Compared to Pixar’s recent spate of sequels to past hits, Soul is a loftier project—a messy but expansive story worthy of its director’s grand ambitions.
Namwali Serpell argues that it is another attempt to put a white person in a black body.
Pixar’s “Soul” is, in fact, the latest in a long tradition of American race-transformation tales, each of which finds a pretext—a potion, a spell, a medical treatment, or simply makeup—to put a white person in a black body (or vice versa). One strand of the genre—which encompasses films like “Change of Mind,” “Watermelon Man,” and “Soul Man”—is obviously the legacy of minstrel productions like the 1927 film “The Jazz Singer.” But even recent, more ostensibly race-conscious works (see again “Watchmen” and “Lovecraft Country”) play with this theme in sometimes disturbing ways, as though unable to resist making white people the hero of blackness. The white desire to get inside black flesh is absolved as an empathy exercise. Blackface gets a moral makeover. It’s telling that, in most race-transformation tales, the ideal is presented as a white soul in a black body.
Soul feels like it sits somewhere between Inside Out and The Emoji Movie.