In Pixar Animation Studios' new animated film “Soul,” audience members follow Joe Gardner, a middle school band teacher by day and jazz musician by night, on an unexpected journey into the afterlife as he campaigns to return back to Earth to play his dream jazz gig.
While the film gave lessons about the meaning and treasures of life, it also prompted polarizing dialogue about Black representation in the film and entertainment industry among viewers and critics.
“It was interesting, and I like the fact that it was a Black person and had very Black things in it because you don't see that very often in media in general, but especially not from Disney,” Alexis Jamison, a junior studying advertising and public relations, said.
According to The New York Times, “Soul” is the fourth American animated film and first Pixar film to center an African American character as the protagonist — but with Joe Gardner dying and not existing in his physical body for the majority of the film, some viewers didn’t feel that Black people were given enough representation.
“I think it took away from the weight of having representation in film,” Jamison said.
Edly Hyppolite, a sophomore studying biology, said she has noticed a trend of how Black animated characters are physically portrayed.
“There's a pattern where you have a Black main character, but then they're in the form of an animal or, like the soul, a blob,” she said. “It's not just about the face on the movie poster, it's about how do you identify with that story they're depicting.”
Rita Kibicho, a sophomore studying public policy, felt that the creators of this film represented Blackness by illustrating settings and symbols that are specific to the culture.
“They had a lot of parts where I was like, this is Black,” Kibicho said. “The barbershop scene, even when he was talking with his mom and they were in his mom’s shop, they had all these little things in the background and was like, that's truly Black.”
Kibicho also felt that Gardner’s absence from his physical body didn’t negate his Blackness.
“Even when he was a spirit, and he was looking at his memories, everything that he was going through reminded me so much of the Black experience because he was overcoming all of these challenges and obstacles and trying to get back to this goal and dream of his,” Kibicho said.
Jamison noted that aside from the cultural aspects throughout the film, the values held by the characters aligned with what her community has taught her.
“If you are someone that's Black, nine times out of 10, hard work is something that your family has instilled in you,” she said. “The way that his mom approached his dreams versus doing something that will help him make a living and be able to do well for himself, that feels very ‘person of color’ in general.”
Hyppolite believes that the film industry still has more work to do for well-rounded representation.
“I think the movie did a good job, but I also think that it was just one movie,” she said. “There's more that can be done in terms of representing the Black community.”
Kathryn Williams, an actor and associate professor of dramatic art, said people have been writing content that shows positive representation, but for a long time, the industry only produced content of Black trauma.
“They were always willing to produce a story about slavery, they were always willing to produce a story about oppression,” Williams said. “There was always the victimization and those stories would be lifted up as, ‘Now we're telling Black stories,’ but we're more than that.”
Williams said she is noticing an upward bound in how Black stories are being projected in film.
“I’m seeing Black stories being told in a 360 way and a fuller way,” she said. “These are stories where we exist, not without white people, but we just exist in our own world. So, I think that is what people are moving towards and it's great.”
She believes to continue to push for more representation in the industry, Black people must create, lead and collaborate.
“I am often telling my students, if you don't see it and you think it should be here, you probably have to write it,” she said. “We do need to be in these rooms where the decisions are being made, we need to organize and galvanize our energies. We need to do that so that we can use each other's strengths to help everybody.”
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