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'Soul' features Pixar's first Black lead character. Here's how it happened.
Kemp Powers, co-director of “Soul,” in Los Angeles, Nov. 11, 2020. Mindful of animation’s history of racist imagery, the studio aimed to make the jazz pianist at the center of “Soul” as specific as possible. Texas Isaiah/The New York Times.

by Charles Solomon



NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- All Pixar features arrive with technical innovations, but “Soul,” opening Friday on Disney+, breaks important new ground: The movie centers on the studio’s first Black protagonist, Joe Gardner, a jazz pianist on what might be the biggest day of his life, and the creative team includes the company’s first Black co-director, Kemp Powers.

In general, Black stories and talent remain underrepresented in American animation, on screen and off. You can hear Black stars in supporting roles (Samuel L. Jackson as Frozone in the “Incredibles” movies) or voicing animals (Chris Rock and Jada Pinkett Smith in the “Madagascar” series). But “Soul” is only the fourth American animated feature to make Black characters the leads, following “Bebe’s Kids” (1992), “The Princess and the Frog” (2009) and “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” (2018).

“To me, Joe represents a lot of people who aren’t being seen right now,” said Jamie Foxx, who provides Joe’s voice. “Joe is in all of us, regardless of color. To be the first Black lead in a Pixar film feels like a blessing, especially during this time when we all could use some extra love and light.”

Knowing their work on “Soul” would be minutely scrutinized, director Pete Docter, co-screenwriter Mike Jones and producer Dana Murray, who are white, set out to create a character who would be believably Black while avoiding the stereotypes of the past.

The journey of Joe Gardner — and “Soul” — began four years ago, when Docter felt at loose ends after winning his second Oscar, for “Inside Out.” Murray recalled, “Pete had this feeling, ‘Is this it? Do I just do this again?’ I don’t know if it was a midlife crisis as much as a midlife 'what-am-I-doing?' moment.”

Docter began wondering about the origins of human personalities, and whether people were born destined to do certain things. Jones added, “In our first meeting, he told me, ‘Think about an idea set in a place beyond space and time, where souls are given their personalities.’”

Docter said he and Jones worked for about two years to develop Joe, a Black middle-school music teacher and musician from Queens. But something was missing. “We wanted somebody who could speak authentically about this character and bring some depth to him,” Docter said. “That’s when Kemp Powers came on,” as the film’s co-director

Powers’ background is in live action and journalism; he adapted the coming film “One Night in Miami” (also due Friday) from his own play. But he felt at home in the new medium. “Animation is a very collaborative, iterative form, which felt very akin to live theater,” he said. He was initially hired for 12 weeks as a writer, but his contract was extended. “Later, I got promoted to co-director, because Pete really wrapped me into the process.”

Nevertheless, Powers understood the pitfalls of his role: “Some people might relish the idea of saying they speak for Black people, Black Americans, whatever: I am not one of those people,” he said, adding, “I’m absolutely a Black man, and I know my history; at the same time, I can’t speak for all the Black men who are from New York; I can’t speak for my generation.”

Murray said Pixar recognized that “if Joe’s going to be Black, we’d need a lot of help.” She said Britta Wilson, the company’s vice president of inclusion strategies, helped build an internal “Cultural Trust” made up of some of the studio’s Black employees, a group that was diverse in terms of gender, jobs and age. “We also talked to a lot of external consultants and worked with Black organizations to make sure we were telling this story authentically and truthfully,” Murray added.




Powers said they were all aware of the specificity needed for Joe’s character. “Treating the Black experience as a monolith makes things a lot easier: You can have one Black person rubber-stamp something and use that as your excuse for not having tried harder to get it right.”

He recalled that the individual consultants brought a range of viewpoints: “We’d have 20 Black people in a room: We’d ask a question and get 20 different answers.” Their debates sometimes “broke along generational lines, which was interesting: Things I think are fine may seem offensive to the younger generation. Everyone had a different take, which made the job exponentially harder, but that care was needed.”

Further complicating their work was the fact that animation is a medium of caricature: No human is as squat and angular as Carl in Pixar’s “Up,” yet audiences accept him as a crabby old man. For “Soul,” the Pixar crew strove to create characters who were recognizably Black while avoiding anything that recalled the racist stereotypes in old cartoons, from Mammy Two Shoes, the Black maid in the Tom and Jerry cartoons, to George Pal’s stop-motion Jasper.

Docter, who has written about animation history, acknowledged, “There’s a long and painful history of caricatured racist design tropes that were used to mock African Americans.”

He recalled that when he was making “Up,” he worried about how the design of Asian American scout Russell might be perceived. Docter said his fellow Pixar director Peter Sohn, a Korean American artist, advised him, “‘Korean eyes are shaped differently than Caucasian eyes. Look at me and draw what you see: The truth isn’t racist.’”

Powers agreed that there was an important difference between “leaning into and taking pride in those features and making fun of those features.” Pixar, he said, was mindful of the sorry images from animation history. When it came to designing appealing but stylized characters, the artists “took care not to make them insulting. At the same time, we didn’t want them to be white characters who happen to be brown-skinned. We had to give them distinct looks, so they’re not just boring, monotone characters.”

To create those looks, Pixar artists and technicians needed to capture the textures of Black hair and the way light plays on various tones of Black skin. Murray said they brought in cinematographer Bradford Young, whose work includes “Solo: A Star Wars Story,” to consult as well.

Finding the voice that fits an animated character is as challenging as finding the best performer for a live-action role. “You have a voice in your head that you can write to,” Jones explained. “We needed Joe to have ambition, to want to play music at the highest level, but we also needed Joe to be excited to teach what he loves — jazz — to his students, all of which Jamie provided.”

Although Foxx has voiced animated characters before, he had to adjust his performance. “When I got in the recording booth, I was delivering the lines with all kinds of facial expressions and gestures,” Foxx said. “They were like, “Uh, Jamie, let’s try that again and remember ... we can’t see you.”

During the film, Joe argues — and bonds — with a recalcitrant soul known as 22, who refuses to enter a human body. As 22, Tina Fey found the purely vocal performance liberating. Although she, too, has done other voice-overs before: “I could let go of any worry about how I looked. Even as a comedy person, you’re always thinking a little bit about finding your light and standing up straight. It’s so freeing to not have to do that.” (The relationship between Joe and 22 grows increasingly complicated, but neither actor wanted to say anything that might spoil the plot twists.)

Reflecting on the creation of “Soul,” Powers said, “When someone told me I was Pixar’s first Black director, I said that can’t be right. Pete said — and my hope is — this is an indicator of changes that are going to be pretty rapid.” There are more animators of color and women in the business than there were 15 or 20 years ago, he noted. “It’s sad it’s taken this long, but I’m glad it’s coming finally.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company










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