Pixar's newest film Soul has been a long time coming. It's the studio's 22nd release, but their first movie with a Black lead, which has become even more important given the events of this year with the Black Lives Matter movement.
Jamie Foxx stars as Joe, a music teacher and struggling jazz musician who has been waiting his whole life for his big break.
On the day it seems like all his dreams are coming true, he gets into an accident and is on the brink of dying. His soul is transported to the afterlife and then to The Great Before, where new souls find their personalities, quirks and interests before being born as people.
Here he meets a soul named 22 played by Tina Fey, who doesn't understand the appeal of the human experience and has done everything she can to resist being born by not finding the last piece of her personality puzzle. In order to find his way back to his body, Joe needs 22's help, but it won't be easy.
To make the movie as true to Black culture as possible, Pixar created a 'Culture Trust', where Black employees could ensure everything about the movie felt real.
Speaking with Yahoo Lifestyle, Pete Docter, who co-directed the movie with Kemp Powers, said it took "a lot of work" to ensure they got the story right, but the end result was very "rewarding".
"I mean, obviously we didn't plan [on the movie being released at such a pivotal time], we came to the realisation that Joe should be Black based on specific story points and character things, ultimately having to do with jazz and what a great metaphor jazz is for life," Pete said. "You know, the idea that you don't necessarily choose the tune, but you do craft it into something very personal and hopefully with meaning and importance, just like you do with your own life.
"So, we thought if that's going to be the theme of the film, if our main character is going to play jazz – or as one of our consultants said, 'Black improvisational music,' – then our character should reflect that great contribution to American culture," he said.
"It was a lot of work to make sure that we got it right, but it was so rewarding for the storytelling, it really brought this rich lushness to the film that we'd never really had before."
Producer Dana Murray shared just how important it was to have cultural consultants on hand.
"I think not only having Joe, our protagonist be Black, but having all these characters, we wanted to make sure we had a lot of touch points and a lot of conversations and Kemp said from day one, 'I relate to Joe,' and helped a lot with his character, but he was like, 'But I'm just one voice,'" Dana said.
"We wanted to make sure we had a deep, deep bench of people who could contribute whether it was the music, or we met with teachers, we wanted to make sure Dorothea (played by Angela Bassett) was authentic, so we met with female jazz band leaders. Whatever that element was, we wanted to make sure we were talking to people about it."
The 'perfect time' for Soul
Michael Yates, a Story Artist on the film, said 2020 actually feels like the perfect time for this movie to be released given the BLM movement.
"I think even before I got onto the film, just hearing about it and knowing that this was going to be the first film with a Black lead I got really excited and I was like, 'Oh, I want to work on that movie,'" he said.
"And then luckily I was able to get onto the film as a Story Artist, but I was also able to help on the Culture Trust, where we kind of brought in a bunch of African Americans from within the studio to help make sure we were making an authentic story with the authentic characters. And I feel like it was a great experience throughout the whole process and I feel like we did a good job of it," he said.
"I think now with everything going on, it felt like the perfect time for this film, even though at the time making it we had no idea any of this stuff would be happening. I think it just felt like if you're telling a story that's universal in the messaging and the theme of it that when things happen it just resonates even more. So I'm pretty excited to see it."
Michael continued, sharing a story of how the Culture Trust changed the film.
"It became almost like a fun group of people who just hung out together to talk about the film. And [ask things like], 'This thing doesn't quite ring true, why doesn't that ring true?'
"One example was that Joe's mum, after one screening, wasn't feeling as authentic as possible. And so we just spent an entire meeting just talking about our mums and just like, tried to take little pieces from everyone's mum and put that back into the script."
"It was a lot [of work], but I felt like it was really worth it in the end."
Also speaking of being part of the Culture Trust, Montaque Ruffin, who worked on the film as an animator, said he felt blessed to have been chosen.
"Oh, my goodness," he said when asked of the experience. "A blessing, for sure."
"We would get together, consult, talk, share and bring our life experiences to the table. And we would review Joe's design, take a look at some of the sequences that were being animated and we would just have a dialogue with Pete Docter and Kemp [Powers] and just share. So, it was very, very special."
He added, "And me personally, just seeing Black people and that community just being brought to life and telling that story in an animated form. I don't see that everyday, so just being a part of the whole process... it's been a real joy."
Disney and Pixar’s Soul is streaming on Disney+ from Christmas Night.
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