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Press Conference: Co-Director Kemp Powers Talks Pixar’s ‘Soul’, Addresses Concerns About Black Characters Not Staying Black During A Film & More

Soul will be hitting Disney+ on Christmas Day!

Earlier this month, I had the chance to attend the virtual early day press event for Pixar’s upcoming movie, Soul starring Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Phylicia Rashad, Angela Bassett, Ahmir Questlove Thompson, Daveed Diggs and more! Soul is directed by Academy Award® winner Pete Docter (Inside Out, Up), co-directed by Kemp Powers (One Night in Miami) and produced by Academy Award nominee Dana Murray (Pixar short Lou).

Usually, this would be an in-person event, but as the COVID-19 pandemic is still on-going, the event was was conducted via Zoom. Regardless, it was just as amazing as being in the actual studio.

During the Soul press conference, more specifically the Q&A portion, Powers talks about joining the project and how he went from screenwriter to co-director.

Filmmakers and key members of the crew meet with consultants for Soul on April 29, 2019 at Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville, Calif. (Photo by Deborah Coleman / Pixar)

During the Q&A with the creative team, Constance Gibbs from Black Girls Create asked the team a very insightful question about how the pattern of turning Black characters into different things outside of their original character. 

Check out various responses and questions from the Q&A segment below:

Kemp Powers:  When I first came onto the project almost two years ago, Soul as a film was still in pretty early form.  In particular, Joe was a character who needed a lot of fleshing out.

Thankfully, Joe’s character and I had a lot in common, at least at how it-he was being imagined and I very quickly realized that in many ways Joe really was just like me, so then I could use my own experiences to inform writing this character.  Just how much was he like me? Well, how old is Joe?  He’s 45 years old.  Coincidentally, I’m also in my mid 40’s. Joe lives in New York, which is my hometown, and-although Joe is from Queens, and I’m from Brooklyn, and everyone knows that Brooklyn is better. Joe is a musician, and coincidentally, I used to be a music critic, I’m a musician myself, and my son is even named after the jazz great, Charles Mingus.

So when doing this deep-dive, it really did come naturally, but thankfully, I didn’t have to do it alone.  So, we had many meetings and discussions about Joe as a team, where he grew up, the important people in his life, what made him tick, and then I reached into my own past and life experiences and tried to put that down on paper.  Let me give you just one example.  One place that I spent a lot of time before this pandemic was the barbershop, so we took our crew there so that they could see and feel what it was really like in a barbershop.  We also went to New York for research trips. 

One place we visited was a public school in Queens, New York since that’s where Joe is supposed to be a teacher in the film, and while we were in Queens, we met Doctor Peter Archer, this amazingly passionate middle school jazz band teacher.  And, of course, since Joe wants to play-his dream is to play in New York jazz clubs, we just had to visit a bunch of jazz clubs in Manhattan.  So, one thing to understand is that though my and my personal experiences did help develop Joe and the story to a point, it was very important that the film transcended any one person’s life.

 As I said to Pete and Dana from the very beginning, “I don’t represent [LAUGH] every single Black person’s experience,” so it was really important that we reached out further, so we partnered with a number of consultants on this film who we kept close throughout the entire creative process.  Right here you see a picture of the African-American Pixar employees who we all drafted to become our internal cultural trust, and to make sure that this representation was as genuine and p-as possible, we also turned to tons of experts outside of Pixar, including many music teachers and working jazz musicians from New York City and right here in Emeryville.

Kemp Powers
A group of music consultants meet with the Soul filmmakers to give feedback about the film, as seen on December 20, 2018 at Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville, Calif. (Photo by Deborah Coleman / Pixar)

And, of course, we went to a group of expert cultural consultants who we relied on to help us make our story look and sound as authentic as possible.  People like Doctor Johnnetta Cole, who Pete mentioned, people like Bradford Young, the famous cinematographer, who contributed a great deal with our lighting team to the look of the film, and even Daveed Diggs and Questlove, two of the performers in the film who were also great cultural consultants as far as music. We took all that research and input from our consultants, and then a-we put it into the script, which we would then hand over to our story team.

Constance: Hi.  I’m very excited for this film!  What I saw so far looks really great. My question is about a sort of blue elephant in the room. As this movie came out and the trailer came out a lot of Black audiences are very excited for the movie but it seems to be following a trend of Black lead characters, especially in animated films, like not appearing human the whole film.  So Princess and the Frog, Spies in Disguise, and I just wondered if you guys had any thoughts on that fear that POC audiences have about a like a building trend about Black characters not appearing black in like a whole film.

(Courtesy of Disney/Pixar)

Doctor: Yeah. We were unaware of that as we started but we certainly became aware. My hope is that when you see the whole film there is plenty of Joe on screen.  So it, what you saw today, I don’t know what the percentages were but I think we have over 50 percent on Earth that follows Joe’s life, his places of, where he goes, people he’s with. And then the other part is in the soul world and hopefully it’s clear, but that’s meant to be Joe as well, even just in soul form. 

Powers: I think it’s a legitimate concern.  But it’s also about context, you know. For me, I’m as sensitive to those things as anyone else. And for me, it’s definitely about the context in which you tell this character’s story. And there were a lot of caution cones we had to put up about being sensitive for the first time telling a Black man’s story in an animated film. Being aware of how easy it is to go off the rails. 

Of course, you want to do certain things that are entertaining. But that was another reason why like I think you heard it mentioned earlier that we screened the film for lots of different audiences. This was actually the first time Pixar did a screening for an all-black audience.

I’ll admit, that was, for me on a personal level, one of the most anxiety inducing days I had on this film because I’ve spent years working on this movie that ultimately I wanted to show to my family so that they could be proud of me. And that black audience in that theater, in many ways represented my family.  So I can’t tell you how relieved I was at the end of that screening to hear like the overwhelmingly positive reaction to it.

Kemp Powers
(Courtesy of Disney/Pixar)

But again, we’ve never at any point tried to dismiss people’s concerns. Animation is not an industry where there’s been a great deal of black representation.  It just hasn’t. I feel that Pixar is one of the few places that’s been very genuine in recognizing the shortcomings and making a tremendous, tremendous effort to start to rectify it. And I think this film is like that first effort. Keep in mind, I was invited on as a writer and then made a partner as a co-director.  

And it’s a sad reality that there haven’t been many black people in general in positions of power in animation. Just in the couple of years that I was at Pixar I watched a number of black animators and Black story artists increase. You’ve met a lot of them today. I just love the fact that rather than just talk about it, Pixar was moved to action.I can speak to that having witnessed it.

Dana Murray: Yeah and I think that’s why we relied so heavily on our consultants and our team, we made sure, we leaned into those difficult conversations. It was something that we didn’t want to not talk about. So I actually appreciate the question.

About Soul:

Joe Gardner is 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, 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.

Globally renowned musician Jon Batiste will be writing original jazz music for the film, and Oscar®-winners Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (The Social Network), from Nine Inch Nails, will compose an original score that will drift between the real and soul worlds. 

About Kemp Powers:

KEMP POWERS (Co-Director/Story by/Screenplay by) began at Pixar Animation Studios in August 2018. 

Kemp Powers grew up in Brooklyn, NY. He attended both Howard University and the University of Michigan. Prior to Pixar, Powers was an award-winning playwright, television and film screenwriter and journalist. His play “One Night in Miami…” received three LA Drama Critics Circle Awards and four NAACP Theatre Awards, and was nominated for the 2017 Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Play. He adapted it into a feature film, which is being directed by Academy Award®-winning actress Regina King. He was a writer for the television show “Star Trek: Discovery” and has toured nationally as a storyteller for the Peabody Award-winning series “The Moth.” 

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