Pixar’s ‘Soul’ Has a Black Hero. In Denmark, a White Actor Dubs the Voice.
COPENHAGEN – Like most of their peers around the world, Danish film critics first hailed “Soul,” Pixar’s first animated feature film that enthusiastically focused on black characters and African American culture, and praised the sensitive, joyful portrayal of a jazz musician on a quest for one meaningful life.
The film has been described as “a miracle” by one reviewer in Denmark and “beautiful and life-giving” by another.
What the Danish press, by and large, initially failed to focus on was the race of the characters. However, that changed after the film was released on December 25th, when the knowledge spread that the Danish-language version had been dubbed mainly by white actors. This is also the case in many other European-language versions of “Soul”.
While the movie’s voice-over casting is barely public knowledge in most countries, in Portugal more than 17,000 have signed a petition asking Pixar to redesign the local edition with color cast members. “This film is not just another film, and representation is important,” the petition said.
Joe Gardner, the main character in “Soul”, is Pixar’s first black protagonist. The studio took steps to accurately portray African American culture by hiring Kemp Powers as co-director and establishing a “cultural trust” to ensure the authenticity of the story. Actor Jamie Foxx, who voices Joe in the English-language original, told the New York Times: “Playing the first black lead in a Pixar movie feels like a blessing.”
In the Danish version, Joe is voiced by Nikolaj Lie Kaas, who is white. When the national newspaper Berlingske interviewed scholars and activists who expressed their disappointment with the fact that the casting was an example of structural racism, a heated controversy erupted which led Lie Kaas to issue an explanation as to why he was accepted the role.
“My position in relation to any job is very simple,” he wrote on Facebook. “Let the man or woman who can do the job the best they can get the job.”
Asta Selloane Sekamane, one of the activists who criticized the casting in the Berlingske article, said in an interview that no one could say there wasn’t enough black talent to star because color actors were hired to cast some of the votes express smaller parts. “It can’t be the constant excuse, this idea that we can’t find people who meet our standards,” she added. “It’s an invisible bar that connects qualification with white.”
Mira Skadegard, a professor at Aalborg University in Denmark who studies discrimination and inequality, said resistance to allegations of structural racism was not surprising. “In Denmark we have a long history of denial about racism and a deep investment in the ideal of equality,” she said.
“We don’t really see this as a criticism of institutions and structures. We see it as a criticism of who we are, ”she added.
In Denmark and Portugal, dubbing is generally reserved for animation and children’s programs. In other European countries, including France, Germany, Italy, and Spain, most mainstream foreign films are dubbed and the practice is viewed as an art in its own right – one based on practitioners’ ability to be inconspicuous.
“The best dubbing should go completely undetected,” said Juan Logar, a leading Spanish dubbing director and voice actor.
“My job is to find the voice that best fits the original,” said Logar. “Black, white, Asian, it doesn’t matter.”
The German voice actor Charles Rettinghaus expressed a similar feeling. In his 40-year career, he has been the voice of actors such as Jean-Claude Van Damme and Javier Bardem, but he said he feels a special connection with Jamie Foxx, who he has featured in more than 20 films, including the German version of “soul”.
Despite being white, Rettinghaus said he didn’t feel compelled to abstain from any black roles, adding that the same opportunities should apply to actors of all races. “It doesn’t matter if you’re black, you should and are allowed to synchronize everything,” he said. “Why shouldn’t you play a white actor or an Indian or an Asian?”
Kaze Uzumaki, a black colleague from Rettinghaus, said it was more complicated. Uzumaki names the character of Paul in “Soul” and has lent his voice to the German versions of dozens of other American films and TV series. Almost without exception, his roles were originally played by color actors.
“I really didn’t like it at first,” he said. “But I thought I would feel more comfortable doing the role than many other white colleagues who don’t have a good command of the English language and can’t really tell what a black person sounds like.”
Uzumaki said he called color doctors on hospital shows only to learn from the director that he sounded “too educated.”
“They don’t even realize that they are racist,” said Uzumaki. “But every time a director says something like, ‘No, you sound too polished. You know how to talk, right? ‘I feel like I’ve been hit in the face with a stick. “
Discrimination is often double-edged. Ivo Chundro, a Dutch color actor who named the role of Paul in “Soul” for distribution in the Netherlands, said: “The directors will only cast white actors for white parts and tell the color actors: ‘No, your voice is not’ . t know enough. ‘”
Some directors say demographics limit choices. “We don’t have a second generation of immigrants in Spain,” said Logar. “Except for a few very young children, there aren’t many black actors born here who speak Spanish without an accent.”
Color actors like Chundro and Uzumaki claim that these directors just don’t look too closely. But there are signs that things are gradually changing. In 2007 a voice actor in France told actress Yasmine Modestine that her voice was wrong for a role because she was a mixed race. Following her complaint, the French Equal Opportunities Commission examined the dubbing industry as a whole and found a culture of prejudice and stereotypes.
Since then, the possibilities for voice actors of color have expanded there. Fily Keita, who voiced Lupita Nyong’o in the French-language version of “Black Panther”, said that she didn’t feel held back as a black actor working in the industry. She has also cast roles that were originally played by white actresses such as Amanda Seyfried and Jamie-Lynn Sigler.
“I love to dub because it’s a space of freedom,” she said. “Where you are not limited by your looks.”
Chundro, the Dutch actor, said the Black Lives Matter movement was starting to shift the conversation around race and representation in the Netherlands. He cited a demonstration in Amsterdam in June to open eyes to ongoing racism.
“I used to have a lot of discussions about racism that people just didn’t understand,” said Chundro. But the protest “was like a bandage torn from a wound and it’s been a lot easier to talk about since then,” he added.
With that greater awareness, there are more possibilities, he said. “There’s more work out there and I’m getting a lot more busy.”
Sekamane, the Danish activist, also attributed changes in attitudes to the movement. “I’m 30 years old and all my life I’ve been told that racism is on my mind,” she said. “It wasn’t until last year that the conversation changed thanks to Black Lives Matter.”