This Misguided Review of “SOUL” is Killing the Soul of CRT
There are few things that get me so amped up that I drag myself out of bed at 8:30 in the morning during a much-needed vacation to write something. This review was one such thing.
This may be a long one, so let me summarize it right at top—this review is to CRT (Critical Race Theory) what Paula White and Franklin Graham Jr. are to Christian evangelicalism. It’s an extreme, fundamentalist view of something valuable that is getting a lot of play, thereby hurting the very cause it supposedly supports. It comes off as an extreme and emotional reaction to aspects of this film that are misinterpreted and turns them into issues they aren’t. And in making such an overtly, over-the-top, vicious attack on what is an empirically beautiful movie that has a positive message, it renders its message DOA. Unfortunately, it damages CRT along the way.
One woman in the replies compared the author of this review to Martin Lawrence’s character in the 1992 hit comedy Boomerang. I thought that was an excellent comparison. That movie was made by and for Black people with a nearly all-black cast. And his character was a comical look at that one person in your life who literally sees racism in EVERYTHING, even where it clearly is not—like billiards.
What I love about this character and this scene is that it shows that Black folk can recognize and even poke fun at the fact that some of us take racial justice a tad too far.
Some props for this review
First and foremost, I want to give respect to the fact that this reviewer, Lennox Orion, took the time and energy to share their experience of the film. I also appreciate the fact that their review has generated so much discussion. Film has the power to do that, and it’s one of the things I love about the medium. It’s one of the aspects of filmmaking that made me fall in love with it. That power to get people thinking and talking.
The proverbial “But…”
But…dear lord in heaven, with all due respect to the author, this review is a mess. They make incorrect assumptions about plot points, forget some plot points, and infuse meaning where there is none.
It starts right at the top with their comparison to The Good Place. The only comparison worth noting I saw was that the custodians of the afterworld in The Good Place are all called “Janet,” and the equivalent in Soul are all called Jerri.
But this author makes a point that Joe is similar to Eleanor in The Good Place, but in the very next sentence, they say that 22 is the Eleanor character and Joe is the Chidi equivalent. So off the bat, as a fan of both that TV show and of cinematic critique, I’m finding the review dubious. (And as a professional editor of industry blog posts, the lack of proper punctuation was driving me mad. Commas are a thing!)
Orion says that Joe is pretending to be something he’s not, similar to the plotline in The Goode Place. Except, that’s not what Joe is doing. For a brief moment he does, but it’s a minor aspect of the plot and used only to move it along. It is not the premise of the movie.
22 is NOT Tina Fey
One of the things I found interesting about this review, and I’m not sure the reviewer did this on purpose, is that they frequently referred to 22 as Tina Fey, or just Fey. This was a constant reminder to those of us reading that a white woman, who has said and done problematic things as it relates to race due to that whole “black face” issue with 30 Rock, is voicing the character. But they NEVER refer to Joe as Jamie Foxx. Or his mother as Phylicia Rashad. Or the drummer as Quest Love. It’s like they want to keep reminding us of the problematic white person in this movie, hoping we’ll forget about the “black-ass” cast in this film.
It should also be noted, as a few people in the comments have pointed out, that 22 IS NOT WHITE. Yes, she has a white woman’s voice, but it’s made clear in the film that “her” voice can literally be anything. If I’m not mistaken, I believe 22 even says she picked a middle-aged white woman so as to be more annoying to the Jerri’s (or something like that). If anything, that’s a dig at WHITE people.
Completely ignoring Pixar’s cultural efforts
At the end of their review, Orion writes:
Is it too much to ask for, to be looked at as human. To tell stories that don’t hurt.
Disney/Pixar literally put together a Cultural Trust in making this movie. This was a committee of Black Pixar employees who weighed in on the way the Black community was portrayed. I for one appreciated that they recognized that a movie about the Black community, written and directed by white people, would need Black voices contributing to the development. And I think they did an admirable job. I, and many other Black people, have commented on the barbershop scene as an example of what they got right. (By the way, it should also be noted that the movie was co-directed by Kemp Powers, a Black man.)
Orion makes no mention of this fact. In fact, they completely ignore all of the efforts Pixar made to get the story right. Isn’t that the best of what we can hope for? A studio that makes a valiant and genuine effort to get a cultural community right?
I am not one who thinks only people from a particular culture can write about that culture. I think white people can tell Black stories, Black people can tell Asian stories, straight people can tell LGBTQ+ stories, etc. But, when you decide to tackle stories about communities of which you are not part, you have to do it with respect. I can see no better way to do that than how Pixar did with this trust. To not at least give the film that credit suggests Orion didn’t know (which speaks to them not doing all their homework as a critic), or they knew and chose not to mention that. Neither is good when you write a review where you call a movie an “anti-black train wreck.”
A “love letter to whiteness.” Really?
At one point, Orion writes:
I expected some concessions to white supremacy of course, it surrounds us, touches everything we make and do, the ever present force acting upon us like gravity. But I did not expect this love letter to whiteness (emphasis mine).
While I do believe that vestiges of white supremacy surround us, to call this movie a “love letter to whiteness” is patently, unequivocally, and empirically ridiculous. Seriously. No matter how many valid flaws you may find, to call a movie starring a predominantly Black cast, showing authentic aspects of the Black community, and having a deep respect for jazz music, a “love letter to whiteness,” betrays the extreme bias of this reviewer.
And that’s the overall issue I have with this article. They did not do a fair and impartial review of this film. It was like they summoned all the negative life force of the infamous movie critic Armand White (known for making overly contrarian views of the most beloved films, and who was actually expelled from the New York Fim Critic Association) and poured it into this review. Only, Orion lacks the knowledge of cinematic history that White has. So their review is left feeling like a high school essay that’s trying too hard to be important.
The negative effect on CRT
I believe the work surrounding Critical Race Theory is important in helping right wrongs in a society that has a shit-ton of wrongs to right. I do not think it’s flawless. But it’s important. Unfortunately, it is already getting attacked from all sides. The current (lame) duck President blasts it. The Southern Baptist Convention says it’s unbiblical (how convenient). Reviews like this, which are so clearly biased from the beginning, cast a terrible shadow over CRT, weakening its cause and creating more ammo for critics to use against it (as many of the comments to this post have shown).
It is for this reason I got my black-ass out of bed earlier than I would have liked. It is for this reason I’ve spent over an hour writing a response. My hope is that those of you who have not seen this movie, will not let this review deter you, and watch it with your own eyes, not colored by misinterpretations and racial rhetoric.
And to you Lennox, I genuinely appreciate your passion for the cause of racial justice and the work you do. I hope you do not take this review of your review personally. It is not an attack. I just feel like you missed the boat on this one. That is unfortunate because Soul really is a beautiful movie, a beautiful story, and has an important message.