VSInema this Christmas was unlike anything I had known before. With theatrical releases available to stream on demand due to the pandemic, I had the chance to watch plenty of new stuff over the holiday dinner and cocktails as my family and friends reflected on how these cinematic experiences and many other events have changed dramatically this year.
But when I looked Soul, the last Disney / Pixar animated film, I sadly remembered how far things have yet to go.
The film, now streaming exclusively on Disney +, follows a black college music teacher named Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx), who is on a magical quest to reunite his soul and body as his dreams of becoming a musician of hit jazz takes on. I was ecstatic when news first broke that this would be Pixar’s first black-directed feature – after years of mostly giving us white superheroes, cowboys, and inanimate objects. Soul felt like a step in the right direction for Hollywood, at a time when the Black Lives Matter protests forced the industry to resolve its ongoing diversity issue and make immediate changes (like the decision of many voice actors white to stop playing colored characters).
Pixar’s latest film is a comeback for a company that has built a reputation for heartwarming stories with a creative twist, but these stories continue Disney’s tradition of giving black governing bodies little screen time. , because they often turn into an animal or something inhuman. If you were looking to watch a very lively Gardner jazz groove throughout the movie, as has been suggested in various trailers and commercials, guess again. Expect to see a melanin-free soul with the voice of Foxx floating through much of the movie instead; and if that wasn’t enough, Gardner’s body is later overtaken by another soul, voiced by Tina Fey, while Gardner takes the form of a cat). It’s infuriating, not because such depictions of black and brown physical bodies in animation are limited, but because it was done on purpose by one of the world’s most renowned studios.
I was born in 1991, at the height of what you might call the Disney rebirth, a hit 1990s animated musical series from the studio that redefined the genre. I grew up watching The beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King, Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hercules, Mulan, and Tarzan. Only three of these films had a main character who was not white (Aladdin, Pocahontas and Mulan), but still acted in anhistoric and / or stereotypical depictions of their origins. There still weren’t any black or Latinx main characters that Disney deemed film-worthy on their own, but then again, who wanted to be portrayed under such a problematic lens?
With the increases came signs of progress at the House of the Mouse – until they turned out to be hollow moves towards inclusion. The Emperor’s New Routine (2000) is set in Peru and stars a hilarious Inca prince, Kuzco, who quickly transforms into a llama for most of the film. The same happens in the 2003 film Brother Bear, except this time around, the prominent Inuit character named Kenai transforms into a bear 16 minutes after the movie starts and decides to be one until the very end. Maybe things finally got worse in 2009, when the studio introduced the world to its first Black Disney Princess, Tiana, in The princess and the Frog. After 30 minutes of giving us charm, grace and a mind-blowing musical number (“Almost There” is one of Disney’s most underrated songs), the most vibrant Disney princess we’ve seen in years turns into a frog for most of the movie. Although the successful animation feature, just like The Emperor’s New Routine and Brother Bear, would receive critical acclaim and Oscar nominations, audiences were once again duped for the chance to see a full-fledged animated character in color on the big screen.
next The princess and the Frog, Disney pretty much returned to white in the 2010s, when a slew of animated films focused on white characters and storylines that were much safer and aligned with their hit era of rebirth (movies such as Tangled, Frozen, Frozen II, and those Toy story suites, to name a few). Although Moana (2016) centered around a Polynesian princess who kept her limbs intact throughout the movie, when Disney / Pixar finally decided to give us a Latinx lead character in coco (2017), he would transform into a skeleton as he reunited with the dead – who were also a group of Latinx skeletons.
Which brings us to the end of the decade and the missed opportunity that Soul– a reminder that the main animated characters in color are still not desired by the studios to play humans. When it is hard enough to find black leaders in live theater films, seeing such systemic racism continue in animation at this point is devastating. The situation has deteriorated to such an extent that there is currently a Change.org petition with over 2,500 signatures calling on animation studios to “STOP Animation Trope that dehumanizes black characters.” For the industry to pursue this model of colored characters who are anything but human, regardless of whether the Black A-lister voices them (still pissed off that Blue Sky Studios has Will Smith voicing a black spy who turns into a pigeon of New York in 2019. Spies in disguise), strips people of color of our humanity. The hurt runs deeper in knowing that for the younger generations, these animated feature films will be their first experiences with cinema as a whole. Quite the first impression.
“For the industry, continuing this model of colored characters being anything but human, regardless of whether the Black A-lister expresses them… strips people of color of our humanity.“
To this day, I still envy the way the younger brothers had an experience that I never had growing up when they watched 2018. Spider Man: Into The Spider-Verse. For the first time ever, they got to watch a black animated main character transform into a beloved superhero without any gimmicks or short changes. It meant something to them to see Miles, an Afro-Latinx teenager, interact with law enforcement, have hair that looked like them, and hear a soundtrack featuring hip-hop artists they liked. This same sentiment could be felt with the release of Matthew Cherry’s 2019 Oscar-winning animated short. Hair love, which gave us an adorable black father / daughter duo who lovingly sailed in furry endeavors.
If representation matters, even more important is how such imagery of various characters is portrayed in the film. Blacks and browns deserve not only audio representation in animated cinema, but also full screen time in their full body. To see colored characters on the big screen is to humanize them like everyone else. I want to see them cry, laugh and make emotions with a darker complexion. It shouldn’t be too much to ask at this point.
The late Walt Disney once said that “animation provides a medium for storytelling and visual entertainment that can bring fun and information to people of all ages all over the world.” As we move into the new decade, I only hope that Hollywood finally recognizes that such a medium should include black and brown characters in all their fullness with their souls – and bodies – intact.
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