Movie Night: Soul

I wish there’d been more of it. 

I rented the 2020 movie Soul on DVD last weekend. What a strange, oddball little movie. I can see why “Pop Culture Happy Hour” had mixed reviews about it.

As I was watching, I was thinking, who is this movie for? The Great Beyond and Great Before that the protagonist Joe gets flung into, what’s supposed to be the extraordinary world, lacked wonder and impact. It was too strange and esoteric for kids and too oversimplified for adults. The movie’s title is a play on words and has a double meaning: Soul, as in Black music, and soul, as in the intangible essence that individuates each person. Nevertheless, the movie’s title promises an experience centered around the former, including that amazing piano playing by Jon Batiste. But just as we’re starting to get into the dynamic and colorful world of jazz, we’re ripped away into this sterile weirdness of blue blobs and cubist entities. 

The plot point where we don’t get to follow a Black man inside his own body is, like, so 2009 and we’re over ten years past Princess and the Frog territory. At least that movie stayed squarely within Black culture and essence. In Soul, however, there’s a midpoint twist that makes the Black body displacement even more uncomfortable and glaring. 

As for the movie’s message—what was the message? Purpose, I guess, that people are more than their self-proclaimed purpose. I get and appreciate that, the affirmation that one’s life well lived is also about the pure joy of just being alive. That’s a good message. But I feel like Joe’s passion and desire to play jazz with other dedicated musicians was treated as a fatal flaw, downplayed as ultimately unimportant, and given short shrift. As if to say it’s more worthy to teach and inspire others than to have any accomplishments or desires of your own. This angle was particularly disappointing, given that so many stories involving Black people minimize or completely erase their goals and motivations. Instead, their sole function is to serve somebody else, a white character.

It’s traumatizing to watch Joe’s inciting story thrust, where he gets his big break only to have it thwarted by an untimely almost(?) death. This situation is historically and brutally common of the Black experience in America. One might work so hard to be good at something, or struggle so long to claim a handful of joy, or dream so fervently for a break, only to have it snatched away by an untimely disaster, often created by the very circumstances in which Black people live, such as persecution by white supremacy, lack of access to healthcare, lack of access to spaces and places, and on and on.

I realize it sounds like I’m just trashing this movie. I hate to do that, especially since Soul’s co-writer and co-director is Kemp Powers, the screenwriter for a movie that I absolutely adore—One Night in Miami. So it’s difficult for me to say that Soul left me empty and cold. 

A pair of sneakered feet in autumn leaves.
A pair of sneakered feet in autumn leaves. Photo by Katherine Clara on

I went on a mid-morning walk the day after watching Soul. Trying to process my conflicting feelings about this movie that I’d really been looking forward to seeing.

A big pile of leaves formed on the sidewalk in front of me. The impulse to crunch them beneath my feet surged through me as if I were a little kid. This desire was instantly chilled by the worry of how I’d look to others, especially as a Black woman walking through an affluent neighborhood. Then I remembered a scene from Soul, and the little kid in me won out. I stomped through the leaves and thrilled at the glorious sound of autumn on a crisp sunny morning. 

I guess Soul, flawed as it was, delivered an effective message after all.

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