Why Pixar’s SOUL Is A Watershed Moment For Black Animation

The wonder of a rabbit emerging from a hat. The uninhibited joy at the discovery of presents under a decorated 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, animation – Animation has all of the possibilities of life, without any of its limitations. Disney and Pixar in particular have elevated the art form to dizzying heights, using the medium to explore every culture imaginable; Scottish, Polynesian, Hawaiian, fish, cars, robots and the list goes on. However a culture which has not been explored thus far, is the Black culture.

This year Pixar is releasing SOUL. The story follows Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), a middle aged music teacher with the unfulfilled dream of become a jazz performer. His big break finally arrives in the shape of a gig with esteemed saxophone player, Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett). Disaster strikes when his excitement to get home and causes an accident which untethers his soul from his body. The opportunity of a lifetime is in danger of passing him by unless he is able to convince 22 (Tina Fey) that life is worth living.

Whilst SOUL explores themes of existentialism and nihilism, usually not found in children’s films, it’s most groundbreaking accomplishment is its ensemble cast. It reads like a role call of black excellence; Jamie Foxx, Angela Bassett, Phylicia Rashad, Questlove, Daveed Diggs and Richard Ayoade. The rise to prominence of the Black Lives Matter movement this year and the growing calls for social justice would lead some to believe that this release couldn’t have been more timely, when in actual fact it’s long overdue. The reason it has taken so long for black faces to come to the sliver screen is intertwined in a dark and complicated history.

Jay Z’s “The Story of OJ” music video polarised opinion because it’s animation was in the style of racist 19th Century Minstrel cartoons.

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 is “Golliwogs” – dolls with exaggerated features designed to caricature Black people; features which have ironically become the obsession of Western fashion culture.

“If these are the images that will be circulated in the mainstream we would rather not have our faces in cartoons” and for many years that’s exactly what happened. An unspoken agreement. They didn’t use our likeness in cartoons and we were able to watch these films without being subjected to abuse. The problem with this solution is that the Black culture was the only one losing out – studios didn’t have to go through the effort of researching and diversifying their stories and we remained absent in animation. The option to create content where 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 had a family. It is likely that the positive response to cartoons like this and the potential income to be generated motivated the decision to develop this film. It could also be true that this came about organically.

Pixar created the ‘Culture Trust’ during the development of this film to ensure that SOUL had a plethora of authentic Black experiences. The Culture Trust is a collection of all of the Black employees working at Pixar and was co-directed and co-written by African-American, Kemp Powers. The move to include Black talent in the creative process and not only on the screen is a monumental step in the right direction. It is hoped that this will add the rich texture (the barber shop, jazz music, etc) to the film and make it the truest representation of the culture to hit our screens.

There are criticisms levelled at the animation team’s decision to whitewash the souls when they are in their spiritual form. Whilst these criticisms are valid the magnifying glass should not be focused too closely on this current moment in time. 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.

But This Is Just The Beginning.