“There’s Technicolor and Cinemascope, a cast out a Hollywood, and the popcorn from the candy store, makes it all seem twice as good.” — “Saturday Night at The Movies” The Drifters (1964)
It’s the ritual Americans do. It’s a ritual we’ve done since the beginning of “picture shows” and in more normal times we do it all year. We do, really put a bigger emphasis on it as we watch the days grow shorter in the northern hemisphere. What are the holidays without going to see a movie? We gather during holidays around a screen and watch the latest and greatest grab for our dollars from Tinseltown.
I honestly look forward to it with a glee most likely fueled by a sugar rush because the saccharine treats of the season multiply like rabbits. It’s a ritual established in my childhood with the likes of Ms. Doubtfire. Nearly 30 years later the ritual still stands.
The arid cold of an air conditioned movie theater is not as much of an escape in November or December as it is when it’s hotter than July. The movies are oft less “action” and they head for your heart, attempting to hug you and hold your heart in warmth. The movies are often honestly not good. Not good for you. Filled with junk that’s horrible for you to consume. In the instance of my last year’s enthusiastic choice (Cats), some should only be viewed in nearly empty theaters where all viewers are on copious amounts of psychedelics.
I don’t expect much from the holiday blockbuster.
I think I’m wise enough to know not to expect much from pop culture art these days
No earth shattering revelations, nothing of substance.
There are obvious movies swinging for awards season accolades, and those have special places in my heart, prompting a push against static stoicism and prompting a tear from their more embodied tales. In the darkness of a movie theater, it’s easier to shed cathartic tears that may or may not have to do with the moment you’re in compared to the asinine artificial light stapled and pinned to every corner of the American Holiday Season.
This year, in a host of places, movie palaces are dimmer and darker because of the pandemic. Dimmer and darker compared to the Christmas Lights strung unevenly on some houses, with the rigor of a geometry major on others. A great deal of us are parked in front of our televisions, streaming the latest wares from Hollywood, under bright lights. Able to tweet, text and Tik Tok our reactions to these movies immediately.
The two big Christmas Day movies this year seem to be Wonder Woman 1984 and Soul.
I’m not touching Wonder Woman the sequel because I rolled my eyes not only at the plot line of Chris Pine’s dick being the key to the meaning of life and humanity for Diana in the 2017 movie that preceded this one. Woke me can’t ignore the fact that Gal Gadot is a *white* feminist icon and a Zionist former Israeli soldier. Woke me can’t stomach more than 2 and a half hours of white lady feminism in the year that brought us “Wall of Moms” and Jessica Krug usurping Black death for celebrity status this summer.
Soul is the little movie that has tried to conquer the world in the pandemic, sheepishly winking that it wasn’t fully finished in Pixar’s Emeryville studios, but most likely in 1920’s Bungalows, Condos and apartments scattered around the Bay Area as this region took shelter-in-place strongest and steadiest in the country this year. Pixar movies try and in some cases succeed at trying to warm our hearts, to prompt us to be better humans by coloring outside of the lines with their vibrant and innovative animation style.
It was supposed to be released on Juneteeth this year, the same year our new vice-president Kamala Harris said it should be a holiday for all Americans, not just those that celebrate it because they’re descendants of chattel slavery in the United States and Americas. It specifically wanted that date to be the first Pixar movie with a Black main protagonist. We all should know better by this point. Anything claiming to be for Blackness from the halls of whiteness; it’s been multiple decades before Pixar gave any thought to a Black Lives orientated film, should be treated with suspicion. A fine tooth’d comb for analysis. And plenty of room for disappointment in the reality that it may have failed its ambition at building a bridge.
It’s the movie that has tried to have it both ways before eyes were laid on it. It tries to hang out in the space of Post-Obama Post Racial America (that should be an academic acronym. How does POPRA sound?) while still relying on the burden of the loaded word of *soul* on African American artistic practices, the unique family bonds Black people maintain with matriarchy holding remarkable power. It wants to wink, joke and hint at the earthly discrimination of hailing a cab in New York City while Black, still.
It wants to cheat death.
It wants to cheat reality without fully embracing fantasy.
It doesn’t want to give pure fantasy to those bodies that might need it most.
Especially after this year.
More Black bodies have become “Souls” this year statistically than white ones due to COVID-19. Black, Brown and Indigenous bodies have kept this crumbling society moving in the hellscape with the volume turned up to 11 this year. Your bus drivers, your sanitation workers, your utility workers, your Amazon packagers and delivery drivers. Your afterschool program coordinators. Somehow within that I did see the spark, the inspiration of Soul that way, no one fights for the gifts of existence like those that feel oppression in their DNA but smell jasmine, feel the light of the October sun against the crisp wind in Queens and feel a song in their heart dropping a needle on a Shirley Scott LP.
It wants to explain that souls have no race, but come in contact with mentors, mentors like Muhammad Ali who were so proud of their embodied reality, that have existences highly informed by their earthly race and the embodied earthly realities of existing in those bodies. It confesses that the administrators of fate are overloading earth with narcissists but they fail to actually correct it before allowing those souls a pass into tangible reality, a crack to embody the worst trait existence has to offer. Does that structurally tie our existing lives to white pre-life, white narcissism and anxiety, is there any escape from whiteness?
It ties creative bliss and obsession, neurosis, doubt and depression to the same plane of otherworldly existence. It lets its actual co-lead, a pre-Soul named 22 “test drive” more than 400 times while still protesting any commitment to existence, as if life is comparing a Lexus to an Infiniti to an Audi and deciding all of them don’t have adequate seat warmers.
It’s with weird irony that Kemp Powers, who gets a writing and co-director credit, has another one of his works about being embodied as a Black Artist Male Artist, albeit in a mid-century context, with the soon-to-be-streaming adaptation of his One Night In Miami being released the same day. That work is grounded in the earthly reality of early 1964, a conversation between Black Male performers surrounding Cassius Clay deciding to change his name to Muhammad Ali. It finds Sam Cooke post the death of his son, post the realities of being bilked again out of his earnings by white record distributors, booking managers and promoters, finding his records stalling outside of the Pop Top 10, being an aging teen idol in his early 30’s, watching the rise of other Black enterprises like Mary Wells and Martha & The Vandellas funded Motown horn in on his territory which he can’t recognize Dinah Washington opened up for him.
Soul has to stand against those words from one of its main creative forces reinterpreting conversations he wasn’t a part of but knows too well. It has to share space with a documentary on Billie Holiday, and soon a new Billie Holiday biopic from the always questionable Lee Daniels. It has to live within the reality that the woman most famous as a purveyor of the form of music that Soul mischaracterizes as “soul” was targeted, harassed, and more or less killed by the United States government. It has to live in its light, accessible to children’s reality right next to the visceral reality of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’s aggressive belt against whiteness, and those that inhabit bodies of whiteness have always wanted to steal and sell Black voices and care nothing about our souls. “In the sixties,” said the songwriter and producer Gerry Goffin, “God was a young black girl who could sing.” Gerry Goffin went on to father a child with a goddess but never fairly tithed to said god with actual earthly resources.
If anything it does positively, it shows that concepts of whiteness have nothing to teach us. It’s unclear if Joe actually learns to love the various fleeting flashing moments in his life that are haphazardly tacked on at the end of the movie. We don’t get to experience Joe living more in the moment, whether that’s in the zone at the piano or another slice of pie on a snowy day at his favorite diner. It is clear that 22 has learned way too quickly that one way to annoy the fuck out of a Black Soul is to be voiced by middle aged Tina Fey, whose greatest cultural accomplishment, 30 Rock, is riddled with instances of Black and Brown Face 100 years after Al Jolson did it. 22 knows which costumes are full of experiences, which costumes are empty pranks.
It temporarily, fleetingly shows the sacrifices Black families, and in particular Black women, make to nurture and foster creativity in our communities. It doesn’t give enough time to show how the art of the stitch or the supper is equally as important as tickling the ivories or a saxophone solo. You can’t create while naked, cold, hungry and homeless. That good full time job with benefits is the compromise you have to, should make to keep your creativity alive, because healthcare is still not a human right, even in the midst of a pandemic in the “greatest” city in the “greatest” nation in the world.
I actually watched Soul twice.
Once in the jazzy inebriation of Christmas night, the second time in the cold sobriety of Boxing Day with a pile of dishes to wash. Both times I tried to dig deeper to find its soul, hoping it would lend inspiration that I knew it wanted to offer. It inspired me oddly, to go perusing Eddie Murphy’s filmography, reminding myself I hadn’t watched Dolemite Is My Name yet.
And there I found soul.