The Air of Representation

“In Soul, Pixar is asking to have it both ways–pat us on the back for this beautifully crafted, non-stereotypical depiction of a Black man, but forget that the character who serves as his antagonist is a white woman.”

The opening cacophony of instruments lured me in immediately as I was reminded of Emmanuel’s early middle school days learning to play the trombone. When the energetic and encouraging music teacher, Joe, took to his piano, I was further catapulted to the moments when I was enchanted by Emmanuel’s father, Raliegh, and his own extraordinary skills on keys. A lovesick girl in my twenties, I followed him around the New York music scene through late-night gigs and sleepy cab rides back to Brooklyn.

Soon after, Soul, transported me to the New York City streets that I hold near to my heart as a proud native–the impeccable detail given to the West Village jazz club, the awning of the Jamaican food restaurant, even one of the seamstresses resembled my own mother, bent over her sewing machine with a fierce bob and reading glasses delicately balanced on her nose. I was so immersed in the Blackness of it all that it came as such a shock when suddenly, Joe, our delightful protagonist, perished down a manhole.

“That felt like a clever manipulation to serve as a pre-emptive strike to both justify and diffuse the character’s identity.”

I don’t want to rehash every plot detail of the movie from this point. I was definitely all in, particularly excited by the introduction of a cat because I love a cat under any circumstance.

Following the story from climax to resolution, I enjoyed the film’s bold exploration of the thin veil that exists between our 3-dimensional world and the spiritual realm. It’s an enduring comfort as I still grieve the transition of my father. The life lessons Joe learned were noble and universal and the presentation of Black life without the typical tragedies and stereotypes was long overdue, but refreshing. And yet, emotionally, something didn’t feel right in the end for me.

And this has been where the great debate over this film resides.

After I finished the film and sat with this uncomfortable feeling, I was going to turn to my Facebook family to help me out as it’s always a ripe space for nerdy discourse about all things pop culture. But, I paused as I read several glowing, heartfelt testimonials about the film from my cherished Black connections. I genuinely questioned what I was feeling until a friend sent me an article that offered a more critical perspective of the film. With this author’s analysis, I thought perhaps I wasn’t so crazy after all.

The big question about Soul is whether or not Tina Fey’s character, 22, is a white woman. She is literally a blue blob waiting to be dispatched to Earth to incarnate in a physical body. The film’s writers even went so far as to have her claim she chose a white woman’s voice and persona because she knew it would be annoying. Hmm. . okay. That felt like a clever manipulation to serve as a pre-emptive strike to both justify and diffuse the character’s identity. And maybe this wouldn’t matter in any other film, but this is a film unapologetically about a Black man and Black life, so it’s unfair in the post-game analysis to ask Black people to suspend the notion that 22 is not white, especially since Tina Fey’s voice has such a prominent presence in the film.

“It is this visual reference point that made Matthew Broderick’s casting as Simba in The Lion King so incongruent to James Earl Jones’s Mufasa and Madge Sinclair’s Sarabi.”

There was a time when animated films did not call on the voice talents of Hollywood’s A-listers. Do any of you know the name of the voice of Ariel from The Little Mermaid or Belle from Beauty and the Beast? I would guess that Robin Williams changed the game in his star turn as the Genie in Aladdin and soon, our expectations changed and so did the animated film industry. Now, characters are created to evoke a visual reference for us as viewers.

Maui from Moana simply wouldn’t work if Dwayne Johnson was swapped out for Neil Patrick Harris. Kevin Hart is Snowball in The Secret Life of Pets, it’s undeniable. I know I’m looking at a little white bunny, but my mind sees little Kevin Hart and those faces he makes. It is this visual reference point that made Matthew Broderick’s casting as Simba in The Lion King so incongruent to James Earl Jones’s Mufasa and Madge Sinclair’s Sarabi. To ask viewers to deny Tina Fey’s personification of whiteness as this character is to ask us to do something counter to every other animated feature film we view.

In Soul, Pixar is asking to have it both ways–pat us on the back for this beautifully crafted, non-stereotypical depiction of a Black man, but forget that the character who serves as his antagonist is a white woman. Forget that fact as she not only inhabits his body, but then attempts to steal it. Forget that fact as he exposes her to the everyday beauty and joy that is his life and she expresses more entitlement to it than gratitude. Forget that fact as Joe is the one that must apologize to her, for what I still don’t know, so that she can be redeemed in the end. Nothing was required of her.

*****

A few weeks ago, I penned the post, Ain’t I Still a Woman? in which I expressed my disappointment with The Queen’s Gambit and its stereotypical depiction of a Black girl who ultimately gives her life savings to the white woman protagonist who did nothing to deserve it. She took her cash, bought a bunch of fancy outfits to wear to Russia to play in her tournament, and is seen as the triumphant heroine. Some have called the show a “feminist romp.”

When I write these particular reflections/critiques, I do it against the backdrop of an almost 30-year career facilitating diversity, equity, and inclusion work–at least, that’s what we’re calling it now. Over the decades, my perspective on where our focus should be has changed a lot. Having grown up as an upper middle-class Black girl, I was lulled into believing that Black folks, like my family, just needed to work hard to surmount the prevailing perceptions of us as a people. Then, I started to understand the concept of white privilege and that white folks were free from the same negative perceptions simply because their experience and lives were normalized in society.

Now, the most prominent lens I use to understand these issues and challenges is that of the pathology of white supremacy and how it is the air we all breathe. The pathology is defined by the behaviors and mindsets that are birthed out of a false perception of superiority that is reinforced by every societal institution from how clothes are designed to who gets to lead the government. Anyone who benefits from this construct will consciously or unconsciously engage in behaviors to maintain that sense of superiority, even if it requires hypocrisy, dishonesty, theft, or violence and never includes accountability.

Why does this matter to an animated feature film?

For too many Black people, these behaviors have been a persistent source of harm to us. From the board room to a hotel lobby–you’ve seen the latest video of a white woman who literally assaults a Black kid because she insists he stole her phone–the need to hold onto this position of superiority by any means necessary without accountability is dangerous and traumatizing. The inception of Soul was likely years ago before we were assaulted by “Karens”, Trump, and Amy Cooper, but our current context makes the visceral emotional reaction to this film about much more than trying to be “woke.”

So, for many of us who saw this blue blob claim she was embodying the annoying persona of a “white woman” and then proceeded to engage in the behaviors that reinforced that persona and was then redeemed without any accountability, it stopped being funny or even safe. The tenderness and humility with which Joe offered his apology to her just reinforced deep rooted sentiments that govern the way we interact with each other as consumers of this same toxic air.

And while I want to acknowledge that Pixar brought in consultants and a Black man to co-direct the story and character development, he is not Pixar and consulting is not decision-making. Kemp got Joe right, from top to bottom. Soul was brilliant in its Blackity-blackness and that felt completely undermined by the decision to submit this beautifully-flawed Black man to, as my friend put it, “a petulant child.”

*****

“How might it have felt to see such compassion, humility, and love offered to the personification of a Black woman?”

In my opinion, Joe was absolutely right. 22’s discovery about life on Earth was because she was in his shoes. She appropriated the joy and honor and respect that comes with being in his skin and in that way, he redeemed her. An ironic reflection of our real life in the US, in which the contributions of Black people are what often give life and soul to our society. Our music, our vernacular, our style, our flavor, and even our vote.

I took some time to ponder what it would have felt like if 22 was voiced by a Black woman and I imagined that scene where Joe offers his hand and silences the angry, judgmental voices that surround 22. How might it have felt to see such compassion, humility, and love offered to the personification of a Black woman? The idea brought a tear to my eye because that isn’t something we ever really see or feel that often, if at all.

I watched the movie again looking through the eyes of its champions and I kept asking myself if I could separate this white woman persona from this blue blob and it was impossible. I probably oversimplified my first analysis that this was just a roundabout way to save a white woman, but I didn’t feel any better after the second viewing about 22’s resolution and that’s probably due to my own experiences with these pathological dynamics, some still very fresh.

At any rate, the debate about this film is extraordinary and that’s important and so in that regard, well done, Pixar. I still think there is a lot more work to be done in clearing the air that we breathe and letting Black people lead when our stories are told. More importantly, I would hope that white creators, whether animators or otherwise, choose to look through the lens other than the white gaze and consider what redemption should look like from multiple nuanced perspectives. Ironically, that’s the very thing that Joe learned to do.

Image courtesy of Disney Pixar

Author: myyearonmombbatical

Tara has been a lifelong advocate for children in the field of education for the past 25 years. She's hopped from coast to coast, always following the urges of spirit to the next step in the journey. The international scene is calling her name. . .#havepassportwilltravel

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