Lost in translation? Pixar's Soul faces backlash over whitewashed dubbing practice in Europe

The New York Times
·7-min read

Like most of their counterparts around the world, Danish film critics initially greeted Soul, Pixar's first animated feature to focus on Black characters and African American culture, with rapture, hailing its sensitive, joyful portrayal of a jazz musician on a quest to live a meaningful life.

The film was described as "a miracle," by one reviewer in Denmark, "beautiful and life-giving" by another.

What the Danish press did not initially focus on, by and large, was the characters' race. But that changed after the movie's release on 25 December, when realization spread that the Danish-language version had been dubbed primarily by white actors. This is also the case in many other European-language versions of Soul.

While in most countries, the film's voice-over casting has barely registered with the public, in Portugal, more than 17,000 have signed a petition calling on Pixar to remake the local edition with actors of colour. "This movie is not just another movie, and representation matters," the petition states.

Joe Gardner, the main character in Soul, is Pixar's first Black protagonist. And the studio took steps to accurately represent African American culture, hiring Kemp Powers as a co-director and installing a "cultural trust" to safeguard the story's authenticity. The actor Jamie Foxx, who voices Joe in the English-language original, told The New York Times, "To be the first Black lead in a Pixar film 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 about this and suggested that the casting was an example of structural racism, a fiery controversy erupted, prompting Lie Kaas to issue a statement about why he had accepted the role.

"My position with regards to any job is very simple," he wrote on Facebook. "Let the man or woman who can perform the work in the best possible way to get the job."

A still from Soul | Twitter
A still from Soul | Twitter

A still from Soul | Twitter

Asta Selloane Sekamane, one of the activists who criticized the casting in the Berlingske article, said in an interview that no one can claim there wasn't enough Black talent to fill the main roles, because actors of colour were hired to voice some of the minor parts. "It can't be the constant excuse, this idea that we can't find people who live up to our standards," she added. "That's an invisible bar that ties qualification to whiteness."

Mira Skadegard, a professor at Aalborg University in Denmark who researches discrimination and inequality, said the resistance to accusations of structural racism was unsurprising. "In Denmark, we have a long history of denial when it comes to racism, and a deep investment in the ideal of equality," she said.

"We don't really understand this as a critique of institutions and structures; we see it as a critique of who we are," she added.

In Denmark and Portugal, dubbing is generally reserved for animation and for children's programs. But in other European countries, including France, Germany, Italy and Spain, most mainstream films from abroad are dubbed, and the practice is seen as an art in its own right €" one that rests on the practitioners' ability to make themselves unobtrusive.

"The best dubbing should pass by completely undetected," said Juan Logar, a leading Spanish dubbing director and voice actor.

"My job is to find the voice that best matches the original," said Logar. "Black, white, Asian, it doesn't matter."

Charles Rettinghaus, a German dubbing artist, expressed a similar sentiment. In his 40-year career, he has been the voice of actors including Jean-Claude Van Damme and Javier Bardem, but he said he felt a special connection with Jamie Foxx, whom he has covered in more than 20 films, including the German version of Soul.

Although he is white, Rettinghaus said he had not felt pressured to step away from any Black roles, adding that the same opportunities should apply to actors of all races. "It doesn't matter if you are Black, you should be and are allowed to dub anything," he said. "Why shouldn't you play a white actor or an Indian or an Asian?"

An undated image provided by Kaze Uzumaki, of the German actor Kaze Uzumaki, who voices the role of Paul in the German version of Soul. The Danish-language version of Pixar's 'Soul' has been dubbed primarily by white actors fueling a debate about structural racism and fanned anger about stereotyping and prejudice in European-language voice-overs, even when films have main characters of color. (Kaze Uzumaki via The New York Times)
An undated image provided by Kaze Uzumaki, of the German actor Kaze Uzumaki, who voices the role of Paul in the German version of Soul. The Danish-language version of Pixar's 'Soul' has been dubbed primarily by white actors fueling a debate about structural racism and fanned anger about stereotyping and prejudice in European-language voice-overs, even when films have main characters of color. (Kaze Uzumaki via The New York Times)

An undated image provided by Kaze Uzumaki, of the German actor Kaze Uzumaki, who voices the role of Paul in the German version of Soul. (Kaze Uzumaki via The New York Times)

Kaze Uzumaki, a Black colleague of Rettinghaus, said it was more complicated than that. Uzumaki dubs the character of Paul in Soul and has lent his voice to the German versions of dozens of other American films and television series. Almost without exception, his roles were originally played by actors of colour.

"At first, I really didn't like it," he said. "But I figured I was more comfortable with me speaking the role than a lot of other white colleagues who don't have a good knowledge of the English language and can't really tell what a Black person sounds like."

Uzumaki said that he had dubbed doctors of colour in hospital shows, only to be told by the director that he sounded "too educated."

"They don't even realize that they're being racist," Uzumaki said. "But every time a director says something like, 'No, you sound too polished; you know how they talk, right?' I feel like I've been hit with a stick in the face."

The discrimination is often double-edged. Ivo Chundro, a Dutch actor of colour who dubbed the part of Paul in Soul for distribution in the Netherlands, said, "Directors will only cast white actors for white parts, and tell actors of colour, 'No, your voice isn't white enough.'"

Some directors say that demographics limit who they select. "In Spain, we don't have a second generation of immigrants yet," said Logar. "Except for a few very young kids, there aren't a lot of Black actors who were born here and speak Spanish without an accent."

Actors of colour like Chundro and Uzumaki contend that those directors simply aren't looking hard enough. But there are signs that things are starting to change. In 2007, a dubbing director in France told actress Yasmine Modestine that, because she was mixed race, her voice wasn't right for a part. Based on her complaint, the French equal opportunities commission investigated the dubbing industry as a whole and found a culture of prejudice and stereotyping.

Since then, the opportunities for voice actors of colour 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 lent her voice to roles played originally by white actresses, such as Amanda Seyfried and Jamie-Lynn Sigler.

"I love dubbing precisely because it's a space of freedom," she said. "Where you're not limited by your physical appearance."

Chundro said that 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 as helping open eyes to enduring racism.

"I used to have a lot of discussions about racism where people just didn't get it," Chundro said. But the protest "was like a bandage being ripped off a wound, and since then, it's been much easier to talk about," he added.

With that greater awareness has come more opportunities, he said. "There's more work out there, and I'm getting cast a lot more."

Sekamane, the Danish activist, also credited the movement with changing attitudes. "I'm 30 years old, and my whole life I've been told racism is in my head," she said. "It's only in the last year, thanks to Black Lives Matter, that the conversation has started to change."

Lisa Abend c.2021 The New York Times Company

Also See: In Netflix's Bridgerton, Shonda Rhimes provides a blueprint on racial inclusion within period dramas

Spike Lee's daughter, son selected as Golden Globes ambassadors

After Bob Dylan, Neil Young sells 50 percent of his song catalogue rights to British company

Read more on Entertainment by Firstpost.