When I first heard about the animated film Soul, initially I was quite excited. Afterall, there aren’t many animated films that feature Black people as leading characters. Actually the only few that come to mind include ‘hood classics’—which is a term that refers to films and/or music popular in the Black community on the basis of both nostalgia and excellent quality—like Bébé’s Kids and the most recent installment of the Spiderman series, Spiderman: Into the Spider-verse. Surely in comparison we have more animated shows than films that feature Black characters and their stories like The Proud Family, The PJs, and The Boondocks—I grew up on all of these, in fact—but in a larger comparison to standard (i.e. white) animated shows and films, the Black community is still largely underrepresented in that regard.
So again, when I first saw the trailer and teaser images of Soul months back, I was pleased to see we’d be getting another animated film that focused on a Black character. More importantly, I was glad that a central element of the film would be about music which is such a massive aspect of Black/African culture. I was drawn in by the details that are so signature of Pixar films. From the vibrant color palette to the butter-smooth rigging of the figures and befitting musical score, I was sure that this movie would be a hit. And from the reviews that I’ve seen, it has been (for the most part). But then doubt began to seep in as I scrolled further on my timeline and saw critiques from other Black users, questioning why Joe (the main character voiced by Jamie Foxx) would spend most of the film as a non-human entity. And that suddenly got me thinking about other times in film in which Black characters at some point turn into creatures or animals, either for the entire film or majority of it. So I want to explore the implications of this very intentional filmmaking decision and more largely, why the exotification of Black characters is an unsavory plot device.
[bf_image id="7brqrp59fr875srhv94k5pf"] You may be asking ‘well what does exotify/exoticize mean?’ It depends on how the word is used, but generally it refers to making something exotic. An article on exotification further explained it as a “term [that] describes a process in which you attribute a set of stereotypes to a person based on their appearance and how they fall outside of the norm”. When we consider how the African diaspora has a long history of being othered and treated as subhuman and/or animals, it makes sense why brows were raised when Soul was announced. It’s now become a pattern for animated films almost, to turn a Black character into something other than human. In Soul, Joe dies early on (don’t get me started on that trope) and spends the majority of the film as a floating spirit. Then in The Princess and the Frog, Tiana is barely human before she is magically transformed into a frog (again, for most of the damn film). And how could we forget Spies in Disguise in which the Black character Lance, voiced by Will Smith, is turned into a pigeon also for a significant portion of the film. Are you seeing the issue? Production companies and film studios love utilizing performative representation as a tactic for proving diversity tolerance and acceptance. Another name for this ‘performativity’ is tokenism. Films and television shows are infamous for creating all-white/majority white ensemble casts and tossing in one (maybe two if we’re lucky) nonwhite characters of color, just for the sake of shutting us up. One passage that really abridges this concept explains, “What does tokenism say about the way the Western media views racial minorities? We are merely background characters to the stories of endless white characters, we are the afterthoughts, the characters coloured darker to avoid criticism. But this is a dehumanizing view. To whitewash movies time and time again, it seeks only to perpetuate the concept that white is the default race. When people of colour are added in as a handful, painted by stereotypes, and scattered conveniently but not generously throughout the story, the media is still ignorant of our existence”. The issue with tokenism as a whole presents its own plethora of problems that I could expatiate about for hours—but what I’m trying to emphasize is how these tokenized characters of color are often included to further along the plot of the white characters and are seldom developed themselves. Rather, we end up with static, one-dimensional characters whose driving force is to be the savior/guide (in Hollywood and in Black culture they’d be referred to as the ‘magical negro’). This shouldn’t be surprising information though. Hell, this entire country loves performativity too (ahem I’m looking at you Summer 2020).
[bf_image id="8bhb2tjrqx956tt39w7jfwn"] Did Pixar and Disney think they were doing us Black folk a favor by featuring a Black man as the main character? I guess so. But if that means in order to give us animated Black characters, they cannot be represented as human beings then we don’t need to be a part of the story at all. We can’t keep letting these subtle but significant microaggressions slip past us just because the racism has been so prettily packaged. Racism and racist imagery is so entrenched and normalized into the moral fabric of this country that we consume these notions about subhumanity through the media without a second thought. So did I think Soul was a terrible movie? No,but it wasn’t amazing either. However, I think the errancies within the film are too blatant to be glossed over just because they’d put Black characters at the forefront. Do better.