Cinemania
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Cinemania

Not Everything is About Race

Why you should look past the unfortunate voice swap in Pixar’s “Soul.”

Pixar’s “Soul” poster, courtersy of Disney+
Pixar’s “Soul” poster, courtesy of Disney+

Pixar’s “Soul” follows the passionate, kind-hearted Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx) who literally dies a happy man after scoring a shot to play a gig with a famous jazz quartet.

The story takes off when he meets the unborn soul, 22, in the ‘Great Before’, the place where souls go to learn how to live on earth and are also assigned personalities. 22 has lived in the Great Before for thousands of years because she has trouble seeing the purpose of living. She comes off like an apathetic teen, and just so happens to be played by the white woman, Tina Fey.

What frustrates many about this film is when the two souls go to earth to return Joe back to his body, 22 accidentally gets stuck in Joe’s body (which is Black), while Joe’s soul gets stuck in a therapy cat.

For a good portion of the movie, 22 then walks around town in Joe’s body. He talks to his students, friends, and his mom all mainly controlled Tina Fey’s voice. This is all while Joe’s soul is trapped in the cat and has to frustratingly walk aside her, telling her what to say and do.

At first, I thought it was insensitive as well. Only 5/21 Pixar films star human protagonists, and the first of those five to include a Black main character does not even get to be the star of his own body. Come on, Pixar? You can do better.

However, this body swap would have been different if it were between Foxx and a young Black girl.

Foxx and Fey’s characters meet each other as blue, glowing souls. 22 demonstrates how she can speak in any pitch/voice she wants but uses the voice of a white middle-aged woman because it is more fun.

Although viewers can get the sense of whiteness from Fey’s voice, 22 is not actually white. We never see a human version of her, and she doesn’t embody any aspects of white culture. From this, Pixar seems to have signaled that the concept of race and gender do not exist in the soul.

Furthermore, though Fey’s 22 delivered a passionate speech to Joe’s mother explaining the importance of his life dream to play a famous jazz gig, Joe’s soul was still able to fully embrace his mother from the body of the cat. It would have been nice to see true Joe comfort his mom, but this depiction extends the theme to show that Joe’s physical form is irrelevant to his love for his mother.

More importantly, Joe’s urgency to get back to his body simply so he can pursue his dream as a jazz pianist, (to be honest, I think he would’ve gone on as a cat if he needed to), again expresses that his ethnicity or body type will not stop him from living out his life to the fullest.

On the other hand, 22’s soul may have a white middle-aged woman's voice, but she is not obsessed with the appearance like some representations of white women might. In fact, the only moment she comments on appearance is when she says Joe looks good in a blue suit. Instead, 22 focuses on ordinary things like the taste of pizza, the sound of music, and how fun it is to walk.

I don’t think the creators of “Soul” sat down and cast Tina Fey to be problematic, nor do I think they did so with the intention of portraying a message about race among the several other existential themes of the film. However, as Jamie Foxx is Black and Tina Fey is white, the voice swap ultimately portrayed that a soul does not have a race and that the simplicities and beauties of life are not limited to Black or white.

Though I agree that a Pixar movie starring a Black character (that doesn’t die 8 minutes in) is long overdue, I think this accidental moral lesson of “Soul” is one we can all learn from.

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Emily Rosenberg

Emily Rosenberg

Gen Z creative writer, political enthusiast, and future lawyer anxious to make a change.