Playing those Hoop Dreams Blues in Soul.
Playing those "Hoop Dreams Blues" in Soul. Pixar/Disney

These are the top five feature films produced by Pixar, an animation studio that began with George Lucas, received a capital boost from Apple's founder Steve Jobs, and has been owned by Disney since 2006: Wall-E, Toy Story, Ratatouille, Soul, and Monsters, Inc. This post is about the film that occupies the fourth position on my list, Soul, which was released by Disney on December 25, 2020. (It's really hard for me to describe what happened on that day as anything like the Christmas spirit—thousands of Covid deaths, more deaths to come because people refused to stay at home for just one Santa Day, and so on, and so on.) One might even say that Soul arrived right on time. Pixar dropped its first movie featuring a black character at the end of a year that was shocked into a state of awareness/confusion/denial by the images of a white police officer murdering a black man on a Minneapolis street.

A key understanding extracted from the Black Lives Movement protests ignited by the murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020 was the need to increase and improve the representations of black Americans in mainstream culture. Not only did Soul place a black jazz pianist at its narrative core, it also made the effort to include top-shelf black talent: Jamie Foxx, Phylicia Rashad, Donnell Rawlings, Questlove, and Angela Bassett. On top of all that, a black screenwriter, Kemp Powers, made significant contributions to the film's creative development. By all appearances, Pixar had its finger on the racial pulse of the nation, even before the pulse was sped up by this summer's BLM protests.

So, how did it turn out? Did Soul really tackle the issues of racism in the US? Was the black experience finally translated into computer-generated images? The answer is "no." But this "no" does not in any way mean it was a bad film. I love Sidney Lumet's The Wiz like nobody's business, but I would be crazy to say that it realistically represents the most pressing issues of the black American experience in the 1970s.

After Soul screened on Friday, praises and criticisms flooded social media. Most of the praise has been directed at the visual beauty of the work. For example, the scene in the black barber shop—its colors, its rays of light, its textures on the walls, chairs, and clothes—is one of the most numinous scenes that Pixar has ever produced.

Also much expressed has been an appreciation for its metaphysical themes: birth, death, afterlife, the essences of human morality.

The bulk of the criticisms, on the other hand, have mostly been directed at the film's failure to abolish certain old and new racist tropes.

Elle reduced the criticisms relating to the tropes down to two:

"In its final moments, Soul is set to sacrifice its Black lead so a white woman can go and live out her life on Earth. Joe decides he's fine with dying because he was able to live out a dream. As the movie's about to wrap up however, Joe's given a second chance to live life because of his good deed. Good for ol' Joe, right? Eh. First, Joe is killed the moment he gets his big break within the first 10 minutes of the film. What kind of message does that send to young children watching this film who see themselves in Joe?

Second, Soul steps into a dangerous trope that has become frequent in animation with leads of color. After Joe 'dies,' we see him turn into a green blob, which is a pattern we've seen in animation of turning Black characters into creatures. Sadly, co-director Pete Docter admitted to journalists during a virtual press conference Insider attended that he wasn't even aware of the trope until working on this film."

The first trope is much more tangible than the second, as it has a history that goes way beyond animation culture: Driving Miss Daisy, The Legend of Bagger Vance, Gone with the Wind, to name a few. But the fact of the matter is Soul is about a person who happens to be black, and not a black American film. Have no confusion about that.

The main character in Soul is a black man, Joe Gardner, who failed as a rapper and instead found his calling in jazz, a musical form that is no longer popular with black Americans. One day, the most important day of his life, he receives good news about his teaching career: It has been granted middle-class stability by New York City's public school system. Gardner will have a pension, health care, and an income that grows yearly.

This stability, it turns out, is not what he wants. Despite being middle-aged, Gardner still has what I like to call "Hoop Dreams"—dreams of fame and glory in, of all things, jazz music. And just when he thinks his dreams are about to be realized, he dies in a pedestrian accident and goes up to the sky where the souls of the dead are swallowed whole by a great ball of white light. But the film is really funny, particularly the scenes when Gardner's lost soul is trapped in a plump cat.

And it is here that I think I can contribute a little something to the debates swirling around this undeniably entertaining work. The film claims to be about souls, and, of course, black American culture has lots of soul in it: soul food, real soul brothers, soul music. But the soul in black American culture is not the same as the soul in European culture, which tends to be the divine element of the body, the immaterial substance that is questioned, tested, and persists after death. The European soul is what we find in Soul. But the black American soul is much more about roots, as in roots reggae. The word captures the sense of rootedness in black culture, black life, black joys and pains. There is the spirit, which is how a black pastor will describe, say, a moment when the congregation is really feeling a hymn or sermon ("got to feel the spirit"). But soul is something else from that. Spirit affirms god's presence; soul affirms blackness. It is the black mode of food, the black mode of song, the black mode of movement in the world, not in the afterworld. Black soul is about what's happening.