• Rachel Laiosa

Celebrating Soul and Pixar’s First Black Protagonist

2020 reared its ugly head to a lot of realities that the world had been ignoring for far too long. And while society is still far from where it should be, Prezence graciously welcomes the moments worth celebrating at the start of Black History Month.

After five years in production, Pixar released its latest masterpiece, Soul, featuring the first ever Black protagonist (Jamie Foxx). The storyline is existential and eye opening to the harsh reality of our human existence (especially for young viewers), showcasing the fragility of life and how it shouldn’t be taken for granted. While Soul might open up the floor for some uncomfortable conversations with little ones, director Peter Docter did get a few things right, including the portrayal of black culture—a very underrepresented genre of animated film.

The opening scene of Soul is one for the books, arguably one of the best to date in Pixar history. With incredible animation down to the last detail, viewers are thrown into the dizzying splendor of Queens, New York, following the life of one Joe Gardner as he hunts for his big break in the music industry.

Joe dips through a series of relatable scenes, from his monotonous day job to his hopes and aspirations as a pianist. To make these moments and interactions as authentic as possible, Docter pulled in co-director Kemp Powers, who helped to amplify the lens of New York City through the eyes of a black man and the variety of friends and family members he interacts with.

Together, Docter and Powers built a brain trust of Black Pixar employees to review each scene from costume to conversation and beyond, in search of things that felt disingenuous or cliché. And together they created something magical and groundbreaking, by bringing vibrant energy to Black culture in a way that feels real, raw and relatable.

Pixar was founded 34 years ago, and it’s sad to say that Kemp Powers is Pixar’s first black director—yet there’s hope for the future and the creative minds following suit. “There are more animators of color and women in the business than there were 15 or 20 years ago, Powers noted. “It’s sad it’s taken this long, but I’m glad it’s coming finally.”

Docter and Powers pressed forward unapologetically to bring this animated film to new racial, cultural and philosophical new heights, anticipating inevitable criticism along the way. And it’s because of this foundation that every viewer can fall in love with Soul in one way or another. Whether it’s the efforts that went into building each character, the undying passion Joe has for jazz, or even those challenging questions that press you to think a little harder about what makes life meaningful.

Maybe it really is those hard-hitting questions we need most right now. Soul gently shows us that no matter how big your accomplishments might be, they don’t make a life fulfilling or complete. This powerful, tear-jerking film challenges us to celebrate the daily things we take for granted, like a delicious bite of pizza or the reflective glow of a city at dusk. The bottom line? Soul does a mesmerizing job of celebrating Black culture in an animated film. And at the end of the day, race and religion aside, we’re all just a bunch of green blobs headed to the Great Beyond...

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