'Soul' Dubbing Ignites Controversies Overseas As White Actors Voice Black Lead

Soul struck a chord, not just for its beautiful photorealistic animation nor its wrangling with abstract concepts of the life, purpose, and beyond, but for its genuine depiction of the Black community, centered around lead character Joe (voiced by Jamie Foxx in English). And while a few things can get lost in translation in the film's transition over to European markets, those elements remain crucial to Soul. But one choice by many European markets pertaining to the latter — Joe's Black identity — has come under scrutiny.

In European-language dubs of Soul, The New York Times reports that Joe and other Black characters are frequently voiced by white actors, prompting a backlash in several countries like Denmark and Portugal.

The controversy first broke out in Denmark when people found that Joe is dubbed by white actor Nikolaj Lie Kaas, leading to an outcry that led Lie Kaas to issue a statement on Facebook defending his casting. "My position with regards to any job is very simple," he wrote. "Let the man or woman who can perform the work in the best possible way get the job."

Meanwhile, in Portugal, a petition calling for Soul to be re-dubbed with actors of color has collected more than 17,000 signatures.

The New York Times notes that white actors voice Black characters in many other European dubs of Soul, with a few exceptions like France, where Joe is voiced by Black actor (and recent Lupin standout) Omar Sy. Dubbing artists rarely gain so much attention, but Soul may have alerted people to this issue of white voice artists voicing POC characters — which Hollywood animated shows like Big Mouth, Central Park, The Simpsons, Family Guy, and BoJack Horseman have been reckoning with lately — because the film's depiction of the Black community in New York City is so intrinsic to the story.

This is a complicated subject that not even longtime experts in the animation industry have a concrete answer for. Alex Dudok de Wit wrote about the ongoing debate over diversity in the voice acting industry  in Vulture, noting that some international markets don't have enough actors of color to cover all non-white roles. For example, mostly homogenous countries like Japan or South Korea would likely not be able to hire a Black actor to voice Joe. But while it may be a little unsurprising that a Scandinavian country like Denmark wouldn't have a large pool of Black voice actors, it is a little unusual that Portugal couldn't find one for a high-profile project like the latest Pixar movie.