Disney’s Soul Is So Good Because It’s So Black
The surprise of Disney’s Soul is its ability to tell an incredibly authentic and culturally Black, yet universally-applicable, story about the goodness of life and what we miss out on in the pursuits of some other unattainable goodness. But for the story to work, it’s important that it is portrayed with culturally accurate depictions of its characters and social settings. If Soul is told in any other way with the characters chosen to tell the story, it would not work.
We learn from Dez that we are not failures because we don’t reach our goals. We are failures when we stop living in light of our unrealized dreams.When I spoke with the director of Soul, Pete Docter, I asked him how intentional the decision was to make Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) an almost everyday African American man. Docter admitted that they didn’t set out to make Joe the first lead African American character for Pixar. “It was really out of the decision that this guy who reflects the artist’s journey should be a jazz musician,” Docter said. And with a team of consultants, they acknowledged the history and makeup of jazz as “Black improvisational music that grew out of the African American culture,” and thus determined that it would only be right to have the main character reflect that background.
When that decision was made, Docter confessed how little he actually knew about African American culture. From there, they relied heavily on screenwriter and playwright Kemp Powers (One Night in Miami) as a formative piece to bring all the little details of Black culture to the forefront of Soul. Among those subtle yet very significant details was making sure Joe put on lotion after a shower, the creation of a realistic Black barbershop experience, and the difficulty of sometimes catching a cab as a Black man in New York.
Along with Powers, an extensive group of cultural consultants—including Herbie Hancock and Quincy Jones—also contributed to the storyline by informing Docter and producer Dana Murray (Inside Out, Lou) of the Black experience in America and how music contributed to that experience.
Joe Gardner, who is sort of an ordinary man with hopes and dreams, represents this experience well. Joe loves music, particularly jazz music, and he’s a very talented pianist. However, he hasn’t gotten his big break yet. His dream is to play with popular artists, like saxophonist Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett), but he’s stuck between chasing that dream and taking care of his responsibilities with a stable job as a middle school band teacher. In Joe’s estimation, he was born to play the piano, and indulging this dream would fulfill his purpose in life and give his life meaning.
But, “You can’t eat dreams, Joey,” his mother, Libba Gardner (Phylicia Rashad) tries to explain to him. She doesn’t want Joe to struggle like his dad (her husband) did chasing a dream. “We didn’t struggle giving you an education so you can be a middle-aged man washing your underwear in my shop,” Libba scolds Joe as she prods him to take the full-time band teacher position at his middle school. “And Lord knows we need more teachers in this world.”
Joe’s interaction with his mother is also a revealing part of the African American experience. Joe is the product of a generation privileged to chase after dreams, but at a potentially greater cost than his average white American peer. Libba’s response expresses an acute awareness of the existing inequities African Americans continue to deal with if they fail to reach their dreams. She knows how much catching up African Americans are trying to do economically compared to the average middle-class American. Much of it has to do with wealth disparities.
Many African Americans are working jobs today they were barred from just two or three generations ago, and are just now beginning to establish generational wealth to pass down to the next generation. But today’s generation are only afforded the luxuries of chasing dreams, because the older generations rarely had such opportunities. So Joe Gardner’s pursuit to fulfill a dream would undoubtedly seem like a wasted opportunity to older generations like his mother, Libba. All that time, to her mind , could be spent working and building wealth for the future, like she did for Joe.
So the fact that Joe is in love with jazz, or “black improvisational music” as his dad describes it to him, is fitting. Black people have historically found a way to make a way out of no way, and make it good against the odds. Whether developing successful communities, creating musical contributions to American culture, excelling in education against the odds, or overcoming discrimination in sports, African Americans often were forced to make due with what God-given talents were afforded to them. As ESPN senior writer Howard Bryant puts it: “Whether turning the worst parts of the pig into soul food, the worst urban conditions into a billion-dollar rap music industry or making an often itinerant baseball life into the iconic treasure that is the Negro Leagues, the beauty of Black people is in the ability to be unwanted and still create gold.”
When Joe gets his opportunity to create this gold and finally play with Dorothea Williams, he takes an unfortunate fall that pushes him to the brink of death, and he must yet again improvise against the odds of death. In a desperate attempt to escape death so he can fulfill his dream, his soul lands in “The Great Before” or the “You Seminar,” where he is matched with an unborn soul, 22 (Tina Fey) who has no interest in living.
While matched with 22, Joe learns more about the beauty of life than he ever did while living on earth. Among the many lessons he learns, one is that souls are created with a “spark,” something that captivates the heart and mind in such a way that it makes life seemingly worth living. Once souls find that spark, then they’re ready to live. When they rediscover that spark they were created with while living on Earth, the enjoyment of doing whatever that spark is—acting, playing basketball or the piano—can sometimes cause them to get “in the zone,” rapturously floating between the physical and spiritual, lost in what seems like their entire purpose for living. For Joe, that’s playing the piano.
But Joe also learns that souls in the zone are susceptible to getting lost when their passions become obsessions. Moonwind (Graham Norton), another soul “in the zone,” explains to Joe that “Lost souls are not that different from those ‘in the zone.’ ‘The zone’ is enjoyable, but when that joy becomes an obsession, one becomes disconnected from life.”
And therein lies the universal reminder for all people, young and old alike. Grinding and investing in dreams is good. And while, historically, African Americans had to work twice as hard, be twice as “respectable,” and save twice as much money to stay on par with the rest of society to make these dreams possible, it’s important to remain aware of the perils of hustling twenty-four/seven. A nonstop grind can come at great cost when disconnected from “regular old living” like skywatching, walking, conversing, or admiring the myriads of organisms moving about all around us. When that happens, we miss out on more than just a fulfilled dream: we miss out on life.
Many dreams have been laid to rest for a greater purpose. But that doesn’t mean life stops. Joe’s barber, Dez (Donnell Rawlings), helps Joe and 22 understand this. Dez aspired to be a veterinarian until his daughter got sick and changed his life’s plans. “But wait, you were born to be a barber, weren’t you?” Joe/22 asks, and they assume Dez is now unhappy because he’s not doing the thing he loved for a living. But Dez doesn’t buy into such faulty logic. “I’m happy as a clam, my man. Not everyone can be Charles Drew inventing blood transfusions.” Dez doesn’t consider himself a failure because he didn’t get to do what he originally planned to do in life. Instead, he’s content and thankful for what he gets to do and the life he has. (I think it’s important to also note that where this conversation takes place is just as important as the content of the conversation. “There’s no more culturally authentic place in the Black community than the barbershop,” Kemp Powers noted, thus adding to the natural veracity and candor of this exchange. Barber shops are safe spaces where Black men from all walks of life can discover truths about life that are often hard to find elsewhere.)
We learn from Dez that we are not failures because we don’t reach our goals. We are failures when we stop living in light of our unrealized dreams. That doesn’t mean life isn’t often unfair to us or that injustice isn’t real. If anything such indignities are reminders for us to persevere, because life is worth living. And what better way for Disney to show that to us than through the life of a modern-day Black man living in New York?
For all there is to gush about Soul some have very poignant critiques of the film. Some feel Joe Gardner is a token Black for Pixar since he is the first Black lead character. Others question why an assumed white woman (22) gets to control Joe’s body, while Joe is relegated to an animal (a cat) for most of the film. These critiques of minstrelsy tropes, tokenism, and more like them, are valid and should be paid attention to for any future movies starring Black lead roles. However, for whatever imperfections there are, the purpose of the film ought not to be dismissed in its entirety.
As But why should Christians care that Soul is told in a contemporaneously African American cultural context and not misappropriated to fit the storyteller’s world? This can be a beneficial reminder for us as we share the gospel that we ought to be able to read the room. The gospel is the gospel, and the central message should not change. But presentation matters in regards to how the message is spread.
In A Multitude of All Peoples, Vince Bantu thoroughly and carefully investigates how historically the message of gospel was strategically distributed among various people groups by early Christians evangelicals. Across the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Europe, the gospel message was effectively spread and invited not because cultural norms were castigated and reviled. Instead, they were tools used to show the supremacy of Christ within that culture’s context. “If it is the desire of the church to exist deeply rooted for the long term among all nations, tribes, and tongues” Bantu insists, “it is necessary for the gospel to be stripped of any geocultural association and contextualized to particular milieu.” And it is in this way that Soul, Pixar’s first African American film, can help Christians remember that how we share the gospel message can be just as important as sharing it.
Telling the story of Soul from an African American perspective is a weighty responsibility, “not only because it’s the right thing to do,” Docter said, but also because “the movie gets better when you talk about those things in an accurate, specific way.” And Docter is correct. Soul is more universal because of how specific it is. When we tell stories like Soul in culturally specific ways, the intention of the narrative blossoms into its full purpose—much like our own imperfect lives as we continually discover what makes us, us.
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