There’s few animated films I watch these days, but I do love them. I love the music, the heartstring tugging quality of them and SOUL definitely lives up to that feeling. Watching SOUL, my heart rejoiced especially regarding the discussions over “purpose” and “spark”. The film explores the meaning of words as well as living and I adore those discussions. However, there are problems with the film despite its beauty that I was unable to shake throughout my viewing and hurt in a different way—not letting a Black person play a Black person.
Synopsis: Joe Gardner (voice of Jamie Foxx) – a middle-school band teacher who gets the chance of a lifetime to play at the best jazz club in town. But one small misstep takes him from the streets of New York City to The Great Before – a fantastical place where new souls get their personalities, quirks and interests before they go to Earth. Determined to return to his life, Joe teams up with a precocious soul, 22 (voice of Tina Fey), who has never understood the appeal of the human experience. As Joe desperately tries to show 22 what’s great about living, he may just discover the answers to some of life’s most important questions.
When the trailer first released, there was a lot of discussion circling around the issue. Often, Black lead characters play humans before they are transformed into something else. In The Princess and the Frog Tiana is turned into a frog and in Spies In Disguise the Black character, Lance, is turned into a pigeon. SOUL, unfortunately does that and more, creating joy alongside rising discomfort.
We only see Joe as a Black man for 10 minutes initially, before he has an accident and his soul is transported to the other realm where all characters are now bluish-green. Because he died so early on, it’s likely that he will not, perhaps ever, return to his body so they have taken a Black male lead and transformed him into a palatable animated substance that will allow people to forget that he is Black. Another uncomfortable part is when Joe asks 22—who is voiced by a white woman—why she sounds like a white lady. So you’re telling me the film was self aware enough to recognize views on race while still not being aware enough to avoid the potholes. 22’s reply that she can sound like anyone is reminiscent of the go to responses we hear when we challenge whiteness in our society, especially when it inhabits our spaces and tries to shove itself to the center.
The film then goes on to have Joe and 22 fall to Earth as Joe tries to reclaim his body, currently in a hospital bed. Unfortunately, he winds up inside a therapy cat—sigh—currently lying on his body and 22 is in his body, which gave me Get Out vibes, I did not expect in a Disney animated film, but here we are. This is not more screen time that bucks the norm because the Black person we see is not inhabited by a Black person anymore. Overall, Joe is a Black man in his Black body for less than 20 minutes in the entire film.
SOUL has beautiful parts in the story. It’s comedic, moving and the animation is pristine. The jazz music is gorgeous—I loved the intro music too! But the film still has a Black character transforming into a blue soul, then a cat while helping another soul—voiced by a white woman—takes his body. It’s like animation meets Get Out, meets Magical Negro.
The perception that a Black lead in animation can’t be relatable unless they are turned into something else so white viewers can look past race is damaging. It’s no different than having a white love interest for a Black lead in films, or a white friend who plays a significant role or a light-skinned lead. The media industry continues to tread water cautiously in the shallow end of the diversity and equality pool—despite being able to swim—because they are too lazy/resistant to do the laps that will improve both film quality and the viewing experience for all.
We are both invisible and always seen and no amount of changes will alter that fact until we all look at the issue, and each other, head on. Rather than breaking new ground, Disney continues to tread a well-worn path. I don’t regret seeing it, I enjoyed the film and would watch again for the characters and the music. But they could have and should have done better.
Catch SOUL when it streams exclusively on Disney+ starting December 25th.