Soul, Pixar’s jazz-themed journey of two characters searching for their purpose in life, has been loved by some and criticized as ‘racial incentive’ by others. As a Black man, I believe Soul was not racially insensitive. In fact, many of the complaints when viewed from a different perspective, can be seen to support the journey of some Black men.

The trailer

What is Soul about?

Soul is about Joe Gardner, a struggling jazz musician, who has become a music teacher in order to pay his bills. One day, Joe is offered a full-time contract by his school, he is reluctant to accept the offer. Why? Because this would mean giving up on his dream of being a full-time jazz musician. On the same day, Joe is given the opportunity to audition to be a musician in the band of one of his favourite jazz musicians. He succeeds, but before he can play with her, he is killed in a tragic accident. This then begins Joe’s journey of trying to leave ‘the great beyond’ in order to regain his life, as he feels it was not his time to die.

Joe then meets 22, a soul that is yet to be born, but doesn’t want to experience life, or so they believe. Together, they going on an adventure that questions the purpose of life and people’s pursuit of their dreams. 

The criticism

Firstly, I will say as a Black man, I liked Soul. But, I make that point simply to let you know that not every black person did like the movie. Who would have guessed that Black people are not a monolithic group with a single hive mind?

Some people, some black, some not, have reviewed Soul as ‘cringey’ and said they “felt like the studio had taken a few steps backward after the release of Disney’s 2018 blockbuster “Black Panther.”  This is a very strong statement. Click here to read my full review that analyses the meaning behind Soul and its message for ‘dreamers‘.

Black Panther should not be used as the measuring stick for future Disney movies that happen to have either Black themes or Black cast members. Every so-called White movie is not compared to Citizen Kane, Vertigo, or The Godfather.

Black Panther was universally loved because it was a pivotal moment in film history. For the first time, we had a Black superhero in a big-budget movie, set in Africa, with a majority Black cast and Black director. 

Ryan Coogler did an exceptional job bringing to life a character and world that many people had only dreamed of seeing on the big screen. The dream of Black Panther was often in the same conversations as the prospect of a Black President- something many people thought they would never live to see. We are thankful to have lived long enough to see both. 

Those lucky enough to see it, saw a hero be born in fiction and die in reality. Chadwick Boseman, the Black Panther; words cannot express how much his performance meant for the Black community. Words cannot express the pain we felt due to his death. As they say, superheroes do not die, so Chadwick lives on in the young people who can grow up and believe they too can save the world.

Black man playing piano
Soul, Joe Gardner plays the piano. Disney/Pixar

Soul is not asking young people to want to be Joe. Joe is just a man, with a passion, but room for personal growth. It is asking viewers to find their own spark. This is a universal message, not one specific to Black children or adults.

Even the relationship between Joe and his mother, represents the universal fears parents have for their children. They fear that without their support they will not be able to survive; thus they desire for them to find a ‘stable’ income or career.

Soon after I watched Soul, a friend sent me a review critiquing the movie. If I were to review, the review, I would say it seemed to have coupled together every legitimate complaint any Black person has made before about a movie and found a way to get Soul to also fit these tropes or stereotypes. I will quickly give my rebuttal to these criticisms- spoilers incoming:

  • Joe is killed before his big break: so, what about the children who see Joe as themselves?
    – This happens at the very beginning of the movie. Other than joy for Joe, there is little chance for a child or adult to have established Joe to be a Disney version of themselves yet.  At this point Joe is very much just a teacher, who loves jazz and is chasing a dream- he happens to be Black. No more, no less. Most importantly, the film is called Soul- someone needs to be killed at some point!
  • Joe dies and then becomes a spirit creature- a trope seen in other movies featuring Black characters.
    Context is everything. Joe is in the great beyond, he is around ‘souls’ thus he looks like a soul! He keeps his trademark hat and glasses. But, most importantly he keeps his voice and personality. Blackness isn’t not simply skin tone or skin in this case. This film proves that even though it is most likely not its aim. Moreover, this ‘trope’ can be seen in films involving a diverse range of races.
  • Pixar’s first Black-led film should celebrate a Black man’s experience and focus solely on his dreams and desires. Instead, Joe’s life takes a back seat in order for a white woman to figure out what she wants from life.
    Context, Fey’s character, 22, is voiced by a woman, so yes we could assume that 22 may have become a baby girl. But, that is an assumption, not a fact. Within the movie, Joe asks “ why do you sound like a middle-aged white woman?” 22 replies “I don’t, this is all an illusion, this whole place is a hypothetical… I just use this voice because it annoys people”. It certainly did annoy some reviewers of the movie! Yet, Fey’s voice neither makes nor breaks the movie. Pixar could have cast Fey or any other voice actor. Hence why I did not recognise her voice. 
  • Tina Fey, a white woman, voices a soul that ends up switching bodies with Jamie Foxx’s character Joe Gardener, who is a black man
    -Context again: voice actor’s real-world
    identities only become obvious depending on the shows or movies you have consistently watch them in. I did not recognise Fey’s voice. I did recognise Foxx’s voice. I recognised it and moved on. The voice-over performances enhance films, not the actor’s real-life persona or previous work. The ‘switch’ merely provides some drama for the movie to try and resolve. Fey’s character is a baby’s soul. A person would have to be detached from the storyline of the movie to think ‘ a white woman is in a Black man’s body’. In the same way, I did not think a Black man was trapped inside a lion when I watched the Lion King.
Joe and 22 in the great beyond. Credit: Disney/Pixar

So, is Soul racially insensitive? No. Black people are not the glass ornaments some reviewers and social media users seem to think we are. Films can have layers, some positive and some negative, we are able to process them all and enjoy or dislike movies- without seeing them as microaggressions.

Soul is not a ‘Black movie’. But, it does have Black themes. From the cast, the music, and the settings.

Soul takes these Black themes and settings and depicts them in a beautiful and thought-provoking way. The barber’s chair is a therapeutic place for Black men. A barbershop is a place where many of us have shared our hopes and dreams. Jazz, for many, has been the music that has allowed them to escape the struggles of everyday Black existence.

Yet, White people also enjoy music and get their haircut. So Joe could quite easily have been changed to a White man from New York, who plays the drums and dreams of being a professional musician but has an accident before his big break. Oh wait, this is literally the plot of Whiplash.

Is Soul, the kid’s version of Whiplash without the abusive teacher? Let me know in the comment section.