Pixar’s film Soul follows African-American man, jazz musician and middle-school band teacher, Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), who discovers the meaning of life through a brush with death.
In general terms, Soul is a solid film. It’s visually pleasing, has a decent narrative and is enjoyable to watch – aside from one glaring flaw. The film has significant issues with how it treats its Black protagonist and Black culture.
Many media outlets are covering an unfortunate, but common trope seen in Soul and other animated films: the dehumanization of Black characters by turning them into animals or creatures.
Funnily, this film has an unique approach to this trope. Despite the fact that Gardner does not occupy his body for the vast majority of the film, his body is on screen for a significant amount of time – he’s just not in control of it. Not only is he seen as a wispy, teal soul entity, but after a body-swap scenario, another character inhabits his body while he takes the form of an animal.
In fact, over the course of the 90-minute runtime, Gardner was a Black man for approximately 20 minutes of the film. This is problematic for a number of obvious reasons, but for this film, it stings in a particular way.
Soul had the perfect opportunity to meaningfully explore soul music and themes related to life and living. The fact that the film did not seize this chance was a profound disappointment.
Further, any elements of Black culture featured in the film were no more than shallow decorations. The importance of jazz music to the Black community or its history, for one, was barely discussed.
A scene where the characters go to a barbershop gets close to cultural representation, but ultimately, it falls short, as the focus of the scene is put on a non-Black character in Gardner’s body. Further, the inclusion of a barbershop might seem culturally significant, but Gardener, in the form of an animal, cannot communicate with his community at the time.
Frankly, it often felt as though Soul was made up of two separate films that were melded together. With the primary focus of the plot being put toward universal themes of life, Gardner’s character and background could be swapped out with any other character from any other race. With Gardner eliminated and replaced by a new character, the core messaging of the film would still be intact.
This barely qualifies as Black representation. Diversity needs to go deeper than just slotting BIPOC into general stories and roles. An effort needs to be made to feature Black stories that represent Black culture and history before Black people can be put into universal roles.
Those glaring issues aside, the film has a few merits evident in most Pixar films. The animation is well done, the comedy is fine, and it has some emotional moments.
Overall, the film isn’t half bad. For those who already have a Disney+ subscription and are interested in taking a look at the movie, it’s worth a watch. Other than that, this is a film that can be skipped.
Published in Volume 75, Number 18 of The Uniter (February 11, 2021)