What’s Wrong With Pixar’s Soul: Animation, Racism, and Blackface?

This Christmas, Pixar released its new film, Soul on Disney+. While the film is cinematically beautiful and emotionally tear-jerking, especially during the final act, it misses a critical point that few outside of black viewers and media scholars have discussed. Despite having a black co-writer/co-director (Kemp Powers), Soul manages to neglect an integral part of showing a black man’s authentic experiences in America. It’s somewhat apparent that animators and storytellers already have an issue with keeping BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) in their human form for the full duration of a movie, or at least for the majority of it (e.g., Princess and the Frog, Brother Bear, Spies in Disguise). However, what differentiates Soul from these other films is that it fails to recognize that a black man’s soul is not easy to replicate, especially not by a white woman.

When soul number 22, a blue blob voiced by Tina Fey, finds herself in the protagonist Joe’s (Jamie Foxx) body, she makes the human experience seem effortless, minus learning how to walk. Sure, one could argue that 22 doesn’t have a race, but if race didn’t matter when it came to casting, then Joe could have been played by Owen Wilson or Tom Hanks instead of Foxx. Pixar is specific with its casting, often taking inspiration from and drawing characters to have similar features, facial expressions, and body language that emulates that of the actor. With this in mind, there’s no way Tina Fey could have lasted a day in a black man’s shoes in the real world.

A scene that has often been highlighted by critics of the film that fails to truly show the black experience, despite having the opportunity to do so, are the interactions 22 has in the barbershop. While in the form of a cat, Joe accidentally shaves off his hair and becomes desperate for a professional barber. In the barbershop, 22 manages to captivate the barbers and patrons with her philosophical outlooks on life with no one the wiser that Joe isn’t acting like Joe. It’s a good thing no one spoke any AAVE (African American Vernacular English) or local slang terms; then, people would have probably caught on that something was amiss. It’s also terrific that Fey didn’t try to imitate a black person while being in their body. Otherwise, that would have caused an uproar from black audiences.

After living in Joe’s skin for a few hours, 22 found excitement in the mundanity of everyday life, but she didn’t have to deal with the negatives that come with it, including experiencing heartbreak, loss, or getting sick. There was also a lack of exchange that 22 didn’t have to encounter as well. She didn’t have to experience microaggressions or blatant racism like Joe probably has in the 40+ years of his life. 22 also didn’t have to pay bills or deal with uninterested students. Perhaps if she were placed in the body of someone who wasn’t financially struggling and probably dealing with racial oppression, then there would be more reason behind wanting to stay inside Joe’s body as she wanted. Had she spent more time in Joe’s body and endured more of the bad stuff that he has experienced in his life, then she probably would have wanted to escape as soon as possible.

Casting Tina Fey was indeed a misstep on the casting agency’s behalf. Of course, Disney loves its star-studded cast, with Soul being no different, featuring Hollywood black heavy hitters like Questlove, Phylicia Rashad, and Angela Bassett. Soul had the opportunity to be even greater if it cast a black child such as Quvenzhane Wallis, Marsai Martin, or Miles Brown instead of Tina Fey. 22 could have still been pessimistic about life. Nevertheless, by experiencing the positive aspects of being black despite all the racism and prejudice in the world, they could see that life is worth it. With the amount of self-hatred that young black children experience because of their skin color, this film was the opportunity for black people of all ages to see themselves as beautiful people, just like Disney did with Black Panther. Pixar had the chance to make Joe a mentor towards a young black child in the form of a soul. Audiences already get a peek at how good of a teacher he is with his student Connie, who has a natural talent for the trombone but faces self-doubt. His relationship with 22 could have been similar to that but deeper. He could have shown 22 that despite all the hardships he has experienced, the community he has because of his blackness makes life worth living.

This film had the recourse to deal with tough subjects like Coco and Inside Out did with the topics of loss and the pressure to meet familial expectations in addition to the black experience. Unfortunately, it fell short. It lacked the emotional depth that many other Pixar films had. As the first Pixar film with a black protagonist, it had high expectations to meet, especially from black community members. However, with Joe being a blue blob and a cat longer than he had been black, as well as the lack of cultural experiences, Joe really could have been a person of any race or ethnicity. In the film’s hour and 47-minute duration, Tina Fey ends up spending more time in Joe’s body than Jamie Foxx. Joe’s backstory set up the perfect opportunity to deal with the pain of being human since he has dealt with the loss of his father, financial difficulties, high expectations from his mother, and it’s probably safe to say bigotry as well. Perhaps if the film talked more about the history of jazz and how it’s based around the black experience, then the story would have felt more integral to Joe’s identity of being black.

During this past year, racism in animation voiceovers has been a popular topic. It has caused actors to apologize for their roles, including Alison Brie for her role as Diane Nguyen, a Vietnamese-American woman in Bojack Horseman, and Jenny Slate’s replacement as Missy, a biracial black girl in Big Mouth. With the criticisms regarding racism in animation, it begs me to ask the question, is Tina Fey’s character’s emulation of a black man considered voiceover blackface? I don’t think it goes quite that far, but I do see negligence on behalf of the writers who fail to show the black experience and the casting agency who felt that Tina Fey should voice a soul in a black man’s body.

When focusing on a black person’s life in a film, you also have to discuss the not so easy parts about being in their skin. Perhaps the writers felt that the subject was too deep to address in a children’s film, but little BIPOC kids will experience racism in the real world. It would be appropriate for a children’s film to address the topic so that they can feel prepared for these experiences and so that older BIPOC can feel represented on screen as many white viewers do. Pixar has had a history of dealing with tough subjects eloquently, from coping with miscarriages, death, loss, and progressing from adolescence to adulthood. Surely the animation giant could have found a way to talk about racial and cultural identity like it did with Coco.

In the end, Soul leaves you with much to be desired. Where is 22 now? Is Joe going to perform again? Is he going to say yes to teaching full-time? Audiences are abandoned with no real answers as to what’s next for everyone. This film doesn’t tie everything up neatly in the end like other Pixar films. Instead, it tells audiences to enjoy life, whatever may come. So, for Joe and 22, what’s next is entirely up to the imagination, and we must accept that because I doubt there will be a sequel.

Our journey with Joe, much like his relationship with 22, was far too short of developing any attachment to him or understanding as to who he is. The only relationships we see are between him, his mother, and his music. As Pixar’s first film with a black protagonist, there needed to be more risk-taking and necessity of the black identity that was unfortunately lacking. Joe’s identity wasn’t based on who he is but rather what he does, so we don’t get to understand him as a black man and what that part of his identity means to him. As the final act so clearly states, our passions are not our purpose, and the only thing we know about Joe is that he’s a man who loves jazz, and that’s not enough.