Soul marks the first Pixar movie with a Black character as the lead. The film, starring Jamie Foxx and Tina Fey, also has a Black co-director and co-writer in Kemp Powers. Prominent Black animator, Frank E. Abney III, who recently completed a Kickstarter for his own CGI-animated film featuring Black characters, is behind the film as well.
But here’s the synopsis:
“Joe Gardner, a middle school music teacher, has long dreamed of performing jazz music onstage, and finally gets a chance after impressing other jazz musicians during an opening act at the Half Note Club. However, an accident causes Gardner’s soul to be separated from his body and transported to the “You Seminar”, a center in which souls develop and gain passions before being transported to a newborn child, and Gardner must work with souls in training, such as 22, a soul with a dim view on life after being trapped for years at the You Seminar, in order to return to Earth before it’s too late.”
Why does Joe Gardner have to be separated from his Black body and relegated to being a teal mass form for most of the film?
There’s an increasingly concerning trope in animation to have main characters who are people of color turned into different animals or beings. We’ve seen it with Disney’s The Princess and The Frog, in which Disney’s first Black princess, Princess Tiana (Anika Noni Rose), was turned into a frog for the majority of the film. We’re set to see it in the upcoming Blue Sky Studios/Twentieth Century Fox animated film Spies in Disguise, starring the voice of Will Smith as a top-secret agent who gets turned into a pigeon by his agency’s hapless technology officer (Tom Holland). Now, we have Joe in Soul, who has to literally find his way back to his mortal body. Can Joe not learn whatever lesson the film has set out for him as a human on Earth?
Other animated films that follow this same trend of people of color being turned into animals include Disney’s The Emperor’s New Groove, in which Incan ruler Kuzco (David Spade) learns humility after he’s turned into a llama by his evil advisor Yzma (Eartha Kitt) for the majority of the film. In that same film, Yzma was turned into a cat, presumably forever; while Kuzco was able to secure an antidote for himself, Yzma wasn’t so lucky. Another Disney film about a person of color, Brother Bear, finds Inuit hunter Kenai (Joaquin Phoenix) turned into a bear, also to help him learn a moral lesson. Both Kuzco and Kenai, like Tiana, are animals for most of their respective films; they aren’t allowed to learn and grow in their human forms, something white Disney characters are allowed to do. Due to this pattern, one could also assume that Smith’s character in Spies in Disguise will be an animal for most of the film, learning lessons that could have been learned just as easily in a human form.
You might be questioning the significance, as there are, in fact, films where white characters are turned into animals. Yet the point I’m making can be summed up by yet another Disney classic, Fantasia. During the film’s animated sequence set to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 in F major, Op. 68 (also known as “The Pastoral Symphony”), female centaurs (referred to by Disney and Disney fans as “centaurettes”), are shown getting ready for a forest event. In the uncensored version of the sequence, they are pampered by Black “pickaninny”-esque centaurettes, who are drawn as being smaller and more grotesque than their white, lithe counterparts. While both white and Black characters are shown as creatures in this sequence, it’s the amount of humanity shown to each character that’s the issue. Whereas the white centaurs are seen as beautiful, the Black centaurs are seen as ugly and even more animalistic than the other woodland creatures. The Black characters aren’t afforded the same amount of humanity and compassion, even though everyone in the sequence is some sort of animal or non-human creature.
This inability to see Black characters’ innate humanity is what has been grinding the gears of a lot of folks out there who were left feeling dissatisfied after watching the Soul trailer. As with all of the films mentioned so far, there is a fear that the animation studios behind those films don’t understand Black characters, and characters of color in general, well enough to imbue them with rich stories. It feels like the characters seemingly have to be transfigured in some form for the writers and animators, mostly white men, to be able to truly care about them. Is this because the animation field, a field that still has work to do in terms of having racial parity in the workplace, doesn’t know how to successfully write about non-stereotypical characters of color? Why is there a creative disconnect between coming up with a character of color and giving them a story in which they don’t turn into a farm animal or, in this case, a teal soul? It’s quite disheartening to continue seeing this in a genre of film that I love.
Another potentially problematic plot point in Soul is Joe’s mission. While trying to find his way back to Earth and to his corporeal form, he has to help a rebellious soul named 22 (voiced by Tina Fey) find herself. Since Fey is white, it makes me wonder if her character will eventually be born into a white body, seeing how Foxx, who is Black, is voicing Joe in both his human and soul forms. If 22 is a white or white-coded character, then that could also add another potentially problematic layer to the film of a Black person having to save or help a white person.
If so, we’ve seen this story of a Black character helping the white character many times before in animation and live-action, from the critically eviscerated Green Book to Disney’s own film from its racist past, Song of the South. In fact, we’ve seen it so many times that the upcoming Netflix sketch comedy show Astronomy Club has an entire sketch dedicated to showing “magical Negroes” in rehab for their addictions to helping white people.
Between Pixar’s claim to fame with Toy Story in 1995 and its merger with Disney in 2006, there was plenty of time for the studio to create a film that prominently featured Black characters outside of being the best friend or a stereotype. Unfortunately, both happen in The Incredibles series as Frozone is never defined outside of his friendship with Mr. Incredible. In addition, Frozone’s wife Honey is never even given a face but her voice is still utilized to conjure up images of the “sassy Black woman.” The years from 2006 to 2019 have provided even more time for Pixar to get their act together, but this hasn’t proven to be the case. From 1995 to now, it has taken Pixar a whopping 24 years to bring their first film starring a Black leading character to the market. And while the voice cast of Soul also includes a lot of Black talent–with Daveed Diggs, Phylicia Rashad and Questlove (credited as Ahmir-Khalib Thompson) rounding out the cast and world-famous jazz artist Jon Batiste contributing music to the film–the plot still gives plenty of cause for concern. We’ll have to wait for the film’s premiere in 2020 to know for sure.
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