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It’s been a year of big change for Blackness in animation

Pixar is releasing ‘Soul,’ Matthew Cherry won an Oscar for ‘Hair Love,’ and Cleveland is finally voiced by a Black actor

This Christmas, Pixar Animation Studios will release Soul, its first feature film starring a Black character. Jamie Foxx voices Joe, a band teacher and pianist who hops from gig to gig in his off hours, hoping for the big break that will launch a full-time career as a jazz musician.

Looking for other full-length animated features starring Black human protagonists, it quickly becomes clear how rare they are. Anika Noni Rose made history by voicing Princess Tiana in 2009’s The Princess and the Frog. Rihanna helmed 2015’s Home, about a girl who befriends a lost alien. There’s also Bébé’s Kids (1992), and the Oscar-winning Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018).

But Blackness in animation has a fraught, often painful history that belies the innocence and magic associated with the form. Perhaps the most egregious example is Song of the South, Walt Disney’s notorious 1946 hand-drawn paean to the Lost Cause.

Anika Noni Rose was the voice of Princess Tiana in Walt Disney’s “The Princess and the Frog,” which was released widely on Dec. 11, 2009.

From the Everett Collection/Walt Disney Co.

Animated feature films often take years and small armies of people to complete, even when they’re aided by computer-generated technology, as is the case with most modern animation. The arrival of Soul is noteworthy, in part, because of Pixar’s reputation for emotionally perceptive storytelling and a lush visual language that resonates with both children and adults. See: Up, Inside Out, or the Toy Story films. Its newest film is co-written and directed by Pixar regular Pete Docter (Inside Out, Monsters, Inc.) and One Night in Miami playwright Kemp Powers (Disney owns Pixar and The Undefeated).

“Animation is just super way longer, definitely a way more extensive process and way more meticulous and detailed,” said Matthew A. Cherry, the Oscar-winning co-director of Hair Love, in a recent interview. “Coming from the indie space, I’m so used to just working with what I have. If we could only afford this one particular location and the walls aren’t the color you wanted or the furniture isn’t right, you just got to be like, ‘OK, we’ll just make it work.’ With animation, it’s, you’re quite literally creating worlds from scratch, so every detail — what style is the furniture? You have to pull references for everything from furniture to backgrounds to sets to characters. I’ve just never worked in a medium that was that much attention to detail.

“You ask nine out of 10 people what their favorite movie is or movies, and I guarantee you an animated film is going to be in that list, be that Lion King or Beauty and the Beast or Spider-Verse or Incredibles or whatever.”

“When I was really little, Winnie the Pooh was my favorite animated series,” Cherry said. “I remember I made my dad — I loved it so much, this was back when video stores were a thing. My dad rented that movie so many times back to back because I just wanted to keep watching it. The video store just gave it to him. They were like, ‘You probably bought this movie 10 times over at this point, you can just have it.’ ”

Pixar animation artist and Canvas director Frank E. Abney III, who was a producer on Hair Love, offers an idea of what the creative process is like to generate a single scene for The Incredibles. Imagine expanding it for an entire 120-minute movie:

Because it’s so time- and labor-intensive, animated films can often serve as a bulwark against the instinct to make features that overtly reflect contemporary issues. Instead, they rely heavily on themes and tropes that are likely to remain relevant five years after a project begins. That’s also why many animated features are regarded as classics, shared from generation to generation. Dear Basketball and Hair Love, winners of the Oscar for best animated short, and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse are all stories about Black children that are highly relatable. Dear Basketball is about finding one’s purpose and passion. Hair Love centers on how parents communicate care and affection through simple rituals. And Spider-Verse is a coming-of-age story about battling existential villains. Like Soul, Pixar’s recent releases of Coco and the short Bao, along with Disney’s Moana, portend a universe expanding beyond a default whiteness.

It’s easier to get a more comprehensive idea of the evolution of animation by looking at television, and some of the changes that occurred just this year. For example, it wasn’t unusual, especially in television, for white actors to voice Black characters, essentially performing aural blackface. It wasn’t until this year that white showrunners and actors began to respond to long-standing calls to stop voicing characters of color with white actors. There’s a litany of examples.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, along with Dear Basketball and Hair Love, are all stories about Black children that are highly relatable.

Columbia Pictures / courtesy Everett Collection

Mike Henry was the voice of Cleveland Brown, first on the long-running Fox comedy Family Guy and then its spinoff, The Cleveland Show. Though The Cleveland Show was short-lived, the character remains a staple of Family Guy. But it wasn’t until the show’s 18th season, which began airing in September, that the show cast a Black actor, Arif Zahir, to voice Cleveland. This year was also the year the comedian Ayo Edebiri took over the role of Missy in Netflix’s Big Mouth, which was originally voiced by Jenny Slate. After initially announcing that Kristen Bell would voice the character of a Black biracial child named Molly in Central Park, an animated musical series that airs on Apple TV+, the show and its creator Loren Bouchard changed course after public backlash and accusations of vocal whitewashing. Molly’s parents are voiced by Kathryn Hahn and Leslie Odom Jr. The role of Molly has since been recast with Emmy Raver-Lampman, an experienced theater actor who was part of the original Broadway company of Hamilton.

Bouchard released a mea culpa via Twitter on June 24, after racial injustice became the lead story of the summer, following the deaths of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Ahmaud Arbery.

This is not solely an issue for Black characters. In 2017, comedian Hari Kondabolu released the documentary The Problem With Apu, which drew attention to the fact that a white actor, Hank Azaria, was playing an Indian character on The Simpsons. Kondabolu faced a backlash and death threats for pointing out that Apu, as he was being written and performed, was racist. Azaria, who had voiced the character since 1990, finally retired from the role in 2020, two years after he told Stephen Colbert on The Late Show that he was “perfectly happy and willing to step aside” from playing the convenience store owner.

Especially with television, animation can be more than just a space of childhood escape. The Lucas Bros. have repeatedly revisited its well to render images and ideas that are fantastical or narcotic-infused. “You can talk about serious issues, but when it’s in the guise of animation, it seems more playful. People seem to keep their ears and eyes open when animation’s on screen, irrespective of what that message is,” Keith Lucas explained in a 2017 interview with The Undefeated.

In 2020, Matthew A. Cherry won the Oscar for his best animated short Hair Love.

Sony Pictures Releasing / courtesy Everett Collection

Documentary director Roger Ross Williams used animation in his 2016 film Life, Animated to tell the story of Owen Suskind, a man on the autism spectrum who didn’t speak as a child. His parents used Disney movies to communicate with Suskind, and it became their vehicle for developing a deeper relationship with their son. Williams used original animations to visualize Suskind’s more complicated emotions. Director Terence Nance frequently incorporates animation into his live-action film and television projects, particularly An Oversimplification of Her Beauty and HBO’s Random Acts of Flyness. (He was originally named as the director of the upcoming Space Jam sequel starring LeBron James, but was replaced this summer by Malcolm D. Lee.)

Because of its heavy associations with childhood and innocence, animation can also be an ideal vehicle for subversion. The original Space Jam is, on some level, a story about a dispute over exploitation between labor and capital — something that becomes more apparent when one introduces cannabis to the viewing experience. Then there are projects that are more overt and less allegorical, such as The Boondocks (adapted from the Aaron McGruder comic strip), and Adult Swim’s Lazor Wulf (about a wolf with a laser on his back, not the butcher from Fiddler on the Roof).

Independent animation, like its live-action counterpart, is where viewers find material that’s actually risque. In his 1975 film Coonskin, director Ralph Bakshi used satire and grotesque exaggerations and stereotypes to explore the history of antiblack animation, as a direct response to Disney and Song of the South. The company’s history was littered with anti-Blackness, coded within characters such as Mickey Mouse, King Louie of The Jungle Book, Song of the South’s Uncle Remus. The studio wasn’t alone in that regard, of course. The “Censored Eleven” refers to Warner Bros. properties that have been deemed too racist for widespread public consumption, although you can find most of them on YouTube. As well-intentioned as Bakshi may have been, his work was not greeted by Black people as racially progressive. After a screening at Manhattan’s Museum of Modern Art, Elaine Parker, then the chair of the Harlem chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality, called Coonskin “a form of mental pollution.”

But sometimes history can offer poetic bits of symmetry. Director Ayoka Chenzira created one of the first animated shorts by a Black woman, a 1984 satire called Hairpiece: A Film for Nappyheaded People, aimed at challenging the ways Black hair was considered “bad.”

In 2020, Cherry won the Oscar for best animated short for a film he financed with a crowdfunding campaign. His film has been part of a years-long push to end discrimination against Black workers, students, and athletes for the ways they wear their hair. That’s a 36-year trajectory.

But Cherry, who is working on more animation projects, is bullish about the future, even for say, a Black abstract artist with animations inspired by the work of someone like Romare Bearden.

“I think there really are great opportunities to tell all kinds of stories in animation and all it’s going to take, really, is just a studio to take that risk,” Cherry said. “I would love to see a horror movie in animation, a family drama, a biopic. I think there’s so many ways that a story can be told — I would say documentary filmmaking, a comedy special, I think you could really see. I think things like that [will] start to happen, all it’s going to take is one person to do it.”

Liner Notes

Notable Black Film Animation (features and shorts)

Hairpiece: A Film for Nappyheaded People (1984)

Bebe’s Kids (1992)

The Princess and the Frog (2009)

Home (2015)

Dear Basketball (2017) winner, best animated short Oscar

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018) winner, best animated feature Oscar

Hair Love (2020) winner, best animated short Oscar

Canvas (2020)

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the culture critic for The Undefeated. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts, and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism, and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on black life.