prevailing issue: the story of Cornelius and Soul Train is great in itself, but the “dramatization” is heavy.

The premiere episode focused on Soul Train’s national launch and the tasks Cornelius must accomplish to make it happen, namely raising seed money for the show’s move to L.A. and securing a Top 10 act for the first show, a condition of his syndication deal. We’re presented with an eager, energetic and risk-taking Cornelius, a profile largely counter to the composed, controlled persona we know. Cornelius never revealed much of his personal self in his years as host of Soul Train. This is the most intriguing aspect of the series– getting to learn who he was outside of the show. But how much of that is the fictionalized part? Do we really believe Don was cracking jokes about blowing up the bathroom? (I’ve decided to not believe that, personally.)

By the end of the episode, Don has faced down racist cops (in a very Five Heartbeats-inspired scene), stood up to James Brown’s goons, dipped into his family’s hands-off savings, gone on a mild coke and alcohol binge, and been exposed as an impossible boss and a reformed cheater. But he’s also the man doggedly chasing his dream—a dream that will belong to all black people. His ability to sell that dream to others—first shady nightclub owner Gerald Aims (Greenleaf’s Jason Dirden, continuing his efforts to take Terrence Howard’s country-slickster-with-a-perm crown and claiming all the best lines in the show, including the title quote), then to Gladys, positioned in the show as a guide of sorts for Cornelius—gets him through this week’s set of obstacles.

We’re also introduced to three members of the Soul Train Gang: Kendall Clarke, younger sister Simone Clarke and JT Tucker, aspiring singers hoping Soul Train will give them the exposure and grant them their big break as a singing group. This is an area where American Soul has great potential. The Soul Train dancers were unsung stars of the series, and little was known even about the stars in the group. Giving them lives and backstory through these three is a great concept. The kids are facing their own challenges. Kendall is a young father who, unbeknownst to his family, is trying to get out of the military draft. JT is struggling to keep his family afloat despite his mother’s drug habit. Simone’s challenge is JT. Her mother (played by Kelly Price) doesn’t approve of the relationship, and she’s had to hide it from her father, who’s in Vietnam.

We follow these three from a very funky Grease audition, to a failed audition as the house band for Club 100 Proof (owned by Gerald), to Soul Train auditions, which Cornelius unceremoniously interrupts and cuts short.

Lastly, there’s Tessa Lorraine, the Soul Train dance coordinator. We first meet her when she appears to scout the teens at the Grease high school musical rehearsal. We see her again at the interrupted dancer auditions - auditions she was running. Tessa is frustrated and feels disrespected and undervalued by Cornelius. But, she has the complete support of her cutie husband (casting did a great job with all these black men, by the way. Shout out to them).

The show closes with a round of heavy foreshadowing for each character: Simone’s father calls and Brianne (Price) expresses surprise because it’s “so close to (him) coming home.” Kendall proposes to his son’s mother as a solution to avoid going into service, but she’s moved on.

JT’s mom is behind on the rent, and the landlord is fed up. Gerald isn’t just shady, but a full gangster, and locks people in trunks who don’t pay up his money. And at home for Don, his wife Delores doesn’t want to move to LA because of the kids (who we still haven’t seen, by the way). She doesn’t want him to move to LA either, but to instead come home to Chicago every weekend or “we’re not gonna make it.” Don responds that if he doesn’t do everything in his power to make (Soul Train) work, he’s the one that won’t make it. Then, we go back to Don’s living room in 2012, and he pulls the trigger.

We’re left with a picture of a man who has taken repeated gambles at the expense of his family and has this one opportunity to do something right or lose everything. That’s not the impression I had of Don Cornelius, but again, is this a matter of things not publicly known, or fictionalization for dramatic purposes? Aside from the moments of heavyhandedness (really? Don reads about Manifest Destiny and then the next day has a conversation about Manifest Destiny?), some character tropes (like the fussy big mama figure JT works for) and attempt to jam a whole lot of exposition into the first episode, American Soul is promising. It’s engaging and entertaining and the recreation of the era is fantastic.

Hopefully, it’s able to streamline the storytelling.

American Soul airs Tuesdays at 9 pm ET/PT on BET.

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