Soul Filmmakers on the Importance of Pixar's First Black Lead Character

What makes you, you, the spark of personality and passion that makes you completely unique? That's [...]

What makes you, you, the spark of personality and passion that makes you completely unique? That's the central question of Disney Pixar's Soul, but the upcoming film will do much more than just explore the idea of where we come from and how the spark that makes us each unique is born. The film will be the first to feature a Black lead character in Joe Gardner. Voiced by Jamie Foxx, Joe is a middle-school band teacher with a passion for jazz who gets a once-in-a-lifetime chance to follow that passion only to find himself quite literally at the beginning of everything -- The Great Before -- after one small misstep. It's a truly universal experience told in a way unlike anything we've seen before but according to Soul's filmmakers, while Joe is a groundbreaking character, his story is one that came about organically and just happened to be the right way to get to the heart of Soul.

"I think it's because we came by it honestly, that it wasn't like, 'Oh, it's the politically pressure to make a character this or that way,'" director Pete Docter told during a recent press day about why Soul was the right film moment for a Black lead character. "It really grew organically out of the subject matter and the needs of the story. And yet it wasn't like a lecture. I think a lot of us learned a lot in working with Joe and learning about what it's like to be Black in America and specifically, a musician and all of these things. But I think for me, that was what made me really embrace the character because I knew I was doing it for the right reason, for story reasons."

Co-Director and writer Kemp Powers echoed Docter's sentiments about the organic nature of Joe's story and explained that the fear of cultural specificity of things is actually the key to the film's universal themes. Joe's culture is an important part of Soul but speaks to a wider experience as well.

"Joe's character, it's interesting because, again, it was all very organic, and it was really... I feel like a broken record because I've been saying this a lot in that people can be afraid of cultural specificity. And I think that that's actually the key to uncovering these universal themes that we can all relate to," Powrers said. "I think that one of the things we've been able to do on this film that I'm the most proud of is actually not shy away from the fact that Joe and his culture, while American, are also Black. You saw in the footage that you saw, there's a flashback where Joe says, 'Dad, I don't like jazz.' And his father corrects him and says, 'Black improvisational music. It's one of our big contributors to the culture of this country.'"

Kemp continued, "That, to me, is a very potent, important thing to actually acknowledge, the specificity of the Black contribution to American culture in a very, very subtle small way that might go right over a little kid's head. But for some little kids, it's going to be really, really important. It's going to say that you are a part of this country. You are a part of this thing that we have today. So I think the fact that when they decided it was going to be a jazz musician, that it became important that it be a Black jazz musician, is key because that allows us to lean into the Black, the very African-American contributions to not just jazz music, but music in general."

You can check out the synopsis of Soul below.

Soul follows Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), a middle-school band teacher who gets the chance of a lifetime to play at the best jazz club in town. But one small misstep takes him from the streets of New York City to The Great Before – a fantastical place where new souls get their personalities, quirks, and interests before they go to Earth. Determined to return to his life, Joe teams up with a precocious soul, 22 (Tina Fey), who has never understood the appeal of the human experience. As Joe desperately tries to show 22 what's great about living, he may just discover the answers to some of life's most important questions.

Soul debuts on Disney+ on December 25th.