'Soul' creators go inside Pixar's first African-American-led film: 'Animation is not an industry where there's been a great deal of Black representation'

To quote the great Sam Cooke, it took a long time.
The upcoming animated adventure Soul will be Pixar's 22nd release when it arrives this holiday season, bypassing the theaters and heading straight to Disney +. However, Soul marks a milestone in the two-decade Oscar-winning series from Disney's own studio. It is the first film in which a black protagonist can be seen. Jamie Foxx approaches Joe, a music teacher and struggling jazz musician who may be close to his big break. At this moment he has an accident and is about to die. His soul is transported to the afterlife - and then into a realm of preexistence when he befriends a mischievous soul named 22 (Tina Fey) who resists birth.
“I mean, animation is not an industry where a lot of black is represented. It just didn't have it, ”said Kemp Powers, screenwriter and co-director of the film, during an early press conference attended by director Pete Docter and producer Dana Murray. “I think Pixar is one of the few places where it was very real to see the flaws and go to a tremendous amount of effort to fix them. And I think this film is like that first effort. "
Joe (Jamie Foxx) in the soul. (Photo: Disney / Pixar)
In a separate interview with Yahoo Entertainment, the three addressed these “shortcomings”. For his part, the savvy Pixar Pro Docter (Monsters Inc., Up, Inside Out) admits that the studio's recording was "shameful" in this regard and posed certain challenges for the filmmakers, such as being unable to to relate to their past work. “It's the first, so there's a lot of pressure because you can't say, 'We did this there, so we do this here. 'There have been so many other characters with different backgrounds, just like you did, more freedom because there is a chance to compare things and balance things out. In this case, we wanted to make sure that it was authentic and didn't fall into cultural tropes and stereotypes. And it wasn't an easy process. It wasn't smooth. It was bumpy. But we kind of got into it and wanted to know if we got it wrong before the movie came while we still had the opportunity to correct things. "
That meant relying on a team of “cultural advisors”, including the anthropologist and educator Dr. Johnnetta Cole, the jazz pianist Jon Batiste (The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, band leader who also composed music for the film) and The Roots Drummer? offers a voice in the soul. They showed the film to an all-black audience early on. But perhaps most important of all was the recruitment of Powers, the ex-jazz critic and playwright from One Night in Miami, who made a big year ago with the Regina King-directed adaptation of his early Oscar-winning stage drama. Powers was hired as a writer and later named co-director.
"I think the most obvious comparison people are likely to make is Pixar's Coco, but it's important to understand the differences," Powers told Yahoo Entertainment of the 2017 hit with an all-Latin voice-over, the Pixars first was that had a minority lead in character. “Mexico is a different country and culture from America, while with black characters it's both a unique culture and an American culture at the same time. So it's a very specific culture where a lot of other non-black Americans may not understand or know a lot about it outside of our creative endeavors, even though they're like all other Americans, namely our music and a few things like that . So in that regard, it's a tightrope walk. Jazz is an American art form. Joe is American, but he's also a culturally specific American. "
Joe (Jamie Foxx) and 22 (Tina Fey) in Soul. (Photo: Disney / Pixar)
As groundbreaking as soul is, it has been criticized. Along with 2009's The Princess and the Frog and 2019's Spies in Disguise, Soul is the latest in a worrying trend in large studio animation where black leads appear to spend much of their screen time in, not actually blacks. In Princess and the Frog, Tiana became an amphibian. In Spies, Will Smith's super agent became a bird. And in Soul, Joe becomes a small glowing manifestation of his spiritual essence.
"I think it's a valid concern, but it's also about context," Powers said during the press conference. “I'm just as sensitive to these things as anyone else. And for me, it's definitely about the context in which you tell this character's story. There were loads of warning cones to endure the first time we sensitively told a story of black people in an animated film and realized how easy it is to get off the rails. ... But at no point have we tried to address people's concerns. "
Disney / Pixar's soul.
“That is why we have relied so much on our consultants and our trust,” says Murray. “We made sure we lean into these difficult conversations. We didn't want to talk about that. "
Docter, meanwhile, says that the bulk of the film - at least 50 percent - follows Joe's life on earth, while the minority is the soul world.
It feels like such a perfect symmetry that a movie called Soul about Souls is being made by a man who clearly has a soul in the musical sense of the word, but that wasn't actually the movie's original design.
“He was a scientist for a while. We did a whole draft of him as a struggling actor who wanted to see his name in the light. There was a version of this where 22 was the main character. Where we thought, "What is this soul that sees the earth and says," No, I don't want any part of it, "says Docter.
It wasn't until the filmmakers discovered an old video by Herbie Hancock that told a story about the great jazz Miles Davis that the musician's lightbulb went out. "One of our early assignments was how to set a goal for our main character that we rooted for him," says Docter. "And musicians - especially jazz musicians - did that because it felt like," He doesn't want to be rich and famous, he just loves music. "That gave us a rootable goal for this character, then defeat."
Disney / Pixar's soul.
When Powers came aboard, one of his key roles was to substantiate Joe and make sure he had the goods to carry the story and lead the audience on his mission.
If the reaction to that early test screening with a black audience, not to mention a staggering 35-minute preview Disney showed the press last month, seems to be ready, it seems Soul poised for yet another triumph at Pixarland to be.
"This was actually the first time Pixar screened for an all-black audience," reveals Powers. “I admit it was one of the most scared days for me personally that I had in this film because I worked on this film for years that I ultimately wanted to show my family so that they could be proud of me. And that black audience in this theater represented my family in many ways. So I can't tell you how relieved I was at the end of this screening to hear the mostly positive response to it. "
Soul debuts exclusively on Disney + on December 25th.
Read more on Yahoo Entertainment:
Pixar shares details on next original film "Luca"
"Soul" trailer: Pixar Sneaks "Parting Ways" song from Studio's first Black Led feature
Pixar's new animated short follows a gay man's journey to acceptance

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