Jamie Foxx on Voicing Disney-Pixar’s First Black Lead in ‘Soul’ and Being Unapologetically Black in Hollywood
There are few entertainers like Jamie Foxx; He's a multi-hyphenate superstar with the trophy case as a backup. Though Foxx has the range and the backlog of dramatic, comedic, and generally off-wall characters, when it came to voicing Joe Gardner in Disney-Pixar's "Soul," the film's creative team wanted only the Oscar and Grammy winner for being himself, which also meant bringing the full breadth of his blackness into the role.
"In my career I never had to apologize for being black," says Foxx Variety, looking back on his Hollywood trip. “I was on In Living Color - I had a black boss [Keenan Ivory Wayans, whom Foxx mentions], black writers, black creators. Then everything was black on The Jamie Foxx Show, so I never had to worry about turning my black up or down. I was just me and it's always being worked out for me. When I do that, great things come about. "
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Foxx considers the role to be one of those “great things”: “It's amazing that I can say, and be proud of, [I] am the first African American lead actor in Disney-Pixar. That feels good."
With its star and focus on jazz, black culture is at the heart of the film - it centers on Joe, an aspiring jazz musician who works as a middle school teacher in New York City while waiting for his big break. Just as things are getting better, an accident separates Joe's soul from his body, and he ends up on the Great Before, trying to get back to Earth in time to play a gig that could kickstart his music career. But it's the specialty of Joe's world that helps the music-oriented, animated dramedy really sing.
For Foxx, that peculiarity begins with the film's co-director and co-writer, Kemp Powers.
"Kemp was smart, [he] said, 'No, I want him to be black, I want this haircut to be [right],'" adds Foxx, noting the recording of scenes at the local barber shop - a pillar of many Black communities. "If we have to get a cut, it's a cultural thing."
The entire "Soul" team - led by Pixar's director, co-writer and chief creative officer Pete Docter, and producer Dana Murray - took on the task of integrating black culture into the film's DNA commit to nailing down the cultural references and avoiding caricatures, tropes and stereotypes.
"We wanted it to be as correct as possible and as authentic as possible," explains Docter. "Because I think when you're in the audience and you can find that something is not quite right, it affects the effectiveness of the film. We're just trying to move people, care for them, and make them feel something . And I think these two things are very closely related. "
The filmmakers hired a number of A-List Culture, Music, and Faith advisors - including Ryan Coogler, Kenya Barris, Quincy Jones, and Yo-Yo Ma - to share their expertise and perspective in alongside the artisans who worked on it Bringing the story of the film directly into the film, like Jon Batiste (who composed the original music for the film) or Daveed Diggs and Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson (who voiced the characters Paul and Curley in the film while also consulting on the story).
Speaking of the internal cultural collective created by the filmmakers, Powers says, "The wonderful thing about all of these voices is that people are realizing that in many cases they don't agree with each other."
"[The counselors' meeting] was not an attempt to cover everything black," he explains. “It was actually an attempt to understand the diversity of thought, the diversity of humanity and, if at all, to avoid certain stumbling blocks. But I love the fact that on many occasions our advisors have had heated debates [with us] about many things in the film. This film was very controversial. "
Beyond the subject of representation, “Soul” also has the weighty task of asking and answering the big questions, what lies beyond this world before and after we reach it, and how (and why) it must be ensured that every second counts .
"I believe family entertainment should try to ask big questions," explains Powers. "As children, we didn't read fairy tales to get product placement. There should be lessons in these stories."
"We spoke to someone who said we could explain how depression felt for them," adds Murray, referring to a conversation with a fan of the film. "He says," This is what it looked like and now I can show that to people and say that I feel this way. "And I just thought," This is incredible. "
Helping audiences reflect on these big questions is an opportunity that Tina Fey (who has 22 votes, a reluctant soul that Joe inadvertently mentors during his time on The Great Before) enjoyed, especially with the film debut amidst the pandemic.
"It really got me thinking a lot about a life well lived and separating it from performance, outside validation, and tracking," says Fey. "It's really about asking," Are you present for the people in your life? Are you there for yourself to enjoy little moments, enjoy the silence and enjoy the process wherever you go? "And I think that's something we've all been thinking about for the past eight or nine months."
She continues: "I hope people will feel connected to their life after watching the movie and appreciate being alive, even though the way you are living in that moment may not be exactly what you have planned or are striving for. "
"Soul" is now streamed on Disney Plus.
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