Disney and Pixar’s film Soul is about finding your “spark,” and for the cast and crew, the spark that made this film unique was in making an authentically Black film that tells a universal story. Soul wasn’t supposed to be a Christmas film. It was originally scheduled to be released this past June. But given the circumstances and the film’s overall message, it’s a perfect fit for the holiday season, especially this holiday season.
The global press conference for Soul was presented in two parts. The first part featured Tina Fey (voice of “22”), Phylicia Rashad (voice of “Libba Gardner”) and Angela Bassett (voice of “Dorothea Williams”), and the second part highlighted Jamie Foxx (voice of “Joe Gardner”), Pete Docter (Director/Story & Screenplay by), Kemp Powers (Co-Director/Story & Screenplay by) and Dana Murray (Producer). Despite the two groups speaking separately, they were unified in their perspectives on what makes Soul special.
First and foremost, Soul is the first ever Pixar film that stars a Black protagonist. The concept for the story didn’t originally start that way, but once director/writer Pete Docter settled on the focus of the film being jazz music, they knew it would be about a Black character. “[O]ne of our consultants called jazz, Black improvisational music. And we realized, oh, we have to make this character Black. He has to be from that culture that brought us this great American art form,” Docter said. From that point, Docter and producer Dana Murray took the necessary and important steps of ensuring that if they were going to tell a Black story, it would have an authentic voice.
Murray talked about putting together a team of consultants and experts to execute that plan:
Not only did we get to have the dream cast, we have a dream consultant team. Our Head of Diversity and Inclusion here, Britta Wilson, was a great partner to me in building who those outer consultants were gonna be: Dr. Johnnetta Cole, we brought in Daveed Diggs, we were lucky enough to get to hang out with Ryan Coogler [and] have him look at the film, Bradford Young, Questlove….we brought together the Black employees at Pixar and created a trust as well.Dana Murray
The list of luminaries that consulted on this film is impressive, but what caught my attention just as much was the “creative trust” of Pixar employees. Murray mentioned that while the consultants contributed on a weekly or monthly basis, and the trust of employees were involved daily. Putting together a group of consultants to offer suggestions on how to make a story authentic is a great start, but alone, it’s not enough. Fortunately, they then took the critically important step of bringing in co-director and co-writer Kemp Powers, who wrote One Night in Miami, a play about Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Sam Cooke and Jim Brown (which has been adapted into a film directed by Regina King).
At first, Powers was skeptical that he would be able to fully express himself, but his concerns were assuaged when Murray and Docter assured him that they were familiar with his work:
I was like, okay, so you know what you’re getting into. You know my politics. You know that I’m gonna be pushing for a lot of Black stuff. Because I can’t help myself. I think our culture is amazing. And a lot of people, particularly in Hollywood, will tell you that, in order to appeal to a wide audience, you want to get away from that. And I feel the opposite. I feel like there is universality by going for hyper specificity.Kemp Powers
Of course, the cast plays a major role in telling an authentic story as well, and it’s tough to put together a more talented and amazing cast than one that includes Jamie Foxx, Phylicia Rashad and Angela Bassett. Both Rashad and Bassett understood the importance of having Black women in an animated film. “It means a great deal. The more and more that we get these stories and these images and opportunities out there…just start early with these images and this idea that it’s a vast and diverse humanity, I think it’s a great thing,” Bassett said.
Phylicia Rashad echoed Bassett’s statements, and mentioned that most of her work in film, TV and theater has been focused on telling Black stories. “It just seems very natural to me, and I look forward to a time when it is so natural to everyone that this question need not be asked,” Rashad said.
For Jamie Foxx, this project was even more personal than most. He mentioned that the film’s message resonated with him because of his sister, DeOndra Dixon, who recently passed. “2020 has been bittersweet for me. I’m living now in a situation where my family has been affected by someone we love very dearly, my sister, who has transitioned,” Foxx said. “She always lived every moment, every single moment, to the tilt. She’s down syndrome and she loved music.”
The universality in Soul that Powers mentioned lies within the central message that life isn’t defined by achievement or success. Instead, the film challenges viewers to appreciate all aspects of life, big and small. Foxx shared that his sister embodied that message. “When you talk about the little things, she always reminded me. She was always so excited. So when you look at this film, it is exactly what I am now going through. The bittersweet of losing someone but gaining a vision of joy, of all the things that she taught us while she was living,” Foxx said.
Foxx’s co-star, Tina Fey, appreciated the unique twist on the conventional “chase your dream” type message that feel-good films typically have:
I think the film does a really interesting thing, where they go a step beyond just saying, ‘You’ve gotta find you passion in life.’ They also bring up the idea that an all-consuming passion can kind of overtake your life, and that it’s a bit about being present is as important as achieving. Especially coming out in 2020, it’s a year when we’re all taking stock of what it means to have had a good year, what it means to have been successful in your life, and it often now means taking small joys where you can find them, and being present with the people that you love.Tina Fey
In a year when so many of us have struggled, Soul’s story is one that everyone can appreciate. It reminds us that maybe we need to reevaluate our focus, our approach and our goals; that we might just be missing the best parts of life while doggedly pursuing what we think is important. “I think it was more of a helpful reminder that [life] isn’t defined by achievement and attainment,” Fey said. “But by enjoying the process…the road to where you wanna go is also part of your life, and should be lived fully.”
Soul premieres on Disney+ Christmas Day!
Ron is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of POC Culture. He is a big believer in the power and impact of pop culture and the importance of representation in media.