Pixar’s Soul is Proof that White Creators Need Black Voices

With the intentional feedback of qualified Black creators, the film was a success. Without it, it would’ve been a hot mess.

So, let me get this out of the way early. For me, Pixar’s “Soul” is a triumph of animated filmmaking.

I loved, loved, loved this film.

And coming from me, that says a lot. I’m not a universal fan of Pixar in the way that a lot of people in my age bracket are, mostly because the fact that I don’t have children means I’m not subjected to rewatching Pixar movies over and over. I’m sure that if, like a lot of my contemporaries, I’d spent the last two decades raising several young ones, I’d have memorized some of the best moments from Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, Up and Inside Out because they’re way, way better than most of the animated schlock aimed at children.

But that’s not me. I like Pixar movies, but I’m not, like, crazy about them. (Don’t tell anyone, but I never even saw Toy Story 4.)

So I judge Pixar movies not as children’s movies, but simply as movies. And honestly, without knowing much else, if you tell me you’ve got a buddy comedy with Jamie Foxx and Tina Fey as leads, you’ve got my attention. Add in supporting performances from Phylicia Rashad and Angela Bassett, and I’m probably sold before I even know what your movie is about.

But going in, I knew what Soul was, or at least what it was trying to be. So I went into it with trying-to-be-open-minded-but-still-kinda-skeptical eyes. After all, when you center your story around a jazz pianist and you call it Soul, you’re setting a pretty high bar for Black authenticity. If you don’t really bring your A-game, the takedown puns and negative reviews will pretty much write themselves.

But I’m grateful to say that with Soul, co-directors Pete Docter and Kemp Powers get the details right. Soul tells a specific story of band-teacher-turned-band-member Joe Gardner and the people in his NYC neighborhood, but it’s accessible enough for anyone to connect with, root for, and follow along. The animated version of New York has a heightened, lush vividness to it, doing for the iconic city what Finding Nemo did for the ocean. Without spoiling too much, I was never more at home in a scene as I was in the one that opened to a sea of brown faces vibin’ to the rugged beat of “Check the Rhime” by A Tribe Called Quest.

“I know you got soul… ’cause if you didn’t you wouldn’t be in here.”

Part of why I loved it so much is that I can tell how easily it could’ve been a disaster. In interviews, Docter admitted that his vision for the film did not start with a Black protagonist:

“At the very beginning, it was a very personal story of trying to figure this out… What’s the world about? What am I supposed to be doing with my life? And so I wanted to take people on this artist’s journey of finding a character that we could root for, that we find compelling and interesting. We played around, for a little while, with an actor or scientist, but as soon as we found a jazz musician, that felt very selfless. You don’t go into jazz to get rich and famous. You do it because you love it. And you have a passion for it.”

“Soul” Co-Directors Pete Docter and Kemp Powers

At the point where Docter realized that jazz, being a historically Black artform, would require a Black protagonist, he and the team at Pixar made an intentional effort to seek out and amplify the feedback of other talented Black people in their orbit. This was an ongoing process, and one of the outcomes meant that Kemp Powers, originally brought on as a writer, became elevated to the position of co-director. This is how Powers explained the process to Slate:

It was largely, I think, a result of the fact that from very early on in the process they had me doing “writer and.” You know what I mean? Like “writer plus.”

They really invited me in to get involved in lots of other elements of the film’s development, from a lot of the casting to the character design, to being a part of both the internal and external culture trusts that were organized specifically for this film, to being in edit. It was like, “Oh, wow, as a screenwriter I’m not used to being so a part of the process.” As I would later find out, that’s because that’s not usually what happens.

Some of the Black Pixar employees who contributed to the “Soul” internal cultural trust

Did you notice two key words in Powers’ quote? There were both internal and external culture trusts. That is, Docter and producer Dana Murray called upon Pixar VP of Inclusion and Outreach Britta Wilson to enlist a series of Black creative experts who lent their expertise to help create an authentic portrait of the Black protagonist and his community of friends, family and coworkers.

And they assembled some serious industry heavy hitters. I’m talking about jazz legend Herbie Hancock, award-winning cinematographer Bradford Young, freestyle performer and Hamilton star Daveed Diggs, Black Panther and Creed director Ryan Coogler, jazz pianist and bandleader for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert Jon Batiste, and hip-hop drummer/producer of The Roots and bandleader for NBC’s Late Night with Jimmy Fallon Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson. These contributions weren’t all purely advisory, either. Diggs and Thompson both voiced minor roles in the film, and Batiste wrote and performed all of the jazz piano pieces in its original score.

Now, it makes sense that a company with Pixar’s track record would have the resources to make connections with so many A-list creatives, but the point is that they didn’t just rest with the feedback from those already in their circle.

One of the enduring lessons of Pixar’s Soul should be this:

To make a film that resonates with a wide variety of Black people, you must incorporate the voices of a wide variety of Black people.

And if that wide variety cannot be found inside your organization, then there’s no shame in expanding the creative circle outward. More to the point, if expanding the circle is always necessary then after your project is over, it’s probably worth revisiting the question of why such variety cannot be found in your organization to begin with. It’s my hope that Pixar’s upper management continues to wrestle with this question.

Disembodied Joe talking with his new friend from The Great Before, Soul #22

At this point, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that a significant portion of the criticism of this film, especially from Black people, stems from an unfortunate trend in mainstream animated filmmaking that seeks to disembody Black protagonists from their lived bodies. I don’t mean this in a weird, Invasion of the Body Snatchers sense, but just in the sense that too many Black characters spend too much of the running time of too many animated films in forms other than their natural, human forms. So the first Black Disney princess spends most of her time onscreen as a frog. And Will Smith isn’t headlining animated films unless he’s a pigeon.

(I know what you’re thinking here, but the Aladdin remake was primarily live action, even though Smith’s role required tons of CGI.)

In this context, Soul was judged fairly harshly because its trailer shows a basic truth, that a good portion of Joe’s story takes place in a shadowy otherworld, where his character is not rendered as a chocolate brown African-American human being, but as a disembodied blue soul.

I understand this concern, but I think as a form of criticism it falls short on two counts. First, the issue of Black representation onscreen is an issue for all of Hollywood, not just animation studios, and certainly not just for Pixar. Like the Bechdel Test, the question of does-the-Black-person-remain-human-during-most-of-the-movie-or-not is not an inherent metric of a film’s goodness, it’s more of a quick-and-dirty examination of whether or not there’s enough Black representation behind the scenes to make it worth watching. As I’ve described above, I think that admittedly low bar was cleared.

But also, I feel like this criticism tends to miss the point of animation as a vehicle for entertainment. Animated films lend themselves to high concept visual storytelling. Ideas, characters and storylines that would be difficult — if not impossible — to do with live action, often work marvelously as animation. When done well, it unlocks a childlike sense of wonder. This is why the Disney media conglomerate is known as “the magic kingdom.” If the number one metric of authenticity in your story is that your protagonist is portrayed in human form, it’s probably better suited as live action. Get your star actors and a director attached, and call it good.

In this case, the story of Soul is particularly well suited to animation, because it deals with really heavy questions like what’s the meaning of life and what happens before we live and after we die? For these reasons, I’m willing to overlook the unfortunate byproduct of Joe’s temporary foray into the disembodied ether (and all its related shenanigans).

And it’s here that it’s worth revisiting :

I loved Soul because I could tell how easily it could’ve been a disaster.

In other interviews, Docter admitted that the essence of Soul was based on his emotional response to the critical success of Inside Out, for which he earned an Oscar. Docter worked so hard for so long to be successful, and afterward he thought his moment of tangible victory would feel better than it did. It’s a timeless trope that, for me anyway, goes back to one of my childhood heroes, Mandy Patinkin as Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride:

“I have been in the revenge business so long, now that it’s over, I don’t know what to do with the rest of my life.”

It makes sense, then, that an important part of Joe’s journey was to learn to appreciate the wondrous serendipity of life itself, and to treasure the trove of memories and experiences he’s made along the way. This is a universal theme that resonates with audiences across cultures and ethnicities.

But there’s a danger to being a White creator who doesn’t go out of his way to see how his ideas would be perceived by those from different backgrounds with different life experiences. The things that look harmless to you can inflict real distress to others, and if you’re not intentional, you won’t find out until it’s too late and your movie is being dragged by Black Twitter for being racist.

And I’d be willing to wager a significant sum that’s almost what happened, because without a major alteration to the ending, there would’ve been a pretty fierce backlash to Soul.

UNAVOIDABLE SPOILERS BELOW.

In the crafting of the story, it’s clear that Docter wanted to recreate the success of Inside Out, not only by casting another big name comedic actress (Tina Fey of 30 Rock instead of Amy Poehler of Parks and Recreation) but by recreating one of Inside Out’s pivotal emotional scenes.

In the third act of Inside Out, the character Joy is trying to get back from the Memory Dump, and she rides a rocket-propelled wagon with the help of her imaginary childhood friend Bing Bong. After two unsuccessful attempts, Joy finds success, but only because Bing Bong — in a moment of touching self-sacrifice — lets go of Joy so that their imaginative fervor can deliver her back to safety.

In the third act of Soul, our disembodied hero Joe is accompanying his friend Soul #22 on her journey back to earth after she has earned the right to become human. It’s a bittersweet moment for Joe, because he knows that 22 only found her “spark” after spending several hours inhabiting his body and living his life. But after guilting her into giving her “earth badge” to him so that he could resume his life (and fulfill his dream of playing a concert with a famous jazz artist), Joe later realizes that he’s already lived a full life, with plenty of melancholy and serendipity along the way. 22 had by that point become a lost soul, and Joe had to work hard to find her and bring her back.

So after convincing 22 that she really does have something to live for, on their journey back to earth, Joe finally lets go of her hand, knowing he’ll eventually have to return to his original fate in the Great Beyond. Just like in Inside Out, it was a moment that tugged at my heartstrings… until I realized I had some questions.

Waitaminute… isn’t this movie about Joe? Why is it that he has to give up his dreams on earth just so that she can finally live hers? More to the point, why is Joe no longer the subject of his own story, but is the emotional fulcrum for someone else’s? And why is that someone else a White person?

Unfortunately, this is an all-too-familiar pattern. In Hollywood filmmaking, Black characters often exist primarily for the emotional development of White protagonists, often by dying or sacrificing in some significant way. So here it is, a movie about a Black protagonist, and he’s somehow no longer the center of his own story, but finds his emotional needs decentered in favor of a White person’s.

Now, for Pete Docter, someone who has already experienced a measure of success that most of us can only dream of, this kind of sacrifice makes sense. I’ve already done well for myself. Maybe I should move over and let someone else have a shot.

But this is supposed to be the story of a Black man. And the story of being Black in America is a story of struggle. And remember, Pixar has been making movies for more than twenty-five years, and this is the first story they’ve told about a Black person.

So why should the first — and let’s be honest, maybe only — story about a Black person be centered around the emotional needs of a White person? Even in the context of the laudable values of humility and self-sacrifice, this decision would be an unfortunate byproduct of White supremacy… and would’ve led to a bunch of Black folks hollering this at their screens:

And it would’ve been so easy for Pete Docter to completely miss this dynamic.

This is not just a problem with Docter himself, but with Pixar more generally, and corporate America writ large. Daveed Diggs spoke with The Guardian about how the corporate culture of Pixar, like so many other White-dominant creative spaces, can become insular in its ignorance:

Everybody means well, but there’s so much unconscious bias happening. If you don’t have representation in the upper ranks — if there’s no producer of colour at the top, and no upper-level writers of colour — then it doesn’t matter what’s happening in your writers’ room. When younger writers of colour present interesting ideas, those always get cut because there’s no one at the end of the line who understands the cultural relevance and specificity of those details. No one’s actually saying: ‘We don’t care if black folks or queer people manage to see themselves in this.’ But that’s the result. You don’t know what you don’t know.”

Thankfully, the brain trust at Pixar is in the process of figuring this out.

Because I guarantee you, they focus-grouped the ending, and when they did, they found several people asking the same questions and making the same observations, which is why, at the end of the film Joe is rewarded for his selflessness by getting his life back.

“Man, that ending almost lost me… but thankfully it won me back.”

SPOILERS OVER.

So yes, Soul is a good movie — but only because Pete Docter and crew are the kinds of people who:

  1. Ask for feedback from qualified people of color,
  2. Instead of just relying on the good optics such offers bring, actually listen to the feedback
  3. And then — most crucially — incorporate the feedback they receive into the final product.

Like Black Panther two years before it, Soul is an authentically Black story that people of all cultures can get behind. And if 2020 has taught us nothing else, it’s that the viability of our society is compromised when we are unable to meaningfully communicate with one another, but the converse is also true — when we really do communicate well with one another, then we all win.

So if you enjoyed this movie, let its lessons benefit you, in both your professional and personal settings.

Because the soul of America is at stake.

Pastor, Writer, Musician, DJ, Stand-up Comic. Now 30% more me than ever before. Support via Cash App $JelaniGreenidge

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