To me, Disney Plus’s “Celebrate Black Stories” watchlist seemed haphazardly assembled. There were some films directed by and starring Black people that centered on their lived experiences and futures, like Beyoncé’s “Black is King” and “Black Panther.” However, I did not consider most films as particularly representative.
One questionable movie on the list was “The Lion King” — the 1994 animated version — which intentionally resembles William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” and features a host of singing anthropomorphic animals. Its strongest, and simultaneously extremely tenuous, claim to being a Black story is that it takes place in Africa.
The list, of course, also featured “Soul”: Disney’s latest animated film with a Black protagonist and Pixar’s first. “Soul” struck me as a cross of “Freaky Friday” and “Inside Out” that did not nail the former’s humor nor the latter’s heartstring tugs. I also do not consider it a “Black story.” It is a story that incorporates some elements of Black culture and excises more: a film with limited interest in confronting race and racism despite being about a Black man in the United States.
Pulling a page from its own playbook, Disney spends most of the movie making sure that white audiences are comfortable with the Blackness of Jamie Foxx’s character, Joe Gardner, by literally de-humanizing him. Early in the movie, Joe is divorced from his body and represented as a humanoid blue blob alleged to be his soul. When his body re-enters the movie soon after — as opposed to “The Princess and the Frog,” where Tiana stays a frog for the vast majority of the film — Joe is not allowed to inhabit it.
Instead, Tina Fey’s snarky character, named 22, slips in and pilots Joe’s body while Joe is trapped in the body of a cat. As a result, the voice of a Black man comes from a cat and the voice of an annoying white woman comes from the body of a Black man. This is perhaps meant to be comical, as the film makes an explicit joke about Fey’s character sounding like an obnoxious “white lady.” I, however, was more disturbed than amused, as it felt like the film’s creators were urging audiences to engage in colorblindness and forget that Joe was Black, ensuring that he would not be found offensive or threatening by a broader demographic.
Additionally, the story is situated in the modern United States yet bungles its handling of race outside of its main character. In one scene, Terry — effectively the headcount keeper of the afterlife — seeks to apprehend Joe and catches Daveed Diggs’ character, Paul, by accident. After ripping Paul’s soul out of his body, putting it back, and hastily apologizing, Terry goes about her search. Paul cowers on the sidewalk, his knees pulled to his chest, trembling.
The entire scene felt like a joke about racial profiling. Given how much state and extrajudicial violence Black people are subject to on a daily basis based on racist assumptions about criminality and suspiciousness, I found nothing to laugh at.
Overall, the film’s exploration of Black life and Black culture seems half-baked. Yes, Joe makes one comment about how difficult it is to hail a cab in New York City as a Black man. Yes, the movie incorporates jazz and a barbershop. Yes, the movie avoids many stereotypes and presents a protagonist with whom it is easy to sympathize. And yes, it is no small feat to make a children’s movie that addresses racism in a meaningful way.
Even so, “Soul” could have done much more. It could have represented the afterlife as a homegoing and incorporated Black modes of spirituality. It could have grounded Joe within his community and explored what that meant to him. It could have let him stay in his own body, at the very least.
The basic message of “Soul,“ one about finding joy and not measuring oneself against others, is a good one that Princeton students can find solace in, as Prospect writer Lillian Chen has described. But even the movie’s co-director, Kemp Powers, has said “It would be unfair to say Soul is a ‘Black’ movie,” as it is more of a “universal” one told through the life of a Black man.
“Soul” is a step toward more robust representation of Black life in Disney films. It is still immensely disheartening that the second biggest media company in the world has yet to release a full-length animated film where the Black protagonist remains a person for the entire time. Instead, it continues to trade deep portrayals of Black life for bland relatability, failing to recognize that such portrayals would not render characters any less human or likable.
Brittani Telfair is a junior from Richmond, Va. majoring in SPIA and pursuing a certificate in African American Studies. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.