Thursday, January 28, 2021

Pixar ‘Soul’ Features First Black Lead

by Martha Mukaiwa

It has been 25 years since Pixar burst onto the scene in a blaze of ‘Toy Story’ glory and since then audiences have revelled in the poignant stories of the likes of Nemo, Coco, Woody and Buzz.

With over 20 beloved titles to the animation studio’s name, it is hard to believe that ‘Soul’ (2020) is the very first to feature a black protagonist. The honour goes to Jamie Foxx, who stars as Joe Gardner, a musician whose considerable talents culminated in him teaching music at a middle school in New York.

Ardent about the inventive, effervescent world of jazz introduced to him by his father when he was just a boy, Joe still harbours a dream of becoming a professional jazz musician when the spectre of permanent, institutional employment threatens his artistic ambition.

As it is wont to do, life comes at Joe fast and, just as he gets his first big break, he finds himself falling down a manhole and on an escalator to the afterlife. Doing his utmost to escape death and get back to his dream life on earth, Joe tumbles into the Great Before where he is roped into helping a soul named 22 (Tina Fey) find their spark so they can start their life.

It is heady, existential stuff for an animated film. Made in the emotional and metaphysical vein of ‘Inside Out’ (2015), ‘Soul’ considers the nature and meaning of life through a man who may not have made the most of his. A wondrous feat by Pixar in its incredible, abstract yet unreligious renderings of the afterlife and the in-between as well as in its honeyed depiction of bustling New York, ‘Soul’ is a vivid visual event that invites the viewer to see the world anew yet oddly through the eyes of 22.

Though Joe is Pixar’s first black lead, the character spends a lot of time outside his body. First as a blue soul and then as a therapy cat. Joe spends fairly little time as a black man and instead that experience is given to 22 who is supposed to be neither boy nor girl, black or white but is, in fact, characterised as a middle-aged white woman; apparently because 22 likes to annoy people.

It is a strange and somewhat problematic premise. Various critics have pointed out that it follows the trend in animation to either use black voices as non-humans or to quickly turn them into some kind of animal for a large chunk of the film.

See ‘Spies in Disguise’ (2019) and ‘The Princess and The Frog’ (2009). Even stranger is the idea that Joe learns to appreciate his life through 22, who inhabits his body for a series of revelatory moments while he watches on as a therapy cat, denying him of agency.

Though the film is beautifully made and the messages of appreciating the little things and that our purpose is not set in stone as long as we have the spark of life are uplifting and important, ‘Soul’ suffers from some glaring conceptual issues.

Let us see black people as black people in their glorious human form. Let us have a black lead who is truly present in such stunning scenes as the one in the barbershop. ‘Soul’ means well and the work by black co-director Kemp Powers shines through. I wish there was a little more jazz, a little more backstory and much more Joe inhabiting his own body, but here we are with Pixar’s first black lead and it is a start worth a watch. ‘Soul'(2020) is now showing at Ster-Kinekor.