Soul is one of Pixar’s most artistically beautiful, emotionally moving, and conceptually ambitious projects. Its biggest failure is that it fails to center Blackness.
CW: mentions of sexual assault and some spoilers for Soul
By Inigo Laguda
When the trailer for Soul was released, it was embroiled in controversy. The film was accused of contributing to the growing catalogue of films that feature cartoon Black people being transformed or separated from their bodies. Along with the “magical negro” and the “white saviour”, the “Black body swap” has perservered as a racist trope specific to the medium of animation.
After watching Soul, I felt hesitant in charging it with this crime. Or maybe I felt indifferent about the crime itself because, to me, the film had a far greater failing.
Soul is one of Pixar’s most artistically beautiful, emotionally moving, and conceptually ambitious pieces of cinema. And its biggest failure is that it had the opportunity to be all those things—beautiful, moving, and ambitious—AND be a film that truly encapsulated Blackness. But what we got was a slightly off-centre rendition of Blackness. We got inclusivity when we could’ve had entirety and, with very little effort, Soul could have very easily been a perfect Black film.
Before I continue, I should explain my criteria for a perfect Black film.
For me, a perfect Black film isn’t so much about how wonderful the cinematography, script or acting is or how accurate the cultural staples are portrayed (though these elements are significantly important).
For me, a perfect Black film is one that centres Blackness in a way that liberates the audience from the carceral imagination of whiteness. It achieves “perfection” by suspending our gaze away from whiteness’ omnipresence—encapsulating and foregrounding Blackness so entirely that we find ourselves totally immersed in an imagined Black reality.
Some of the films I consider perfectly Black are: The Fits, Moonlight, Queen of Katwe, Get Out, Mignonnes, Akeelah and the Bee, His House, The Spook Who Sat By The Door and Rocks (there are plenty more but these are off the top of my head).
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“Perfect Black films” aren’t supposed to be anomalies or flukes. They’re necessary to enrich the perceptive diet of society. They’re crucial—not only to offset the idea that whiteness needs to be at the centre of everything, but to challenge the assumption that it must be involved in everything. The reason why I don’t consider something like Black Panther a perfect Black film is because of Everett Ross—the white, CIA agent. He seems to add so little to the film, to the point where his role mostly seems to be an anchor for the white audience to relate to. He’s not quite a white saviour despite the fact his efforts help T’Challa reclaim power from Killmonger—yet knowing what we know about the CIA’s real-world history in destabilising Black and Brown countries, his presence isn’t narratively comfortable or easily ignorable.
Black folks have spent decades bending our psyches to experience white media. There is an entire canon of films created by white filmmakers that don’t give Blackness or Black people a second thought—films that are revered and held as cinematic accomplishments of artistic excellence.
Inclusivity wants Black people to be cosmetically shoehorned into those films. But empowerment is about having the opportunity to creatively explore our stories with the same freedom that white filmmakers have had to explore theirs.
And I think this partly explains why I was so indifferent to the “Black body swap trope” after I finished watching Soul.
My disappointment in Soul doesn’t lie in the use of the trope itself. How these films have historically used these transformations is simply a symptom of the problem. My disappointment is bigger and lies in not having the space to tell our stories entirely. In always having to consider a white friend, or sidekick, or love interest, or perspective—it hinders us from using the conceptual canvas of cinema as a medium to its full potential. Soul doesn’t feel like it tells its own story entirely.
In an alternate universe, there’s a version of Soul where Joe isn’t removed from his body. He isn’t frantically traversing spiritual planes just to get a shot at his dreams. It’s a film where something a little more playful and a little less morbid than a Simone Biles somersault from the mortal coil is keeping him from attending his jazz performance—a film where we get to see him encourage and inspire his teenage student himself, reconcile with his mother directly and connect with his barber more intimately by himself, and all these wonderful shifts in perspective happen on his own terms. And I for one, would’ve probably given this alternate universe version of Soul a perfect Black film ribbon happily.
But that’s not the universe we’re in. Nor is it the film we have.
What we have is a film that ambitiously investigates the unknowable expanses of death, pre-life and the spiritual planes in between, and although Soul manages to give us wonderful depictions of Black life in its Jazz and Barbershop scenes, these cultural staples don’t make up for the film’s failure to consider and address the fact that Black people have a far more complicated relationship to nonlife than everybody else.
A couple of weeks ago, a friend and I were talking about the film Crash (2004). There’s a scene where a Black couple, Cristine and Cameron (played by Thandie Newton and Terrence Howard) are pulled over by Officer Ryan (played by Matthew Dillon). In this traffic stop, Officer Ryan orders the couple out of the car and sexually assaults Christine. Cameron essentially does nothing. After reflecting on this scene, my friend and I spoke about dating expectations. She was emphatic in her expectations as a Black woman. She needs someone who, in the same position as the Black couple from Crash, would defend and protect her. We ended up talking about how that defence and protection would have a very real possibility of leading to her lover’s death. And for a moment, the reality gave us pause.
We thought about how absurd a weight it was that a routine traffic stop could turn into a medieval, duel of honour. That in our everyday dating lives, she has to consider whether her partner would be a person willing to die for her—not in a romantic, fairy-tale hero kind of way but as a potential and plausible measurement. And we couldn’t help but feel a little angry—angry that white people never have to navigate a consideration like this.
That is the relationship with death that we have as Black people. Death is familiar because our daily interactions may or may not result in us meeting it quicker. Our interactions with people who are supposed to protect and serve us may leave us dead. Our interactions with people who are supposed to heal us may leave us dead. We have micro-confrontations with death in casual conversations about something as simple as dating.
Nonlife is a totally different entity when you’re Black.
And the funny thing is: the filmmakers need not have extensively studied Wilderson’s concepts of Afropessimism or Patterson’s work on social death to address this in Soul. They simply had to do one thing:
Cast 22 as Black voice performer.
There is something both hilarious and telling that a belligerent soul, who refuses to be born and has antagonised the most patient and learned spirits to ever exist, is voiced by a white woman. In casting Tina Fey as 22, the film attempts to market a “colour-blindness” of the human spirit. Which begs the question, in a film that mostly takes place on a raceless spiritual plane filled with amorphous turquoise blobs and omnipotent stick figures, why is it that the casting choice for the second lead role still defaults to whiteness? And what are the cinematic repercussions of that?
Well, in the film’s penultimate scene, as Joe sacrifices himself so that 22 can live, Soul only narrowly bypasses making Joe into a lazy, magical negro trope by employing an even lazier, Deus ex Machina. It pretty much gets off on a technicality. There is also something deeply unsettling about watching and hearing someone you know to be a white woman hijack a Black man’s body, screaming about how she refuses to give it back.
Casting 22 Black would have avoided all of that.
But this isn’t just about avoiding historically racist tropes.
Something brilliant happens when you make 22 Black (and I think a Non-Binary Black voice performer would’ve worked wonderfully). Through the prism of Blackness, 22’s reluctance to be born would read less like the spoilt entitlement of Liz Lemon and would instead encapsulate the pessimism that Blackness has to coexist with. It is the same pessimism Black people have transfigured into art forms like Jazz and have used to fuel our joy since time immemorial. Instead of a film that simply dabbles in the worldly, cultural staples of Blackness, a Black 22 could’ve explored what it means to be Black across the cosmic planes of existence. I’ve had countless conversations with Black people who feel ready to be parents but who are cautious about bringing a Black child into a world that they know will be hard for them. A Black 22 would inadvertently capture so many of the anxieties that Black people feel about death and potential life.
I can’t deny that Soul is a truly mesmerising film. But in it, I see a complicated example of prioritising a politic of representation over a necessity of empowerment—and further evidence that the often-liberal target of representation that so many desire from our media isn’t enough for me.
Soul manages to portray the banter and atmosphere of the Barbershop seamlessly. It captures the sounds and aesthetics of Jazz wonderfully and maybe, if the film had chosen to remain in the world then the sensitivity it extended to those staples (and the consultants the filmmakers used to avoid “harmful Black stereotypes) might’ve been enough.
But Soul didn’t remain in the world. The film’s spiritual premise doubled up as a loophole that ensured the feel-good tale was wrapped around the narrative axis of racelessness whilst it commercially sold us a film about “Pixar’s first Black lead.” It took us to great beyonds and it tried to convince us that race doesn’t matter there.
But race does matter there. And I realise that I didn’t feel totally aggrieved by the “Black body swap” trope because Blackness, for me, transcends the body. Hari Ziyad writes, “there is something special and tangible about Blackness that all Black people know and feel innately.” I know that my Blackness exists beyond this bumbling vessel that steers it and that before it faced the global onslaught of a white world, it was a spiritual reality. And so for me—Will Smith’s Blackness is so inalienable from who he is that it doesn’t matter that he is animated as a pigeon for most of Spies in Disguise. What does matter to me, is that Soul did everything to be “culturally sensitive” towards Blackness but it didn’t (or maybe couldn’t) fully commit to its own decision to be Black-focused.
And that’s what stopped it from being a perfect Black film.
Inigo Laguda is a writer and musician residing in London, England. His work is centred on Blackness and mental wellness. His thoughts can be found at @SaveInigo.
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