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SUNDAY DINNER at Big Mama's house is a tradition that goes back 40 years. Rev. Williams gives the blessing over a table piled high with ham hocks, black-eyed peas, collard greens, dumplings, fried catfish and peach cobbler.

There are a couple of new faces at the table this year: Bird's husband, Lem, just out of jail, and cousin Faith, whose "movie" career in Los Angeles remains a mystery. But most things are the same. Uncle Pete still won't leave his room. Big Mama's favorite grandson, Ahmad, loiters in the kitchen. Bird's sisters, Teri and Maxine, find something to blame each other for -- and it's always Big Mama's job to break up the fight.

"One finger pointing blame can't make no impact," she tells the family. "But five fingers balled up can deliver a mighty blow. This family has got to be that fist."

Uh . . . a fist of blame? What Big Mama means to say is that the family must stick together. "Soul Food," like Big Mama, doesn't always make its points very clearly. Still, it's a likable film, one that relies less on sentimentality than do most family dramas.

As a genre, family dramas are basically soap operas with endings. "Soul Food" juggles a dozen or so characters and, to its credit, almost never drops them. Vanessa L. Williams plays Teri, the eldest sister and a successful lawyer. Her husband, Miles, leads a band called Milestone. Vivica A. Fox, who starred in "Independence Day," plays Maxine, the middle sister and the most stable. Nia Long plays Bird, the youngest sister and the owner of a small beauty salon. Gina Ravera plays Faith, the family's black sheep.

It turns out that Big Mama has ignored her diabetes too long and must have her leg amputated. After the surgery, she slips into a coma, leaving the family rudderless. Tensions mount and loyalties are divided. Sunday dinners are no more, and Ahmad seems to be the only one who cares.

George Tillman Jr. wrote and directed the film, his first Hollywood release. It's loosely based on his memories of his family in Chicago, and though it's shot in that city, it could take place anywhere. Tillman has said that the family could be anyone's, white or black, which is fundamentally true. There are certain issues and cultural details, however, that will be more familiar to black families.

At one point, Lem is fired from his job for concealing his felony conviction on his application. He's afraid to tell Bird. He drops by Maxine's house to commiserate with her husband, Kenneth.

The two men share a moment, complaining of the injustices black men have to endure from black women. "It don't matter what you do," says Kenneth. "If you don't have a job, you still just . . . "

" . . . a triflin' nigger," Lem finishes. The husbands nod their heads in agreement.

Lem is played by Mekhi Phifer, who appeared as a drug dealer in Spike Lee's "Clockers." He's one of the movie's more interesting characters: an ex-pusher and ex-con who wants a steady job and a chance to raise a family. Phifer deserves more screen time than he gets, but stands out in a couple of scenes, especially the one in which he finds himself, once again, being pushed into the back of a cop car.

Vanessa L. Williams does a good job as Teri, the Type A lawyer who can't take her husband's musical career seriously. Beautiful but stiff, Williams has stress written all over her face. She has the capacity to love, but her control-freak personality won't let her. Her polar opposite is the free-spirited Faith -- who takes Miles' career quite seriously indeed.

One of Miles' band mates just happens to be "Babyface" Edmonds, the film's executive producer. It's just a cameo for Edmonds, but he plays a much bigger part in the soundtrack. Various groups can be heard throughout the movie -- Boyz II Men, Tony Toni Tone, Monica & Usher, Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs -- but Edmonds wrote or co-wrote 10 of the 18 featured songs. He also produced most of them. The families in "Soul Food" listen almost exclusively to Edmonds' "urban contemporary" sounds.

Music like Edmonds' can often be syrupy and overemotional, but it's used discreetly here. Similarly, movies like "Soul Food" often feature stereotypical characters and too many sappy moments. But despite the fact that the family's struggles are seen through the eyes of Ahmad, "Soul Food" manages not to get too cheesy. Tillman lends the film a certain earthiness with a couple of frank sex scenes, and the coarse language used by the characters adds some much-needed grit as well.

There are moments when "Soul Food," like Big Mama herself, isn't as eloquent as it thinks it is. When the mysterious Uncle Pete finally emerges from his room, he fails to make much of an impression. And Ahmad's observations don't always tug the right heartstrings. But it's engaging and believable, which is more than can be said for most movies in its class.

Soul Food
Rating: ***
The tensions in a large family threaten to pull it apart.
Starring Vanessa L. Williams, Nia Long and Mekhi Phifer. Directed by George Tillman Jr.
Rated R, opening today in area theaters.

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