The wonder of a rabbit emerging from a hat. The uninhibited joy at the discovery of presents under a Christmas tree. Money materialising in the place of a discarded tooth. Whatever your definition of magic is, the chances are as you’ve gotten older, the rigours of adult life have caused it to fade.
But there still remains one form of magic, one that can represent life with all of its possibilities but without any of its limitations: animation. Disney and Pixar, in particular, have elevated the art form to dizzying heights, using the medium to explore every way of life imaginable – Scottish, Polynesian, Hawaiian, the world of fish, cars, robots, and the list goes on. However, one culture it hadn’t explored until now is Black culture.
This year Pixar is releasing Soul. The story follows Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), a middle-aged Black music teacher with the unfulfilled dream of becoming a jazz performer. His big break finally arrives in the shape of a gig with renowned saxophone player Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett). Disaster strikes when his excitement to get home causes an accident that untethers his soul from his body. The opportunity of a lifetime is in danger of passing him by unless he’s able to convince an unwilling soul by the name of 22 (Tina Fey) that life is worth living.
True to form, Pixar approached this groundbreaking project with its trademark levels of meticulous attention to detail. The studio’s lack of prior experience telling Black stories and its desire to ensure that a range of authentic Black experiences were represented meant that change was needed. This led to the creation of the Black Culture Trust, a collection of all of the black employees working at Pixar across a range of departments, from finance to graphic design.
Pixar also worked with cinematographer Bradford Young to ensure they captured Black skin accurately on screen, a feat that’s seldom been accomplished in live action let alone animation. Enlisting the services of esteemed playwright Kemp Powers as co-director and co-writer (alongside Up’s Pete Docter) assured that the African-American element of Soul’s story would be more than a performative gesture.
The decision to include Black talent in the creative process and not only on the screen is a monumental step in the right direction. It’s resulted in a richer texture and a truer representation of the culture.
While Soul explores themes of existentialism and nihilism, usually not found in children’s films, it’s boldest accomplishment is its ensemble cast. It reads like a roll-call of Black excellence: Jamie Foxx, Angela Bassett, Phylicia Rashad, Questlove, Daveed Diggs and Richard Ayoade. The resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement this year and the growing calls for social justice mean that this release couldn’t have been more timely. It’s also long overdue.
There’s a reason why it’s taken so long for Black faces to take centre stage in an animated film, and it’s intertwined in a dark and complicated history. The relationship between western animation and Black culture has been one-sided and toxic. Animation and toys have been used as a means of perpetuating negative stereotypes for centuries, seeping into the consciousness of young children like a poisonous smog. A prime example of this are ‘golliwogs’ – dolls with exaggerated features designed to caricature black people.
If these are the images available, we would rather not have our faces in cartoons, and for many years that is exactly what happened. An unspoken agreement. The studios did not use our likeness in cartoons and we were able to watch these films without being subjected to abuse. The problem was that Black culture was losing out. Studios did not have to go through the effort of researching and diversifying their stories, and we remained absent in animation on the big screen, despite seminal series on TV such as Static Shock (2000-04), The Boondocks (2005) and Disney’s own The Proud Family (2001-05). The option to create our own content in which our stories were represented correctly simply wasn’t viable because we didn’t have the necessary infrastructure.
However, the yearning for our stories to be represented through this medium never died down, it only bubbled below the surface. In 2016, the growing pressure erupted when Oregon-based artist Crystal Hill released fan art depicting what it would look like if Frozone (voiced by Samuel L. Jackson) from The Incredibles (2004) had a family too.
While the presentation of Black culture in mainstream media is always looked at with an understandable scepticism, things feel different with Soul. There have been criticisms levelled at the animation team’s decision to whitewash the souls when they are in their spiritual form, but while these observations are valid, the magnifying glass shouldn’t be focused too closely on this right now. Soul might not be perfect, but it doesn’t have to be. Its very existence is a victory for the culture in its own right. This is just the beginning.
- Soul screened as part of the 64th BFI London Film Festival. It will be released on Disney+ on 25 December 2020
About the LFF Critics Mentorship Programme
Acknowledging a lack of diversity in film criticism the London Film Festival Critics Mentorship programme gives meaningful experience and opportunity to a range of talented emerging film writers to hone their craft and gain new contacts by being immersed in the film festival. Now in its third year, the 2020 programme was offered exclusively to 6 up-and-coming Black writers who were mentored by Akua Gyamfi, journalist, commentator and founder of The British Blacklist, and film critic, journalist and screenwriter Kate Muir.
The mentees spent the 5 days of the mentorship programme making the most of this year’s hybrid festival experience, watching films virtually as well as meeting IRL to watch Mangrove at BFI Southbank on opening night, learning from their mentors and each other. They workshopped reviews in various styles, including for a broadsheet newspaper, a tabloid, Sight & Sound magazine and a podcast review.
As well as accessing the festival Screen Talks and industry events programme, they heard from leading names from the industry with a series of Zoom chats including with Steve McQueen and Kemp Powers, and UK film critics Mark Kermode, Baz Bamigboye, Anna Smith, Ashanti Omkar and Amon Warmann. They also spoke to Ebony Amoroso, Director of Inclusion and Diversity for Endeavor, attended a ‘meet the LFF festival programmers’ session led by Festival Director Tricia Tuttle, and met Ulrich Schrauth, the new programmer for the immersive and XR strand LFF Expanded, at BFI Southbank.
Each mentee was individually paired with a mentor from the LFF’s media partners (Evening Standard, Empire, Little White Lies , Screen Daily, Sight & Sound, Time Out), to give them insight into criticism and film writing for their outlet and giving them support to produce a number of articles from the festival.
“I’m impressed and inspired,” comments lead mentor Akua Gyamfi. ”It’s been an honour and a real pleasure to co-mentor this year’s LFF Critics Mentorship group with Kate. The young writers we chose exceeded expectation and are all testament to the brilliance of this scheme and how rich the critical world could be if it opened its doors to new and diverse writers.”
Lead mentor Kate Muir adds: “Meet the future of film criticism. I loved working with our emerging critics who were the real heroes of this year’s virtual London Film Festival.”