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Soul stars Angela Bassett and Phylicia Rashad talk capturing a 'vast and diverse humanity'

By Nivea Serrao
Pixar Soul

Pixar's Soul is already breaking new ground for the studio, with the upcoming animated feature serving as its first-ever movie featuring a Black lead. It tells the story of Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) and his quest to return to his former life on Earth, after an untimely accident sends him to the afterlife, before he escapes back to the Great Before — where new souls first develop their personalities — and eventually back to New York City.

But the movie's cultural significance doesn't end with the lead, as it sees Joe joined by a supporting cast of Black characters, two of whom loom large right from the beginning: his mother Libba Gardner, and Jazz legend (and one of his heroes) Dorothea Williams, voiced by Phylicia Rashad (Black Box) and Angela Bassett (Black Panther), respectively. Their inclusion is a big deal, especially in terms of female representation, as despite the many steps forward animation has taken — and Pixar's own rich history of films — animated Black female characters remain few and far between.

"There aren't many," noted Bassett during a press conference for the film. "I've been fortunate enough to portray a handful of them. But it means a great deal more that we get these stories and these images and these opportunities out there."

Bassett, who's also voiced Former First Lady Michelle Obama on The Simpsons and publicist Ana Spanakopita on BoJack Horseman, continued, "Usually, we think of animation for youngsters. But families are also [watching them]. So start early with these images and this idea that it's a vast and diverse humanity."

Rashad agreed, stating that voicing Libba felt like a natural step in her career. "Most things I've done and worked in, were really specific to African American people," says the Creed and Jingle Jangle actress. "This has been true of my work in theater, it's certainly true of my work in film and television, so it seems quite natural to me that I'm doing what I should be doing in this."

When it comes to representation in animated projects — be they feature films or television series — Black women remain some of the most underrepresented demographics on screen. Some of the most recent examples of prominent Black female characters in animated films include Tip from Home (2015), Tiana from The Princess and the Frog (2009), Princess Kida from Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001) and Atlantis: Milo's Return (2003), and the Muses from Hercules (1997). Granted, even when Black characters are depicted on screen, they might not be voiced by actors who are Black themselves, as seen in the case of Missy on Netflix's Big Mouth, which will feature Ayo Edibiri taking over voice acting duties for the character in Season 4, after Jenny Slate voiced the biracial character for most of the series thus far.

This only underscores the importance of having representation both onscreen and in the voice recording booth, a fact that holds true all the way from the '90s, when Alison Sealy-Smith, best known for her portrayal of Storm in the cult classic X-Men: The Animated Series, was voicing her now-iconic character. "[T]hat there was then a Black actress who was actually voicing the character… it was a big deal," she noted during a cast reunion panel earlier this fall. "We shouldn’t underestimate the power of that too, for people who didn’t often see themselves represented."

For her part, Rashad hopes that featuring Black female characters in an animated film, that are also voiced by Black actors, won't be such a novelty. "I look forward to it being a time where it's so natural for everyone that this question need not be asked."

Also lending their voices to characters in the film are Tina Fey (Megamind), Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson (The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon), Daveed Diggs (Snowpiercer), Richard Ayoade (The Mandalorian), Rachel House (Thor: Ragnarok), Alice Braga (Elysium), Graham Norton (The Graham Norton Show), Wes Studi (Penny Dreadful), Fortune Feimster (Life in Pieces), and Zenobia Shroff (The Affair).

Soul — directed by Pete Docter (Inside Out) and Kemp Powers (Star Trek: Discovery), and produced by Dana Murray (Inside Out) — comes out Christmas Day on Disney+. Depending on the availability of the streaming platform in international markets, it may be released in theaters.