Animation Movies

‘Soul’ Producers Address the Blue Elephant in the Room

Soul is the third in a trend of de-humanized Black animated movie characters. What do the movie's producers think about this criticism?

Pixar’s Soul takes a musical journey into the meaning of life — literally. In the film, Joe Gardner seems to be the prototype for “if you can’t do, teach.” But he very much wants to do. However, just when he’s about to get his first jazz gig, he dies. *insert Price is Right trombone.*

The first 35 minutes of the jazzy New York-set movie that I saw were great. Joe (Jamie Foxx), upon his death, is sent to the Great Before. There he meets apathetic New Soul 22 (Tina Fey), who finds it in her own best interest to help Joe return to his life on Earth. Sensing the direction of the rest of the movie, I imagine it will be as heartfelt as every other Pixar classic. It’s new Christmas Day home release feels like a really good choice to celebrate life, the purpose of art in our lives, and exploring how we connect with ourselves and others. 

Joe (right) and New Soul 22 (left). © 2020 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

Given the chance to talk to the producers, I thought it necessary to ask about the blue elephant in the room. In the movie, Joe has died, and all dead or pre-life beings are blue ghostie-like creatures. In the trailer, very little time is spent with the human, brown-skinned Joe. As many have noted (there’s even a Change.org petition), Soul is the third in a trend threatening to erupt in a landscape bereft of Black animated movie characters. Many viewers fear that it follows Princess and the Frog and Spies in Disguise (with a splash of live-action Aladdin and the weird coloring of Will Smith’s blue-skinned Genie) in animated Black leading characters not getting to be their actual Black selves through most of their story. 

“I mean we were unaware of that as we started, but we certainly became aware,” Kemp Powers, writer and co-director of the film told me. “My hope is that when you see the whole film, there is plenty of Joe on screen.”

*sings* Brown Skin Jooooee, skin shines like peaaarrllls.

Of course, it’s just about three movies so far, but many have pointed out that when three movies is all you really have, it’s definitely a stark trend. Even Into the Spider-verse’s Afro-Latino Miles Morales spends much of the film in a mask, doesn’t he? I will never say no to more Black-led animated characters who retain their humanity throughout their film; however, I am personally wary about demanding photorealism with fun fantastical Black stories. Especially when it is still intending to tell a Black story with Black voices behind the storytelling (which was less the case with PafT and SiD). 

Powers seemed to agree. “I think it’s a legitimate concern. For me, it’s definitely about the context in which you tell this character’s story. And there were a lot of caution cones we had to put up about being sensitive about for the first time telling a Black man’s story, in an animated film.”

Powers and the producers (including director Pete Docter and Dana Murray) seemed to appreciate the question, and I was glad there was no defensiveness. The movie did not begin as a Black-centric story — it was sparked by the birth of Docter’s son — but once Powers was signed on to co-write, the story began to reflect a different cultural background as Joe became a Black character. (I talk about this all the time. If you colorblind cast/hire for a story, you then must make sure the story then matches the ethnicity or culture you’ve chosen for the story. There are no race-neutral stories.)

The producers also made a point to highlight the movie’s other Black talent involved in the film. Among them were anthropologist Dr. Johnnetta Cole of Spelman College, cinematographer Bradford Young, and even Daveed Diggs and Questlove, who both give voice to characters in the film and were also cultural consultants for the music along with Jon Batiste. Disney/Pixar doesn’t have as good a record as they need with regard to OwnVoices productions of even their recent films (I’m especially looking at you, Mulan and Aladdin), so I was glad to see that most levels of production featured Black people helping to create this movie.

Powers also made sure the movie was screened for Black folks. “This was actually the first time Pixar did a screening for an all-Black audience,” he said. “I’ll admit, that was, for me on a personal level, one of the most anxiety inducing days I had on this film because I’ve spent years working on this movie that ultimately I wanted to show to my family so that they could be proud of me. I can’t tell you how relieved I was at the end of that screening to hear, like, the overwhelmingly positive reaction to it.”

I hope Black audiences watching this movie during Christmas break after one of the hardest years in recent history feel the same.

Soul will appear on Disney+, for no additional fee, on Christmas Day 2020.

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