Howard University Alumni Are Holding it Down in Pixar’s Soul
Pixar is about to drop their first animated feature with Jazz as a backdrop and Black people as the leading characters. Not to mention that one half of the directing team is Kemp Powers (who is also the Screenwriter for Regina King’s directorial feature debut “One Night In Miami”) and it stars Jaime Foxx, Phylicia Rashad, Tina Fey and Angela Bassett. Rotten Tomatoes Correspondent Jacqueline Coley moderated Q&A’s with those stars along with Director Pete Doctor which was lively, insightful and chock full of tidbits. Here are some excerpts from that conversation.
When asked about culminating all of his talents into one role coupled with animation, Foxx replied, “…my youngest daughter was like, yeah, Dad, you’ve done animation but not the good kind. I said, what you mean? You’re at Pixar now. You made it.” But, was Jaime’s character Joe Gardner always going to be Black Jazz musician? Absolutely not. Pete Doctor breaks it down a little further, “…we played around, for a little while, with an actor or a scientist. But as soon as we found a jazz musician, that felt very selfless. You don’t go into jazz to get rich and famous, you know? You do it, because you love it…you have a passion for it. It’s fascinating to watch. When you see somebody play, they’re just amazing and it’s like, a magic trick. So, as soon as one of our consultants called jazz Black improvisational music, we realized, we had to make Joe Gardner a Black man from that culture which brought us this great American art form.”
Just who were these consultants? “Britta Wilson was a great partner to me regarding who those outer consultants were gonna be. He just mentioned Dr. Johnetta Cole. We brought in Daveed Diggs and were lucky enough to hang out with Ryan Kuebler, Bradford Young, Questlove, Jon Batiste and met with a lot of working musicians in New York City and in Emeryville. He’s an incredible genius. A historian who really brought a lot of life to Joe’s character” explained producer Dana Murray.
Of course, I had to shoutout my Bison Brotha’ Kemp Powers and ask how influential was his experience at Howard University with making Joe unapologetically Black and creating that world for him in SOUL ? Kemp proudly replied, “… Howard taught ‘me’ to be unapologetically Black, you know? I think Howard folks, Bison, we have a-a reputation of being arrogant among the HBCUs. They’re mistaking our confidence for arrogance. It was like one of the wonderful things about watching a Black Panther and seeing how it inspired people. I remember coming out of that, looking over to my son and saying, now will you consider going to Howard? ‘Cause that’s like Wakanda. You know what I mean? Like, everybody from the scientist to the historians to the artist to the set-like, everybody is Black. He goes on to say, “…it just shows you the multitudes we possess within our own community, as opposed to people telling you what you can’t do, you really do come out of there feeling like the sky is the limit. I mean, just the people that were peers of mine, either in my class, a couple of years ahead or behind me. Folks like Ta-Nehisi Coates (Between the World and Me), award-winning poets, writers who were just classmates. While it’s possible to withstand all the arrows that are gonna be slung at us, I can’t speak to how much energy I was able to pull out of just four or five years of just being in an environment, a black environment where I was nurtured.
Of course, Kemp isn’t the only Bison in SOUL, Emmy and Tony winner Phylicia Rashad plays Joe Gardner’s Mom, who is a real dreamsnatcher, When asked if she had someone pushing to follow her dreams and giving her gut checks Rashad said, “…Well, you know, just because you push somebody to follow their dreams, doesn’t mean you’re not given a gut check. Sometimes that’s a gut check too, because people have dreams and aspirations they might be a little leery and not accustomed to following their inner inspiration. Listening to themselves for real is sometimes a real gut check. To tell somebody to follow that dream and be bold enough to believe in it.”
And what about when that creative spark was ignited that has allowed audiences to enjoy her talent for decades? “…when I was 11 years old, stood in a spotlight, and couldn’t see anything but light. I held a script of everything I was supposed to say, but because I’d been rehearsed so thoroughly, I knew it by heart. So, I just talked to the light all night long. I heard someone say, “There she is… there’s the little girl who spoke so beautifully. Isn’t she beautiful?” Well, you know, that’s manna from heaven, for an 11-yearold. Especially one who doesn’t think herself pretty at all and I thought, “When I grow up, I’ll be an actress. I’ll play in the light.” And be beautiful all the time.”
We can all agree that Phylicia Rashad is a classic and timeless beauty who has now been preserved for all time in Pixar animation as has the incomparable Jaime Foxx. Remember SOUL drops on Christmas Day via Pixar. Until then, here’s a little preview for ya’