In the COVID era, my wife and I are homeschooling our small children. Their endless questions often send me to Google. Why do clouds change color? Where did language come from? Why did our ancestors paint on cave walls? They are not only curious about life after death, but also about life before life. They have concocted the Not-Existing World—an antechamber to life where they were friends before birth. So they naturally loved Soul, Pixar’s foray into the twin metaphysical realms of the Great Before (pre-life) and the Great Beyond (afterlife).
Soul opens on Joe Gardner (a black middle-aged jazz pianist voiced by Jamie Foxx) becoming a permanent teacher at a public school as his dreams of professionally performing music fade. Miraculously, there’s a coveted opening in the Dorothea Williams quartet that same day, and Joe nails the audition. Euphoric, he struts through NYC, oblivious to its dangers, and plummets down an open manhole. Suddenly, he’s a fuzzy green-blue blob among other blobs—disembodied souls. (Joe is distinguished by his glasses and spiffy hat.) The souls move through a void toward a dazzling light: Hieronymus Bosch’s Ascent of the Blessed fused with a modern airport travelator. Refusing death, Joe tears through a vibrational veil and lands in the Great Before, where he meets Unborn Soul 22 (Tina Fey). Through mishap, Joe and 22 teleport to Earth, but 22 inhabits Joe’s body, while Joe occupies the body of a therapy cat lounging in his hospital room. Needless to say, complications ensue.
Perhaps more surprising than the plot’s various twists and turns are the sharp critical responses this innocuous film has elicited. At the New Yorker, Harvard professor Namwali Serpell describes Soul as part of a “long tradition of American race-transformation tales” that are “unable to resist making white people the hero of blackness. The white desire to get inside black flesh is absolved as an empathy exercise. Blackface gets a moral makeover. It’s telling that, in most race-transformation tales, the ideal is presented as a white soul in a black body.” This kind of film theory is preoccupied with the particulars of race, gender, identity, and representation at the expense of universally resonant themes of, say, love and loss or success and failure.
Of course, it is important to be mindful of cultural particulars—and Pixar seems to have made that effort. The studio assembled a “cultural brain trust” to develop the picture once it was agreed that the protagonist would be black. The basic premise, after all, had been the idea of (white) writer/director Pete Docter, whose Inside Out had seen wild critical and commercial success but left him feeling somehow hollow. So (black) co-writer/director Kemp Powers was brought aboard along with a diverse cast: musical luminaries Herbie Hancock, Jon Batiste, and Terri Lyne Carrington; anthropologist Johnnetta Cole; cinematographer Bradford Young; and Dr. Peter Archer, the Queens middle school band teacher and real-life model for Joe.
However, to identitarians, Docter’s developmental role renders the project fundamentally fraudulent—a “white story” masquerading as a black one. If Docter taints the project, Fey poisons it. A number of reviewers (Serpell included) appear to discount the scene in which Unborn Soul 22 explains that denizens of the Great Before have no sex or race, and quickly assumes a variety of voices and forms, including Joe’s own, by way of illustration. Mischievously, 22 settles on a middle-aged white woman’s voice because “it annoys people.” But Serpell believes she has identified a more sinister agenda on the part of the filmmakers:
[E]rotic frisson is all over race-transformation films. (Penis size comes up a lot.) In Soul, prurience sneaks in around the shower curtain, the lotion, Twenty-two’s knowing comments about “someone named Lisa” whom she learns about while rummaging in Joe’s mind. The film dutifully desexualizes Joe by putting the figure of a grouchy white woman inside him. Twenty-two’s not there to try out the D; she’s there, as the film says, to walk a mile in his shoes.
What’s the complaint here? That Joe should have been more sexualized? That Unborn Soul 22 should be trying out Joe’s dick in a kids’ movie? How did I miss the “erotic frisson” between 22 and Joe that is supposedly a characteristic of “race-transformation films”? (Is it when 22 shouts from inside the shower “I washed your butt for ya!”?) I’m relieved Professor Serpell doesn’t write for Pixar.
Identitarian critics have also taken exception to the film’s use of mistaken identity. Terry, an accountant of souls, notices the “unborn/alive/dead” cosmic abacus has gone wonky since Joe’s afterlife shenanigans began. Intent on dragging 22 back to the Great Before and Joe to the Great Beyond, Terry is the closest we get to a villain. Creating a vortex-trap for Joe’s body, Terry hides behind a wall but accidentally entraps Joe’s (black) neighbor Paul. Realizing his error, Terry pulls Paul back into life, dusts him off, and vanishes. It’s a brief but chilling scene about how quick and arbitrary death can be. Here’s Serpell’s take on it:
…this moment dabbles with the souls of black folk without truly reckoning with the kind of perversion that would rend personhood from human flesh. For a split second, the film cracks, yawns open, and shows us what it’s been working so hard to conceal: the limbo of black existence, the history of the slaveship hold, the terror of death at the hand of a mistaken cop.
Given the diversity of the team that worked on Soul, it’s highly unlikely that the Paul/Terry scene is a Freudian slip or a botched attempt to conceal America’s history. But for Serpell, the film’s failure to explicitly wrangle with that history is evidence of evasion. Her second assertion—that rending “personhood” from “human flesh” is a “perversion”—is illuminating, because Serpell appears to believe that personhood is flesh:
The cultural assumptions on which a film is built infuse its aesthetic spirit, regardless of the finely detailed texture of its surface representation, its skin. Soul takes as its premise the idea that a soul, branded with a personality, might be swapped in and out of different kinds of bodies. Even if we ignore the problem that unborn souls seem already to have races and genders—it’s a kids’ movie, not Plato!—we have to swallow the still more fundamental premise that the soul is individual, is sole.
Never mind that unborn souls are explicitly unsexed and unraced. Never mind the cynical intimation that this film wears a deceptive “skin.” The objection here is that a soul might be individual. There are many valid critiques against metaphysical dualism, but Serpell’s is startling. She objects to the notion of a singular personality as the core of one’s being. This, I suspect, is Pixar’s repeated blasphemy: that a character’s values and actions are more fundamental to personhood than their identity group.
Blasphemy makes believers lose their senses, and so it is with Serpell. When Terry returns 22 to the Great Before, she descends into depression:
…she is a Lost Soul, trapped inside a leaden, soot-black body. Whether on Earth or in the heavens, whiteness is ethereal, mindful; blackness is heavy, obsessive. Whiteness knows that the point of subway grilles is to lie on them and let the train’s wind rush up through you. Only blackness would be paranoid about the risks of such public whimsy. You might think that this is all leading to some Obamian synthesis of the two spirits. But surprise, surprise: Joe must sacrifice himself, must give up a life of jazz so that Twenty-two has a chance to “jazz” her life.
The hallmarks of racial neurosis loom large here. Twenty-two plays with sensory experience because she’s new to the planet. It has nothing to do with “whiteness.” Depression is typically depicted as darkness, presumably because the filmmakers are trying to be as legible to young children as possible. This should need no explanation. Nor should the popularity of pizza in New York City, but when 22 (in Joe’s body) savors a slice, Serpell is appalled: “The film’s universal delicacy is pepperoni pizza, not fried chicken, and we all know why.” Is it so the filmmakers could give Pizza Rat a cameo? Imagine Serpell’s reaction had Soul traded in stereotypes like fried chicken—and yet here she is complaining about their absence. This is outrage in search of heresy.
Soul’s identitarian detractors all take a similar line. Kelechi Ehenulo gripes that “Soul’s story morphs from being about Joe Gardner’s existence to 22’s and instead of being a Black story, it’s a story featuring Black characters—and that’s the defining difference.” But Joe’s interaction with 22 is central to his character arc. He overcomes all his obstacles and finally performs with Dorothea Williams. But his dream is not, on its own, as spiritually rewarding as he had imagined. His thoughts turn to 22, and he takes responsibility for the welfare of this not-yet-realized creature. Entering “the zone” via his piano, Joe rescues 22 from a pit of despair and self-hatred. His altruism amazes the cosmic bureaucrats, who let him return to Earth to enjoy his new career, liberated from the need to make it the be-all-and-end-all of his existence.
Initially, neither Joe nor 22 can overcome their respective preconceptions to imagine a better future. Together, they learn to embrace a new reality, and leave each other transformed—though our protagonist Joe has the greater moral agency. But Ehenulo laments this development as “Black characters sacrificing their story for someone else’s benefit.” Had 22 rescued Joe, these same voices might have objected that the film plays to myths of the white savior.
Robert Daniels at least understands that 22 isn’t a white woman, but he still insists that a white narrative corrupts or supplants a black one. The filmmakers, he writes, have “unwittingly crafted what’s known as a ‘passing narrative,’ a story that betrays its Black protagonist in favor of the white good.” He adds a twist to the disdain for casting Fey as 22:
In the Great Before… the gatekeeping Jerrys [are] voiced by a diverse set of actors, such as English-Nigerian actor Richard Ayoade, Brazilian actress Alice Braga, and indigenous actor Wes Studi. Their insipid accountant teammate Terry is voiced by Kiwi actress Rachel House. It’s strange how these celestial beings, who assume simple forms to translate the universe’s immeasurable power into familiar human terms, remain diverse, as though they’re meant to reflect Joe’s representative human world. The varieties of voices emanating from the Jerrys and Terry make 22’s role as the dominant voice for unborn souls even more glaring.
The cast’s racial/ethnical diversity makes casting a white woman worse than it otherwise would have been. This is a refrain. Kambole Campbell writes:
In a decade of film where Jordan Peele’s Get Out became part of our cultural lexicon, it makes one wonder why someone didn’t think through the plot device of a character voiced by a white actress piloting a Black man’s body. With all the film’s canniness about Black living, to see such a moment completely divorced from any kind of political thought feels completely bizarre and somewhat infuriating in how easily it could have been avoided. Fey as a voice performer already feels inessential amongst a far more interesting and precisely chosen cast, and the lampshading of 22 sounding like a white woman only serves to emphasize that point.
For Daniels, Pixar’s decision to hire Kemp Powers as co-writer/director also makes things worse:
Expecting a Black writer to add themes to a story about a non-Black character is like asking a driver to navigate a narrow track in a wide car. They’re going to hit traffic cones along the way. Docter and Kemp hit plenty of those during Soul’s final act. 22 is not only positioned as the victim, but Joe falls prey to troubling tropes, as 22’s apologetic savior and the magical Black character who prioritizes 22’s troubles over his own.
22 is ignorant of life and scared of being born. This is made abundantly clear by the script, whatever one’s view of subsequent casting decisions. Looked at in this light, 22’s behavior (absconding with Joe’s body out of fear that it doesn’t deserve its own) is still reprehensible, but the character has a strong claim to understanding and patience. Joe, a nurturing teacher, provides both. He forgives a naive spirit for getting drunk on its first taste of sensory pleasure and helps it forgive itself for being flawed, despite the highest stakes for himself.
Should Joe be held to a lower moral standard? Black history in the United States has been one of, to use Langston Hughes’s resonant term, dreams deferred. But any believer in the universal dignity of the individual will chafe against the suggestion that a black protagonist should be protected from struggle or sacrifice, the basic ingredients of heroism. Notwithstanding unequal histories, equal stories must make equal demands of characters, regardless of their skin color. But despite beneficial outcomes for both characters, Daniels maintains:
[It’s] a detrimental ending for this Black character. Soul posits Joe’s individualistic artistic pursuit, jazz, as not his purpose. While viewers might interpret the conclusion as instructional—appreciate life, or it might pass you by—the American dream, and the ideal of being American, is tethered to the importance of the individual… Black people are usually required to sacrifice their individual pursuits for the universal good—or more specifically, the white good.
Serpell describes Joe’s altruism as “grotesque” and entertains a thought experiment:
Could Soul work in chromatic reverse? Could it be about a white classical musician’s body that is taken over by a grumpy black woman’s soul? What would a Great Beyond and a Great Before informed by black culture look like? Would greenish white be the right color for new souls? Would pitch-black be the right color for lost ones? … Would people in a fugue state of flow float up to the spirit world, or would the spirits descend into them—ride them, as we say?
She yearns for an African metaphysical cinema:
[Joe’s] epiphany, conjoined with Twenty-two’s, is a solitary one: the seed in the palm, an individual’s communion with vast nature. [Note that the individualism is what’s offensive here.] Similarly, each departed soul… shoots alone into a blur of blinding whiteness. In black American culture, a funeral is called a homegoing, partly owing to a syncretic conflation of the afterlife with Africa, the originary freedom. To cross over is to cross back… at the end of that voyage home there isn’t a spark of bright light but your people, welcoming you ashore.
First of all, the joyous homecoming Serpell describes would be utterly incongruous in a story about a man abruptly yanked from what he believes is his earthly destiny, resisting the afterlife with every ounce of will. Second, while slave history informed traditions around mourning, Serpell’s implication that Joe should be going to African heaven sends an odd message. It is the “chromatic reverse” of a white ethnostate’s notion of blood and soil defining a person’s true identity. And it’s a gibberish message to send a multi-racial American audience. If heaven needs to be segregated, what hope does Earth have?
I’m not saying Soul or Pixar are perfect, and Docter’s films often explore profound themes—memory and personality; the immortal soul—with metaphors of machine-like bureaucracies that won’t appeal to everyone. But any fair critique should acknowledge that despite the mundane trappings, Soul is reaching toward something transcendent, universal, sublime. Whatever you call that thing, it’s our birthright as humans and as individuals—a future for humanity and for art that will belong to all of us, like the ancient cave paintings and hand prints that fascinated my children. But influential voices are vehemently resisting this sense of promise. Are we so mired in our garish present that we can’t envisage anything beyond it? If only we could step toward the future as wide-awake as Joe in Soul’s last frame.
Colm O’Shea teaches essay writing at New York University.