White Danish actor ruffles feathers with portrayal of black musician in Pixar film

Supporters of Nikolaj Lie Kaas contend that his performance is better than Jamie Foxx’s

Nikolaj Lie Kaas: the face behind the soul (photo: Black Corsair)
January 8th, 2021 8:30 pm| by Ben Hamilton

The casting of Nikolaj Lie Kaas in the leading role in the Danish-language version of the new Pixar film ‘Soul’ has stoked controversy – because he is white and the character Joe is a black jazz musician living in the USA.

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Berlingske was quick to pounce, finding two prominent Danes willing to condemn the castings: Asta Sekamane, a board member of Afro Danish Collective, and Mira C Skadegård, an assistant professor at the Department of Culture and Learning at Aalborg University.

According to Sekamane, Pixar has missed an opportunity to give the role to a black performer – particularly in light of the recent Black Lives Matter demonstrations. 

Skadegård concurred, pointing out that “there is an expectation [in Denmark] that a non-white actor is not as competent”.

“If we do not do away with this tendency to obliterate our minorities and keep minorities in secondary positions, then we will not do away with discrimination,” she argued.

Hardly a huge choice of performers
But others said the casting simply reflected the dearth of black performers in Denmark.

“I doubt if the mass of actors is large enough. Because it’s not just a voice; it requires significant acting as well,” Lars Thiesgaard, a seasoned performer in such translations, told DR.

“I’m working on a film in which there are three elderly black women. I cannot immediately think of many black, female actors in Denmark who are over 60 years old.”

Two black performers cast in the film, the rapper Al Agami and music producer and X Factor judge Remee, are also supportive of the casting of Kaas, with Agami contending to DR that he’s actually better than Jamie Foxx, who plays Joe in the original version. 

As Olivier said: It’s just acting, dear boy
The actor himself has also rejected the criticism via Facebook. “Every day I go to work, I pretend to be someone else,” Kaas argued.

“I’ve played people who are smarter than me or more stupid than me – who I don’t understand or don’t share opinions with at all. I am so grateful to be allowed to engage myself in how others think and feel, to be allowed to defend them, and every day gain a far better understanding of people who are not me.”

Remee was equally philosophical about the casting, observing to DR: “We all need to just breathe, pet the horse, make room for artistic freedom, enjoy how far we have come, and distinguish between what is intentional or unconscious racism.”

‘Soul’ premiered in Denmark on Disney+ on December 25.