The Unfortunate Endurance of the ‘Magical Negro’ Trope

Recently, filmmakers have at least attempted to include minority characters as characters rather than tired stereotypes. While the leading men and women in cinema (or even non-leading characters) have yet to reflect the diversity of creeds and colors that constitute the actual population, black characters have at least been rescued from the cinematic purgatory of maids, servants and criminals. Unfortunately, those clichés have often come to be replaced by the more modern but arguably equally dehumanizing “positive” Magical Negro caricature. The Magical Negro, a term coined by Spike Lee- “the super-duper magical negro”, is a black character with some supernatural or preternatural power, inevitably tasked with helping a white person.

If you’ve watched a few Stephen King movies, you’re familiar with the Magical Negro (The Stand, Green Mile, The Shining, et al). Non-King movies incorporating the trope include The Legend of Bagger Vance (which is pretty much nothing but a Magical Negro helping his chosen white succeed), Bruce Almighty, The Matrix, Ghost, The Hudsucker Proxy and many more. To list all of the occurrences of films featuring a Magical Negro without super-duper powers, the “Numinous Negro”, in entertainment media would probably require more memory than this computer has at its disposal.

Use of the word “negro” is a reference to the outdated notions of racial differences and otherness represented by the archetype. Some critics of the trend argue that if the context in which the characters are being portrayed is benign- they’re helpful, friendly and non-threatening, what’s the harm? The problem is- any portrayal of a minority group as something different from “us” (the North American Caucasian majority) positively or negatively, consciously or unconsciously reinforces their differentness. It suggests that those different from us are more societally palatable if they’re being non-threatening and helping Caucasians.

Commonly, Magical Negroes help their white co-characters despite the racism and repression they face- as though that racism and oppression is some free-floating condition, unrelated at all to white people. (When not racism or oppression, or often along with, the Magical Negro characters are very often afflicted with some other mental or physical handicap.) Holding those oppressing them (the established and largely exclusive white power structure) responsible for these setbacks is often not a comfortable position for white viewers.

The Magical Negro, whatever his or her powers, is still subordinate to whites, isn’t “uppity” and doesn’t put on airs. You couldn’t really imagine one of these characters wanting to vote or protesting some prejudice business practice or law. Because of their mystical non-past, mysterious appearance and powers, the Magical Negro is earthy and simple. Blackness that could be a disquieting reminder of social, political and economic inequality (and even *gasp* frustration or anger regarding that inequality!) is whitewashed into less troubling politically-neutral and culturally-bland caricature blackness.

Author Touré conspicuously pointed out in Time magazine, “While some may think it complimentary to be considered ‘magical,’ it is infantilizing and offensive because it suggests black excellence is so shocking it can only come from a source that is supernatural.” It’s no better to cast wise, old, in-tune-with-nature, wilderness magic-equipped Native Indian shaman-y characters. Nor is it kosher for wise, old, enigmatic, mystical Asian characters or pure-hearted, saintly, mystical, developmentally disabled characters to aid white leading men (or women). The fact is- it’s counterproductive for writers, directors and producers to include clichéd representatives from any subgroup as something a little less or more than regular human beings because those characters are different in some superficial way.

Zack Mandell is a movie enthusiast, writer of movie reviews, and owner of www.movieroomreviews.com which has great information on actors such as Aaron Eckhart and films like Iron Man 3. He writes extensively about the movie industry for sites like Gossip Center, Yahoo, NowPublic, and Helium.

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  1. But everyone, of every colour, is “more societally palatable if they’re being non-threatening and helping” other members of the society. That’s not “a suggestion”, that’s the definition of societal palatability.

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