Black Musicians & The Purpose of Life

Soul (Disney+) & Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (Netflix)

Joe Gardner, an aspiring Jazz pianist who roughs it up as a middle school music teacher, has been waiting a very long time for an opening into the big league. On the day of his big break, he dies, goes to a heavenly limbo, begs and cheats his way back to Earth and performs astoundingly on his opening night. When the concert is over, he walks out feeling empty. Why?

Pixar has never shied away from lifting thematic heavyweights, be it addressing the urgency of environmental deterioration in Wall-E or pursuing your passion after retirement in Up. And they've always masqueraded these themes in funny lines and vibrant colors that kids think they're watching a kids film while the adults squirmed introspectively. But with Soul, the final phase of the film sweeps aside the kids and the punch is clearly directed at all the grown-up Joe Gardners we know: you worked hard for that promotion and you got promoted, but why aren't you satisfied? you waited a long time to move to Paris, but why aren't you excited after your move? you won the lottery, why aren't you happy now?

When Joe (very bankable Jamie Foxx) dies and his soul goes to an intermediate place called Great Before/Beyond, he's tasked with mentoring an unborn soul, 22, which has a reputation for being very difficult. 22 (brilliantly, annoyingly & self-deprecatingly voiced by Tina Fey) comes across as an ultra-nihilist that she doesn't even see the point of life and she's yet to be born. When a freak accident pushes her down along with Joe to Earth, she starts scared and anxious and gradually warms up to the beauty of living; "I like walking, maybe that's my purpose" she says to which Joe snaps back "That's not a purpose, that's just regular old living".

And that's why Joe's empty after his big blowout performance. When words like 'spark' and 'purpose' are sprinkled on your journey to a destination, you forget to enjoy a simple walk and a slice of pizza. During her brief stay on Earth, 22 learns that life is nothing but a continual series of nows punctuated with getting yelled at in a Subway, having an argument with your mother, enjoying a lollipop and having an honest conversation with your barber. If you can't enjoy that, then you're not living. Every religion and your back alley moral philosopher have been saying this for a long time. Soul conveys the message with panache.


Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is set in a studio on a hot afternoon Chicago in 1927. A jazz troupe (all Black, if you should ask) are scheduled to record an album. Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) is a legendary singer who goes to great lengths to be difficult to everyone around her and Levee Green (Chadwick Boseman) is a trumpeter who's difficult because that's just who he is.

Ma realizes that her glory days are behind her and once her voice is captured on a disc the economic exploitation of her talent by the White establishment (recording, distribution, rights, etc) will leave her behind. She's only trying to squeeze the last drop of respect she can demand from her white manager. Levee is a different story. He's young & dynamic and pissed at the world at large that his genius hasn't been recognized. While Ma has cultivated an angry patience (she waits for 'ice-cold' Coca Cola with everyone exasperated around her), Levee is just angry (he repeatedly kicks a door that leads nowhere, literally).

Dialogs sparkle and sizzle as the troupe evaluate and place themselves at different levels on the social strata. Temperature rises, tension rises. By the end of the film, an album is recorded and a man is killed. A young and vibrant talent is cut short and the movie weeps. An additional tragedy to the viewer is that we recognize the loss of Boseman, one of the finest actors of his generation, who delivers a stellar performance. Like the summer of 2020, this film reminds us that the time to confront racism is always now and the work is never done.

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