About the Movie Soul, its Beauty and its Blemishes
Note: SPOILERS GALORE so skip this if you haven’t watched.
Disney and Pixar’s latest animated film Soul has been living rent-free in my head since I saw it last week.
My first reaction was: I loved it. But then I started giving it more thought, even as my good feels kept going. Now, I’m a bit disappointed in what it could have been.
First, lemme talk about what I loved about it, and what made the film so good to me when I watched it: It’s beautiful. SOUL is a feast for your eyes. The animation is stunning, lush, bright. You will get lost in that world in wonderment because it just looks damb good!
And truly, Jamie Foxx is a man with gifts that are constantly underrated. As an actor and musician, Jamie is left out of legend conversations too much and it upsets me and my homegirls. The pairing of him and Tina Fey, another comedic icon is a good one, because they do play so well off each other. Keep this piece in mind when you read what I say further down.
In addition to that, the story is a philosophical adventure. It asks some really relevant questions about life, passion and purpose. It is a good conversation piece on what it looks like to live the life you want and the life that is full of color. I’m sure parents had some interesting convos with their kids after watching the film.
Soul, when taken by itself, is a beautiful story, but stories don’t exist in a vacuum. The critique that Disney/Pixar need to tell great stories where Black folks are humans THE WHOLE TIME is valid. I took to Facebook and people argued me down like I insulted their mama. That critique must be given space.
BUT beyond that, the other choice I wish was different in SOUL was the character 22. 22 was voiced by Tina Fey, and that character as a white woman added a real layer of cringe that could have been avoided. I think they should have made 22 a Black boy or girl. 22 being a white woman made it weird when you think about the fact that Joe Gardner lost his body to her when they fell down to Earth. He, instead, became a cat, AND THEN 22 TRIED TO STEAL HIS BODY after the day on Earth. That dynamic is not… ok. If 22 was a Black boy or girl, it would have added a message on mentorship, not us saving white folks.
Lemme pause here to say people are asserting that 22 was not “a white woman.” People arguing that 22 was “just a soul” are not being fully honest with us or themselves. You pictured a white woman as 22 even if you didn’t know it. Especially since that voice came out of Joe’s body in the earth scenes. The line of 22 saying it’s “anything” does not negate the optics or the connection. The decision to make 22 a white woman’s voice was to “annoy” was a cute joke but that could have been temporary. They wanted Tina to voice the character, and we cannot separate her whiteness from the character. So you didn’t know what color Donkey from Shrek was supposed to be, as he was voiced by Eddie Murphy? Now tell me it makes sense to assert that 22 was “just a soul without a race” when voiced by Tina Fey. 22 WAS A WHITE WOMAN.
Anywho, I think 22 should have been voiced and played by a Black boy or girl. It would have made that barbershop scene even more powerful, cuz it would have spoken about how important that space is to community building. The vulnerability, the humor, the storytelling in that scene were deeply touching. Imagine if the voice was of a young Black kid. It would have deepened the connection and meaning so much more if this story was more focused on Joe’s life, not the saving of 22’s soul.
When Joe told 22 “the only reason you found your spark was because you lived MY life…” Ain’t that a critique of all the white folks who blackfish? The storytellers should have found the truth in that line and went “what is this message we’re passing along?” Joe dying before the opening credits and spending most of the movie as a bodyless blob and then a cat is one major thing. But 22 being a white woman who stole his body is a huge problem. Then he sacrificed his life again to help her find her purpose. It’s the magical negro trope at play, whether they intended for it to be or not.
Soul was a beautiful film. But it also had some flaws that are worth pointing out. Just because it might have made us cry doesn’t mean we can’t have nuanced takes about certain pieces of it that don’t sit well. Two things can be true at once. What I am finding is that people are taking critiques of Soul PERSONALLY. It is okay to love it. You can LOVE IT. This is not an indictment on you or your taste. *I* loved it when I first watched it and it gave me good feels too. However, let’s be honest about the pattern it plays into, and the problems it brings up.
Representation matters, and we should not be quiet just because we see ourselves onscreen. HOW are we showing up when we are there?
Again, this is not a critique of the actors, as I am a fan of Jamie and Tina. They did phenomenal jobs. This is not a critique of the animators. My goodness, this film should win awards for cinematography. This is not a critique of Kemp Powers, the Black writer brought in to help this story sing (after the plot was already fleshed out). He did his job and did it well. This is of a studio that makes choices that either tell incomplete stories or renders us invisible even when they think they’re giving us a platform. It is to point out the blind spots that are clear, and that if we don’t call out, giving leverage to someone who is at the table to say “Hey, we’re not being as thoughtful as we should be” would continue.
Disney and Pixar tell stories like no other. The studio that brought us UP and Inside Out and Coco, have perfected the art of art that moves us, inspires us and generates conversation. We’re now asking them to start creating art and stories where we keep our human form, and aren’t sidelined to tropes that decenter our lives.
The reason why we’re asking them to do better is that they are capable. And as the leading purveyors of narratives on screen, for decades, they have everything they need to make it happen.