I’m about to, of course, and write a lot in the process. So I suppose that I can’t not want to write about Soul that badly.
But there’s a part of me that just wants to let a good movie be a good movie without strapping it to an operating table and picking it apart for #hottakes. I’m acutely aware that I’ve done this in the past and will probably do it again in the near future — I’ve been sitting on a Joker essay for over a year now that I’ll be dropping soon. Still, there’s just something about how supremely enjoyable Soul is that makes me want to cocoon it away from the crossfire of internet criticism, most of which falls under the umbrella critique that the lead character Joe Gardner (a Black man voiced by Jamie Foxx) spends a majority of the movie in a form other than his own — and that it’s far from the first time that Disney has done this.
(That said, as a side note: having rewatched The Princess and the Frog recently, I’d argue that Tiana spending most of the film as a frog actually makes her romance with Prince Naveen one of the strongest in the Disney Animated Canon. In most of the princess films, especially the older ones, it seems like physical attraction does a lot of the heavy lifting to sell the inevitable marriage, despite the two leads having known each other for three days, tops. Naveen falling in love with Tiana while she’s a frog is an obvious but effective workaround, and a strong signal that the notorious playboy is genuinely attracted to something in a woman beyond her physical beauty. Insofar as anyone cares what a man has to say on the subject, and really, why would they, I think that’s a helpful message for young girls, especially young Black girls.)
(Also, “Friends on the Other Side” is still a banger.)
Point being, the transmogrification of bodies of color in animation is a valid critique. But still… Soul’s just a good movie. It just, in my unhumble opinion, is. The critique is no less valid for the film’s quality, but conversely, the film’s quality isn’t diminished for the validity of the critique. I’m about seven Pixar movies behind to definitively say where Soul ranks among the studio’s all-time output, and even then, it’s got stiff competition. Inside Out and Toy Story 3 are tough mothers to beat, and until we get a good Fantastic Four movie, The Incredibles will always hold a special place in my heart.
But Soul’s up there; it’s a fantastically familiar blend of humor, heart, horror, hope, and ultimately happiness that has led Pixar to effectively corner the market on 3D animated classics. And I enjoy it as much for the simple profundity of its main narrative as for the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it touches that deepened my personal connection, from the main character having a jazz standard as his ringtone (I’m more of a Take Five man myself, but for obvious reasons, I can dig Haitian Fight Song), to a devastatingly brutal dig at the New York Knicks’ futility (as a tortured Bulls fan, if we must burn, then we shall burn together).
While you could argue that Joe isn’t really a Black character for much of the movie, the movie itself is Black all the way through, from its settings to its music to its ancillary characters to its language. And Soul is not, as they say, “unapologetically” Black so much as “matter-of-factly” Black, a subtle distinction that’s all the more powerful for its subtlety.
So yeah. I like Soul. I really like Soul. And if there’s even a chance that the existence of one more #hottake scares someone off from seeing it for themselves, then I’m not sure I want to risk it.
But in a more visceral sense, I don’t want to write about Soul because Soul itself doesn’t seem to want me to.
Explanation incoming after the spoiler jump.
Soul is the story about a day in the life of Joe Gardner, a middle-aged part-time band teacher whose greatest dream is to make it big as a jazz pianist. After grinding away for decades, he’s gotten nowhere, and has resigned himself to accepting a full-time position at the school where he works, only to one-up himself when he finally scores an opportunity to play in a renowned saxophonist’s jazz quartet.
(It’s not really important that she’s a saxophonist, mind. The reawakened band geek with petty childhood rivalries in me just likes reestablishing woodwind supremacy at the clarinetists’ expense. We got Hoots the Owl, and y’all got Squidward, just saying.)
Anyway, in Joe’s oblivious excitement, he has a repeated series of near-death experiences before his luck runs out and he unceremoniously falls down an open sewer to his untimely demise. Or as a wise man from another great movie might put it, his untimely mostly-death. As Joe’s body lies in a coma, his soul is understandably livid at the cosmic injustice of having died mere hours before realizing his dream, certain that his life will have meant nothing without it. So he resists the call to the Great Beyond and escapes into the Great Before, running into a blissfully unborn soul named 22 (voiced by Tina Fey) along the way — the implication being, considering that we later meet souls whose numbered names hit the billions, that 22 has existed since the dawn of humanity without finding the inspiration to ever truly be alive.
With Joe not wanting his life to end and 22 not wanting their life to begin, the two join forces to game the celestial system so that they can both get what they want — which, as this is a Pixar movie, goes predictably awry while teaching them both some hard-earned lessons along the way. It’s fun, it’s funny, and staggeringly existential — in as non-R-rated a way as these words can possibly be taken, Soul is probably the most adult Pixar film I’ve seen. But it’s a perfectly pleasant lil’ flick for most of its runtime… and then, as Pixar movies inevitably do in ways that only Pixar movies can, comes the body shot to the liver.
In the third act, Joe manages to make it back to his body and to his big performance, and it goes off perfectly — the ensuing sequence is much a triumph for the filmmakers and Joe as it is a treat for the audience on either side of the screen. Buzzing, Joe asks the quartet leader what comes next, and she tells him that he’s going to perform the next night with the quartet, of course.
And Joe is shaken.
It’s such a quiet moment, and it’s all the more punishing because of it. Joe’s finally achieved his dream, but something about it rings hollow to him, a feeling that he can’t escape until he goes home and composes a new piano piece inspired by his adventures with 22 and his reflections upon his recently resurrected life. It’s a life he had previously thought to be pointless without his big break, and it’s a life that he realizes was still filled to bursting with laughter, love, and light all the way through, as much for what he received as what he brought to others.
Joe realizes how much he’s ignored, forgotten, or downplayed because of his single-minded pursuit of musical greatness. And this epiphany directly leads into the film’s coda that I won’t continue to spoil any further, beyond saying that I appreciate that it concludes on something of an open-ended note. But it’s an ending that I almost couldn’t appreciate, because from the moment Joe realizes that his life’s dream didn’t bring him as much joy as he expected, all I could really hear from then to the end credits were the same six words on an increasingly louder loop.
Is that going to be me?
I started writing this essay on the second day of 2021; with luck, you aren’t reading it much later than that. And this first week, like all of them, brings the dreaded scourge of New Year’s resolutions — as difficult to keep as they are to avoid making in the first place. I tried to write off resolutions a few years ago, only allowing myself the overarching goal that every aspiring writer has — to write more in the following year.
But in the last weeks of 2020, and good riddance to it, I found myself silently tacking on a second resolution — to be seen as more than a writer.
…yeah, if you can figure out a way to make those two work together without canceling each other out, let me know. Heaven knows that I can’t.
For as long as I care to remember, I’ve wanted to be a writer, and about halfway through high school, I locked it in as the keystone to my entire future. Didn’t know where I’d do it, didn’t know how I’d do it, and didn’t know what the doing would be about, but I knew that that’s what I wanted to do.
To be certain, my own biased appraisal of skill notwithstanding, I don’t think I’m a successful writer by any stretch of the imagination. I don’t have any major bylines to my name in any widely recognizable publications and I’m running out of fingers and toes to count the number of peers who do, I’ve never published anything on my own, I’ve never been paid consistently enough to make a living out of it, and in a world where Ta-Nehisi Coates and Alexandra Petri are still in the game, there’s always room to improve.
I’m okay with all of that; it’s good to have something to work towards. That’s not the problem.
The problem is that the more the goal of making it as a writer comes into focus, the more uncomfortable I get with it — just like our man Joe Gardner. To put it bluntly, I’ve fought so hard to be seen as a good writer, that I’m beginning to suspect that it’s the only thing people see anymore.
I don’t know when I really started feeling this way, but it definitely cemented itself last summer with the protests that erupted after George Floyd’s murder by a police officer in Minneapolis. Every so often, I write a piece that ends up getting away from me a bit. And this one, less of an essay and more of a scream of inchoate rage at the feel-good stories of other police officers kneeling and posing for selfies with protesters that popped up in the media like overcaffeinated prairie dogs during an earthquake, flew the coop further and faster than anything else I can remember. People read it, people shared it, people commented on it, all of that good analytics stuff about #content and #engagement that make social media managers weak at the knees.
I should’ve felt good about it. And at first, I did. I’m a writer, and people were reading and responding to something that I wrote. What more could I want or expect?
Sure, there was the intrinsic discomfort with benefitting, however indirectly, from another man’s murder, even though the essay was written from a place of getting a crushing weight off my chest as a fellow Black man then trying to capitalize on the moment by getting my name out there. There was the mental balancing act of trying to parse out which responses were worth engaging with and which were from troglodytic apologists who clearly weren’t dealing in good faith. And there’s the escalating sense of unease at becoming what TNC would call becoming another “guy who white people read to show they know something.” But that all, to varying extents, comes with the territory of being a minority with opinions in the Internet age.
What I wasn’t prepared to handle was the response from people I knew — or to channel a pop ballad that’s turning ten this year, people that I used to know.
It feels good when complete strangers and close friends like your work. And it’s a particularly nice surprise when your work reconnects a relationship that understandably withered due to time, distance, or changing circumstances. But when it’s someone that you don’t have particularly fond memories of, or when it’s someone you vividly remember fighting tooth and nail to establish a connection with only to get nowhere, it feels much worse.
To put it simply, writing is what I do, and what I try to do well. But the things that inspire me to write, basketball and superheroes and soccer and science fiction and hip-hop and pancakes and video games and politics and stand-up comedy and voting rights and terrible dancing and my friends and Star Wars and blackness and animation and loud singing and milk stouts and Avatar the show not the movie and my family and social justice and bad weather and history and two-topping pizza and martial arts movies and atrocious puns, are who I am. And the distinction isn’t something that I think I’ve lost sight of so much as I think is invisible.
Because even when the only thing you really want is to be a great writer, there’s something existentially searing about the realization that nothing else about any other aspect of your existence was ever enough to make most people want anything to do with you beyond that.
And as more and more, you find yourself getting introduced to strangers as a good writer first, or worse, only as a good writer, it cements the suspicion that it’s the only aspect of your existence that ever really will.
And that’s why I don’t want to write about Soul.
Because what Soul not-so-subtly says about the Joe Gardners of the world is that while it’s great that we have our dreams, or “sparks” as the movie calls them, hinging our entire existence on their pursuit can quite literally end up killing us. It goes beyond the traditional moral of “wanting is better than having” — it’s that while our passions can color our lives, they can’t define them or constitute their purpose. In the end, life’s only real purpose is to be lived, and the memories that we make and the people we connect with beyond our passions are just as meaningful as the passions themselves. It’s a profound, yet simple message, one that I’ve heard before, and one that doesn’t present any openings to refute or rationalize away.
And I can’t bring myself to accept it. I just can’t.
Because while I want to be seen as more than my passion as a writer, the only way I can think of showing it is… to write more. It’s not so much a vicious circle as a vicious polyhedron within which I bounce around the vertices looking for some kind of a meaningful stopping point. Writing brings people towards me, so I write, but then I get known for writing, so I try to be known for something else, and I’m not, so I go back to writing, but writing takes time when you have other obligations, so I don’t, and the connections wither, and I stop, but eventually something happens, and I write again, and something I write eventually sparks a connection, but I have to keep writing for it to keep going, and the green grass grows all around, all around, and the green grass grows all around.
Maybe it’s just the lingering 2020 hangover in me, I don’t know. But something about the message that your memories and connections are what define your life rings more than a bit hollow during a global pandemic that’s rounding into its second year. When the events of the past year have forced you to painfully reevaluate so many of the relationships on which those memories and connections are founded — a reevaluation that has not gotten any easier with time — it’s hard to swallow the idea that there’s something intrinsically meaningful about them beyond the importance you assigned them at the time. And when the evidence keeps stacking up that all but your deepest connections will inevitably wither without that passion, and when you know that you haven’t “made it” yet by any objective metric in the pursuit of that passion, what in Jerry’s name are you supposed to do with that?
If I were to die today, say by falling into a sewer, or maybe losing a duel to the death with a Proud Boy, or finally succumbing to that pesky lil’ pandemic, then by either metric Soul presents, would it have been a life well-lived? In the grand scheme of things, if it ended this instant, would the black life I’d lived have really mattered that much without my writing? And conversely, if I stopped now, would anything I ever wrote about race or racism have done anything to make things better for anyone than a can of Twisted Tea to the head couldn’t have?
Damn y’all, Pixar. I just wanted to ring in the New Year with a good movie about Black folks and jazz music, I didn’t sign up for the existential crisis, you beautiful and boundlessly talented emotional terrorists. You didn’t see Wonder Woman 1984* or Season 3 of Cobra Kai** pulling this crap. I hope you win the Best Animated Feature Oscar, and then it breaks, and that you have to wait up to two weeks for a replacement.
It’s what you deserve.
This is normally the part of my essays where I’d try to tie things together; to have some tidy conclusion that gives the previous word vomit something approximating a deeper meaning.
But… I don’t know how for this one. And I suppose that makes sense in its own way.
Because as much as Soul might be about life, life isn’t like Soul. Nothing ever really ends, even on a slightly ambiguous note. Grand adventures don’t impart neat morals or new leases on life, and the arbitrary end of one awful period of time doesn’t mean that its aftereffects won’t linger.
Chastened bullies won’t suddenly change their ways once the writing is finally on the wall for the end of their greasy grip on power, and neither will the cowards enabling them. So-called racial reckonings over police brutality that yielded little more than authoritarian shows of force and long overdue corporate handwringing won’t change the presumptive criminality of black people in America. The relative speedy discovery of a vaccine for the worst global pandemic in a century won’t translate into an efficient delivery system for a critically overburdened healthcare system, or galvanize the aforementioned bullies and cowards to do anything to fix it.
So, on day three of 2021… here’s to new beginnings, I guess.
*Good movie, but not as great as the original Wonder Woman for my money. But hey, superhero movies are back.
**People are seriously sleeping on this show. Invest in Cobra Kai, folks.