Black adult women aren’t often depicted in animation. Most of the Black female characters are kids or teens or little-seen moms. Some notable central characters include: Storm. Trudy Proud and Big Mama. Donna Tubbs. Uhm, the Muses? There aren’t very many. It’s the Mrs. Frozone problem, off-screen and never developed. (Pixar could stand to improve upon that problem in particular.)
The latest Pixar movie, Soul, centers on a Black man (Joe Gardner, voiced by Jaime Foxx) who is trying to achieve his dream of playing a jazz gig. On his way there, he dies. Many after-life shenanigans lead Joe back to two important women in his life: his mother Libba and jazz singer Dorothea Williams.
His mother Libba Gardner (Phylicia Rashad) is practical, encouraging Joe to take a full-time job despite how close he is to his dreams. Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett) is a stern presence at the jazz club, but Joe resists her intimidation and plays his way into her band.
Joe has significant character moments with each. While I wish they’d both had more screen time, it’s super important they exist as realized Black characters. They are the first Black women significantly featured in a Pixar film and are a part of the small canon of grown animated Black women in general. What does it mean to Rashad and Bassett to be playing these roles?
“You’re right, there aren’t many. And I’ve been fortunate enough to portray maybe, you know, a hand, a handful of them,” Angela Bassett told me at a November press junket, referencing Mildred in Meet the Robinsons, Dr. Kulinda in Curious George 3: Back to the Jungle, among a few others. “But it means a great deal.” She pointed out that while animation is seen as being for kids, whole families take their kids to see these movies. Both actresses agree that it is important for Black people to see these roles.
Rashad cited her long career in working in projects specific to African-Americans. “This has been true of my work in theater. It’s certainly been true of my work in film and television. So it seems quite natural to me, that I should be doing what I’m doing. And this just seems very natural to me. And I look forward to a time when it is so natural to everyone that this question need not be asked.”
Well said Mrs. Rashad. Soul premieres on Disney+ on Christmas Day for no additional fee.