The New Yorker gets woker and woker, and it’s reached the point where I will not renew my subscription. It’s not the magazine’s ubiquitous emphasis on race, or that race manages to seep into articles about other stuff (as it does in the New York Times), but that the issue is treated as if there’s only one acceptable point of view about race, and one acceptable way of portraying it.
And that, at least, is the take of Namwali Serpell, a Zambian critic who works in the U.S.; she’s a Ph.D. from Harvard and now a Professor of English at that school. When I read her highly critical review of the new Pixar movie “Soul” in the online New Yorker, which took out after the movie because it didn’t accurately reflect the black experience (indeed, Serpell argues that it’s a “white savior movie”), I didn’t know what to think. I knew the movie had done very well, that my friends who had seen it with their kids loved it, and that it received a terrific critics’ rating on Rotten Tomatoes (see below): 96%. Was it really as racially insensitive, or racially patronizing, as Serpell asserts?
Well, I figured I couldn’t judge the review unless I had seen the movie, so I watched it. And I’m glad I did. It’s just as good as the critics make out. In fact, it’s both visually and emotionally rich—almost too rich and subtle for young children. The thesis—that when you walk a mile in another person’s shoes, or in a cat’s paws, you can re-evaluate the meaning of your own life—is a heavy one, and it’s portrayed in an artistically masterful way. The final moral is “live life to the fullest” but that sounds way too trite for such a complex film. You have to go through the journey of the movie to see how the protagonist realizes this. He’s a black jazz musician named Joe Gardner, teaching school band but aspiring to high-class, on-stage performance. Through a quasi-mystical experience involving soul transference, Joe comes to regard his frustrations with more equanimity, and to smell the roses. One of my friend’s daughters, only nine, realized that his was the movie’s point, loved it, and then cried.
I’ll let you get an idea of what the movie’s like from its trailers. Here’s one official trailer, and there’s an alternative “official” trailer here.
It’s hard to evaluate Serpell’s critique on its own, so see the movie if you can: you should anyway. The one good part about Serpell’s piece is that her summary of the plot is pretty good. You can read her article by clicking on the screenshot.
The filmmakers took a lot of trouble to make sure the movie wasn’t racially insensitive, and reflected in part the experience of African-Americans. Here’s part of the Wikipedia article:
Pixar chose to portray the film’s main character as a musician, because they wanted a “profession the audience could root for”, and settled for a musician after trying for a scientist, which “[didn’t feel] so naturally pure as a musician’s life”. Docter [the co-director] described Soul as “an exploration of, where should your focus be? What are the things that, at the end of the day, are really going to be the important things that you look back on and go, ‘I spent a worthy amount of my limited time on Earth worrying or focused on that’?”
Docter and Jones [co-writer] worked on the development of the main character for about two years. According to Docter, once they settled on the main character being a jazz musician, the filmmakers chose to make the character African-American, as they felt it made sense due to how closely African-Americans have been tied to jazz history. [Kemp] Powers originally joined as co-writer early in development to help write the character of Joe, and was initially given a 12-week contract, which was then extended. He was subsequently promoted to co-director after his extensive contributions to the film, making him Pixar’s first African-American co-director. Powers based several elements of Joe on his personal life, as the character’s story shared several elements with Powers’ own, but also wanted him to “transcend [his] own experience” in order to make the character more accessible. Powers also placed additional emphasis on authentically depicting the black community as well as Joe’s relationships with them. In order to portray accurately African-American culture within the film, Pixar created an internal culture trust composed of black Pixar employees, and hired several consultants, among whom were musicians Herbie Hancock, Terri Lyne Carrington, Quincy Jones and Jon Batiste, educator Johnnetta Cole, and stars Questlove and Daveed Diggs. The filmmakers worked closely with them through the film’s development.
The idea for the therapy cat and Joe landing inside its body came from Jones. Docter and Powers appreciated the idea, as it offered the filmmakers a much needed way for Joe to “be able to look at his own life from a different perspective” and appreciate it.
and this. . .
Soul is Pixar’s first film to feature an African-American protagonist. Pixar was mindful of the history of racist imagery in animation, and set out to create characters who were recognizably black while avoiding the stereotypes in old cartoons. Acknowledging this effort, Docter stated that “There’s a long and painful history of caricatured racist design tropes that were used to mock African-Americans.” According to Powers, the animators used lighting as a way to highlight the ethnic diversity in the living world. Pixar sought to capture the fine details of these black characters, including the textures of black hair and the way light plays on various tones of black skin. Cinematographer Bradford Young worked as a lighting consultant on the film.
Animators used footage of several music performers, including jazz composer Jon Batiste, performing as reference for the film’s musical sequences. By capturing MIDI data from the sessions, animators were able to retrace the exact key being played on the piano with each note and create the performances authentically. According to Docter, the animators assigned to specific musical instruments often either had experience playing them or a great appreciation for them.
The filmmakers animated the souls featured in the film in a “vaporous”, “ethereal”, and “non physical” way, having based their designs on definitions about souls given to them by various religious and cultural representatives. At the same time, they did not want the souls to look overly similar to ghosts, and adjusted their color palette accordingly. Docter described the design as “a huge challenge”, as the animators are “used to toys, cars, things that are much more substantial and easily referenced”, though he felt the animation team “really put some cool stuff together that’s really indicative of those words but also relatable”. According to Murray, several artists helped create the souls’ designs by giving their suggestions and opinions on how they should look. The designs were also inspired by early drawings made by Docter. Animators created two designs for the souls in the film; one for the new souls in “The Great Before”, which animation supervisor Jude Brownbill described as “very cute, very appealing, with simple, rounded shapes and no distinguishing features just yet”, and one for mentor souls, which do feature distinctive characteristics due to having been on Earth already.
Despite the fact that the movie, whose protagonist is a black jazz musician, which was co-directed and co-written by an African-American (Kemp Powers), is voiced by a largely black cast (Jamie Foxx as Joe, also with Phylicia Rashad and Angela Bassett), and involved all this research, Professor Serpell’s beef is that the movie isn’t black enough. In fact, I conclude from reading her piece is that it’s not sufficiently infused with stereotypes of blacks and black culture. Of course there’s black culture in the movie and in real life, but African-Americans aren’t homogeneous, and one gets the feeling—or at least I did—that when I finished the movie I had seen a portrayal of a human, not a black human—someone I could identify with, which is the point of much great art. And the moral, of course, is universal. The movie is meant to appeal to all people, not just African-Americans.
Well, here are a few of Serpell’s beefs (the cat, by the way, named Twenty-two for the number of its pre-life soul, is voiced by Tina Fey):
Black English says, He’s got soul. The most glaring artistic error in “Soul” is its misprision—its elision, really—of what soul means for black culture. The word is used to signify not just an individual unit but also an indivisible substrate, a communal energy, a vibe. For all of the creators’ efforts to thread the needle of racial representation, their desperate wish to be authentic without being stereotypical, “Soul” never utters a sentence like “She’s got soul,” never says “soul brother” or “soul sister” or “soul music.” Perhaps those terms are too antiquated, but there isn’t even a mention of the still popular “soul food”; the film’s universal delicacy is pepperoni pizza, not fried chicken, and we all know why.
There is pizza because much of the action takes place on the streets of New York City, and when you’re roaming those streets, the fastest thing you can get is, yes, a SLICE. That’s why the cat (now in the body of Joe) gets pizza, and likes it. You can’t get a plate of fried chicken on every New York street corner. And, by the way, there’s also a scene of Joe eating a piece of pecan pie, and that is soul food. The movie is not about James Brown; it’s about Joe Gardner, a mild-mannered schoolteacher. But if you want “soul” implicitly, well, there are the barbershop and tailor shop scenes, clearly drawn from black culture. But there’s no fried chicken. And no watermelon. In other words, not enough stereotypes. Don’t black folk like pizza?
But wait: there’s more:
As [Toni] Morrison writes in “Playing in the Dark,” the “Africanist presence” in white American cultural forms has long been “a way of contemplating chaos and civilization, desire and fear, and a mechanism for testing the problems and blessings of freedom.” So, in “Soul,” we find the soul counter hunting Joe down for messing up the count: “Gotcha!” Terry says after he lassos Joe’s soul with a set of square laser beams. A more literal net is used to try to capture Twenty-two, as well—but by then she is a Lost Soul, trapped inside a leaden, soot-black body. Whether on Earth or in the heavens, whiteness is ethereal, mindful; blackness is heavy, obsessive. Whiteness knows that the point of subway grilles is to lie on them and let the train’s wind rush up through you. Only blackness would be paranoid about the risks of such public whimsy. You might think that this is all leading to some Obamian synthesis of the two spirits. But surprise, surprise: Joe must sacrifice himself, must give up a life of jazz so that Twenty-two has a chance to “jazz” her life.
“Whiteness knows”? What the deuce does this mean? First of all, Joe doesn’t give up a life of jazz; the ending of the movie is ambiguous, and deliberately so. You don’t know whether Joe will resume teaching band, will go for the Big Jazz Quartet that wants him, or whatever; but we do know he’s going to savor what remains of his life. As for lying on subway grilles and enjoying the wind, I didn’t know that was a White Thing, and that black people are supposed to be fearful of it.
The review goes on like this, and you can read for yourself. Still, only a Pecksniffian Harvard professor could write stuff like this:
The most striking glimpse of Morrison’s “Africanist presence” in this film is its most seemingly subconscious. Shortly after the barbershop scene, Terry, the soul counter who is hunting for Joe, captures the wrong black man. Paul, Joe’s hater, is accidentally riven from his body and his soul is flung, for a moment, into a depthless outer space that looks like nothing so much as “the sunken place” in Jordan Peele’s “Get Out.” When Terry realizes his error, he brings Paul back into his body, and, with a dismissive “No harm, no foul,” leaves the poor man in an alley, crouched in a ball, shaking, eyes wide with horror. The film has already been playing obliquely with the idea of a Du Boisian double consciousness: Joe’s soul watching his own body taken over by Twenty-two, racial identity doubled within one entity. But this moment dabbles with the souls of black folk without truly reckoning with the kind of perversion that would rend personhood from human flesh. For a split second, the film cracks, yawns open, and shows us what it’s been working so hard to conceal: the limbo of black existence, the history of the slaveship hold, the terror of death at the hand of a mistaken cop.
Watch the movie, and see if you don’t thinks this is pure bullpucky. A customer makes fun of Joe (or rather, the cat inside Joe’s body), and is inadvertently given his due by being taken for the wrong person by the soul-hunter. The last three sentences are ridiculous: this scene is not about the limbo of black existence, or slavery, or George Floyd, or anything but the plot of bringing Joe’s soul into tally with the number of souls totted up by the Head Soul Counter. Again, only a Harvard professor could make this scene into a metaphor for slavery and the Middle Passage. See for yourself. If the movie really was trying to conceal the real nature of black existence and tout whiteness, I think the writer and the African-American vetters would have sensed it. Even the whiteness of heaven (departed souls take a long escalator through space up to the light) is taken to symbolize racism (the author uses the color trope repeatedly throughout her review):
One of the strangest aspects of the film is that, while Joe has a mother, a muted love interest, sweet and lazy students, and acquaintances at the barbershop, he doesn’t really have people. His epiphany, conjoined with Twenty-two’s, is a solitary one: the seed in the palm, an individual’s communion with vast nature. Similarly, each departed soul, once freed from its earthly body, shoots alone into a blur of blinding whiteness. In black American culture, a funeral is called a homegoing, partly owing to a syncretic conflation of the afterlife with Africa, the originary freedom. To cross over is to cross back, over the sea—which, by the way, is likely the origin of the English word soul, from the Proto-Germanic saiwaz, the idea being that water, not air, is the dwelling place of souls. And at the end of that voyage home there isn’t a spark of bright light but your people, welcoming you ashore.
Oy! Well, this is the typical grandiose and pompous New Yorker ending, where even the quotidian must be couched in hifalutin scholarship and reams of purple prose.
In fact, Joe does have people: his students, one of whom loves him, his mother and her friends, one of whom demands a kiss from Joe when she sees him, and a girlfriend who doesn’t appear. One cannot expect Joe to embody every aspect of what Serpell sees as black culture, which in this case is apparently deeply social. Are there no solitary black men in this country? And is it a flaw that pre-life souls float down to earth through space (which happens to be dark) to fuse with their bodies, and that the departed souls take a Big Escalator to the Sky? Does there have to be water and gatherings?
In the end, even the black critics (save one) liked “Soul”, as you can see by clicking on the screenshot.
As for the New Yorker, I’ve had it. When a movie is dissed because it doesn’t have enough stereotypical black culture, because it isn’t fundamentally about blackness instead of humanity, when it doesn’t sufficiently emphasize the “nuances of the black experience”—as if every black person has the same nuances—and when it spurns the overarching point of the movie, which is to show the commonality of people rather than their differences, then I’m done. This movie was not made to impart lessons about racism; it was made to show people of all races to embrace the good things of life, for before you know it your own soul will be ascending that Big Escalator.
A captious Harvard professor can take the movie apart, but you be the judge, and if you’ve seen it, weigh in below. The fact is that not everything is or should be about race and racism, even if it involves a black jazz musician starring in an animated movie. Nor should it be. The New Yorker apparently feels otherwise.