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Pixar’s ‘Soul’ Skillfully and Honestly Embraces Ethnic and Cultural Diversity

Pete Docter and Kemp Powers’ animated gem, about a Black jazz musician’s reflection on his own life and what makes it worth living, premieres tomorrow, Christmas day, on Disney+.

Pixar’s highly anticipated new animated masterpiece, Soul, finally arrives tomorrow on Disney+. Deprived of a theatrical release by the COVID-19 pandemic, the film nonetheless should quickly establish itself as one of the studio’s finest, most honest, and socially relevant efforts.

Directed by the two-time Oscar winner Docter, co-directed by writer/producer Kemp Powers, and produced by Dana Murray, Soul tells the story of Joe Gardner, a Black middle-school band teacher who gets the chance of a lifetime to play at the best jazz club in town. But one small misstep takes him from the streets of New York City to The Great Before – a fantastical place where new souls get their personalities, quirks, and interests before they go to Earth. Determined to return to his life, Joe teams up with a precocious soul, 22, who has never understood the appeal of the human experience. As Joe desperately tries to show 22 what’s great about living, he may just discover the answers to some of life’s most important questions.

It feels almost a given the film had to be set in New York City, one of the most ethnically and culturally diverse cities on Earth. “As soon as we landed on jazz, we started to explore New York City,” says Docter. “Though jazz didn’t originate there, New York is the jazz capital of America. It is a center of culture, full of immigrants and influences from around the world. It’s a rich and vibrant place to feature a film.”

According to Powers, “Soul is a story about the meaning of life and the connections we make with each other. In New York, people are literally bumping up against one another. Diversity is visually evident on every single street. There’s really no place quite like it.”

To help them properly understand, embrace, and ultimately portray the film’s diverse themes, characters, and storylines, made even more challenging with this being Pixar’s first film with a Black lead character, the filmmakers sought advice and guidance from a host of musicians, actors, educators, and studio employees.  

Acknowledging the inherent difficulties in telling a story steeped in cultural identities and communities not his own, Docter shares, “You want characters to be as authentic and real as possible. I’m an amateur musician, and I do really relate to Joe, but I’m not African American. I didn’t grow up in that culture. Having Kemp on board was a huge help in that regard, and the cultural consultants and musicians we’ve worked with brought us so much knowledge - we wouldn’t have been able to make the film without their help and support.”

Much like the studio had done previously on Coco, they assembled teams, not just of great musicians, but of consultants with expertise in cultural and racial diversity, a “cultural trust;” cultural and music consultants included Dr. Peter Archer, Jon Batiste, Dr. Christopher Bell, Terri Lyne Carrington, Dr. Johnnetta Betsch Cole, Daveed Diggs, Herbie Hancock, Marcus McLaurine, George Spencer, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson and Bradford Young.

“We consulted with a lot of working musicians, in New York City and in Emeryville, with teachers... the depth of the bench was crazy,” says Murray. “We brought together Pixar’s Black employees and created a trust as well. So, they were part of the daily process. And then, Jon Batiste, he's the obvious one to mention here too… and there are Jamie's [Foxx] hands in the movie. He's just an incredible a historian.”

It’s also worth noting that Soul is Pixar’s first film to feature a host of characters with black and brown skin. Consequently, filmmakers took great care to ensure all skin types were richly and authentically depicted. “I’m really conscious about skin tone,” shading art director Bryn Imagire says. “We wanted to represent a wide range in the African American characters. It was important to me to get that right.”

For story artist Aphton Corbin, the cultural trust provided critical guidance that made her work much easier, and accurate. “One of the things that was super helpful was having the cultural trust,” she notes.  “Not as people to give blessings or check some boxes, but as people to be with us through the entire process, including the beginning, when we were in the art and story stage itself. Trying to help us see what to avoid. I'm here to tell stories. So, hearing their stories and having that knowledge to put into our actual work was helpful as well.”

Michael Yates, another story artist on the film, adds, “Just piggybacking off Aphton, I actually started on the film in the cultural trust before I came on as a story artist. Being within both groups, you get to see both sides of things. Like she said, it was much more of a conversation than a blessing check. I remember one time we were struggling, figuring out Joe's mom. The whole meeting was just everyone talking about their moms. And you just take that all in. So, when you’re in the story room for a meeting, you're able to bring some of those different experiences up in the discussion. And it ends up in the film in a much easier, more direct way.”

One key move the studio made early on to embrace more cultural and racial authenticity in the film was bringing on Powers as co-director. Powers was both new to Pixar and to animation. While his knowledge of the medium may have been limited, his perspective and opinions on race, his experience as a Black man in America, became important components of the filmmaking team’s understanding of the very essence of their movie.

“When Dana and Pete first approached me to become involved in the film, the first thing I asked was, ‘What work of mine have you read?’” he reveals. “And they had actually read a play that I wrote called ‘One Night in Miami.’ So, 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,” he adds. “There is universality by going for hyper-specific. My number one defense is, ‘Do you not enjoy The Sopranos and The Godfather if you're not Italian? That sounds absurd, right?”

To Powers, ideas specific to his perspective on race and culture not only represent a wonderful opportunity to create something his family, kids, mom, and relatives can be proud of, but something that everyone can enjoy, that show how the “Black American experience and our humanity is as universal as anyone else's experience.”

Once those discussions began with Docter, Powers shared his perspective on what ultimately became an important set of points in the film. “I remember Joe getting a suit was a plot point,” he reveals. “And I said to Pete, ‘Well, he also needs a haircut, right?’ And someone said, ‘The haircut isn't as important as the suit.’ And I was like, I wouldn't have even come up to Pixar for the interview if I hadn’t gotten lined up [had his hairline neatened up]. So, I'm gonna disagree and say, ‘That haircut is every bit as important as the threads.’”

“There’s no more culturally authentic place in the Black community than the barbershop,” Powers explains. “In many ways, it’s the town center - particularly for Black men. It’s a place where these men - from all walks of life - come together.”

Filmmakers visited several barbershops to capture the look and feel of this symbolic locale. “Barbershops tend to be very narrow since space in New York is at a premium,” notes sets art director Paul Abadilla. “We also observed one thing that distinguishes barbers from hair stylists: when they work, their clients face away from the mirror - toward the waiting customers, which encourages conversation and heightens that sense of community.”

To Powers, the barbershop scenes also represent a technological milestone. “Pixar Animation Studios has rendered some pretty amazing things in its history - from the fur in ‘Monsters, Inc.’ to the water in ‘Finding Nemo,’” he says. “But on a personal level, the idea of rendering a wonderful array of black hair, which has so many incredible textures and colors, was too enticing an opportunity to not have it be a major set piece for the film.”

“Sometimes, it's about the presentation,” he continues. “It's about your body language. It's about your threads. We all understand that. And it was so great to have that actually become a plot point in the film. I love what Pete and Dana allowed us all to do. They encouraged us to lean into that stuff as opposed to shying away from it. To be honest, there were a lot of times, in making this film, where I kept saying, ‘Can we really do this? Are we gonna be able to say jazz is Black improvisational music? Is the guy gonna be able to say he can't catch a cab? Like, are we gonna be able to do all these things? And honestly, no one even batted an eye. I don't think it hurts the film at all. I think it's part of what makes the texture of this film so rich, and honest, and sincere.”

Dan Sarto's picture

Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.