“Why do you have the voice of a middle aged white lady?”
This is the million dollar question of the movie “Soul,” the latest film from Disney/Pixar. The film, which was recently released on Disney+ is a beautiful film that examines some truly complex themes. But there are some choices the filmmakers made that are truly questionable. Mainly, the fact that the Black main character spends most of the movie not in his Black body. And that a character voiced by a white woman is ultimately the central storyline.
“Soul” tells the story of Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx), a Black man who teaches middle school music and dreams of a career as a jazz pianist. Middle aged, Joe doesn’t have anything else going for him — no spouse, no kids, no friends. The only person who cares about him is his mother Libba. Just when Joe seemingly gets the chance of a lifetime — a former student reaches out to offer him an audition for a gig with a jazz legend — fate intervenes: Joe falls into a manhole, and that’s where the “soul” portion of the film begins. Refusing to die, Joe, who has been stripped down to his most basic form, becomes a spiritual adviser to 22, a soul who has been struggling with the requirements for being born on earth.
The premise of “Soul” has intrigued me since I first learned of its release. It’s not often you get an examination of something so existential in a family film. There are a lot of great conversations you can have around a topic like this. And since it’s a Pixar film, I was expecting a cross between “Inside Out” and “Coco.” In a way, that’s what it is, but you can’t ignore the glaring blindspots of the film’s creators. It’s clear that they were trying to be racially sensitive, but their efforts fall incredibly flat. Much of it is a matter of impact versus intent. They mean well with their attempts at representation, which only makes the issues more glaringly obvious.
Joe Gardner is the second Black lead character in Disney Animation history (but the first Pixar lead,) the first of course being Tiana in “The Princess and the Frog.” Interestingly, both leads suffer a similar fate: they spend much of their movies not in their Black bodies. Tiana spends upwards of 75 percent of her movie as a frog. And Joe spends most of his movie as a bodiless blob and then a freaking cat. And even though you’re seeing his body on screen, his “soul” and voice are that of a white woman. The film was conceptualized and has been in development since 2016. How in the world did the filmmakers think any of this was okay? We deserve to see Black characters who are Black for the entire movie.
Pete Docter, the film’s director, conceived “Soul” after winning the Oscar for “Inside Out.” After fleshing out the idea for two years, he brought in Kemp Powers, a Black man, to be a writer on the script. After his 12 week contract was extended, Powers became the film’s co-director. To make sure they were doing Joe justice, they worked with all kinds of diversity consultants and such. Black people aren’t a monolith of course, and having a diverse amount of perspective is important. And it’s troubling that none of these people brought up the problem with 22. The team took care to make sure they didn’t evoke racist imagery, but saw no issue with the Black man having a “white” soul for most of the movie? How?
And it’s not just that the voice of 22 is a white woman. That would be egregious enough though, let me tell you. If the “Soul” creative team (who are largely white) were wise enough to know they needed to be sensitive of racist imagery, you can’t tell me they didn’t know anything about the issues of Black men and white women. It’s been a societal issue as long as this country has existed. That is why that line I first mentioned is so ridiculous. The screenwriters are acknowledging 22’s whiteness right there on screen. And if they can make a joke of it, how could they not see that it’s actually a really big issue? But then, there’s the issue of the particular white woman voicing the character.
Tina Fey is a polarizing person. Many people love her, and others (me included) find her to not be funny at all. My personal feelings notwithstanding, Tina Fey is a bad choice, and the “Soul” team should have been more aware of that. Tina Fey’s show “30 Rock” is steeped in racism and anti-blackness, but they get away with it because Fey is a white, liberal woman. Any Black characters on that show were treated like nothing more than caricatures and stereotypes. Even their attempts at self awareness are tone deaf. In June of 2020, amidst the racial reckoning in America, Fey, her “30 Rock” co-creator Robert Carlock and NBCUniversal announced they were pulling four episodes of the show that feature characters in blackface. FOUR.
Fey’s performance as 22 in “Soul” is akin to blackface in that they’re using her voice in a Black body. Of course, the creative team likely didn’t see it that way. But that’s exactly what it feels like. And what’s worse is that they allow 22 to have the two most heartfelt interactions in Joe’s life. During a trip to the barbershop, 22, in Joe’s body, has a deep conversation with Joe’s barber, Dez. The film does an excellent job at capturing the experience of a Black barbershop, adding in quips and jokes for realism. But to allow Joe and Dez to get to know each other on a deeper level and have the real Joe as a cat felt so wrong. Not to mention, if Joe was as loyal to Dez as he seems, it feels unrealistic that they’ve never talked.
When “Joe” rips his pants, he knows the only tailor who can fix them on short notice is his mother. Except she doesn’t know about his jazz gig. His mother is largely disapproving of his aspirations to be a full-time musician, instead wanting him to accept a permanent teaching position. Again, this scene is uncomfortable for me on multiple levels. First, it relies on the trope of the Black mother who doesn’t support her child going into a creative field. But then they have a really deep conversation where Joe explains that playing jazz is his calling and the only thing he excels at. She understands and gives him her blessing. Except that it’s 22 the whole damn time and Joe just sits there watching his mother embrace this white woman.
I think it’s fair to mention that there are parts of “Soul” I love. We’re having some great conversations around the concepts with our seven-year-old. And the animation is absolutely breathtaking. But as a Black woman, I can’t not see the issues with representation. Black people, especially kids, don’t have much representation in animation. And in 2020 or 2021, we shouldn’t have to ask to see ourselves in family entertainment.
“Soul” is streaming on Disney+