In 1915 legendary filmmaker D.W. Griffith made an astonishing movie called The Birth of a Nation (BOAN), a true epic- arguably the first American (or worldwide) epic film. It featured revolutionary camerawork, a budget that was considered incredibly outlandish at the time, scores of extras and a fast-moving plot. Astonishing as its influence and scope was, BOAN was also astonishingly racist.
Based on a propaganda story called “The Clansmen”, BOAN featured the Ku Klux Klan as heroes and the black characters were portrayed as either sub-human simpletons or evil rapists and murderers. (The “black” characters that interacted with Caucasian actresses were whites playing blackface to avoid what D.W. Griffith referred to as “racial pollution”.) BOAN has the dubious historical distinction of hugely popularizing the Klan and creating or perpetuating a number of ridiculous Southern myths many people still today take for historical fact.
Despite the overt, extreme and ugly racism which defined his film, Griffith was shocked when the NAACP, black intellectuals and anyone else with a reasonable understanding of the reality of race relations railed against BOAN as ahistorically-nonsensical, racist pap. The fury inspired by BOAN was so intense in fact that a number of race riots in the following years were directly attributed to it. To make amends Griffith made another epic called Intolerance that cost millions, did little to dissuade or even really address racism and succeeded in bankrupting a studio. In 1919, Griffith attempted another cinematic mea culpa with his new paean to ethnic harmony and understanding, Broken Blossoms or The Yellow Man and the Girl.
Yup. His Birth of a Nation-response, a statement on racial tolerance and understanding, had a racial slur in the title. The main character, “Cheng” (played by squinting Caucasian Richard Barthelmess) did little to dispel stereotypes of the Chinese during an American outbreak of “yellow peril” in which anything Asian was suspect. Broken Blossoms follows Cheng’s immigration to London as he “dreams to spread the gentle message of Buddha to the Anglo-Saxon lands”. Upon arrival Cheng becomes disenchanted and addicted to opium before falling in love with a white woman. Of course Griffith has them both die rather than be together (Cheng is Chinese after all).
To some degree, D.W. Griffith can be forgiven as a product of his time. His father was a confederate Cavalry soldier who came back from the war humiliated and the US President in office when BOAN was made, Woodrow Wilson, was an outspoken white supremacist (and huge BOAN fan). Unfortunately, Griffith’s strategy of attempted racial reconciliation by way of portraying a minority character in a seemingly positive (sort of) but strange, exotic and mysterious manner, thereby nurturing their “otherness”, continues to this day.
Later this year Disney Studios will release a reboot of The Lone Ranger, starring Armand Hammer (I refuse to call him ‘Armie’, it’s much less funny) as the titular solo ranging cowboy and Johnny Depp as his American Indian sidekick, Tonto. When the original Lone Ranger radio serial, and later the television series, were popular American Indians were either portrayed as faceless, innocent settler-menacing, cowboy-killing fodder or mysterious, often mystical, wise “Noble Savage” archetype sidekicks. They inevitably wore ceremonial-looking clothing and spoke in broken Pidgin English. In an early episode of the TV show Tonto tells the Lone Ranger, “Here hat. Me wash in stream. Dry in sun. Make whiter.”
Of course, with a little historical perspective and cultural evolution Western TV shows and movies began coming around to the unfortunate reality of the actual American Indian experience: less random attacks on innocent settlers and more devastation by genocide, displacement and pandemic, killing disease. Understanding as much has facilitated American Indian characters that are actual developed human beings. However, even in modern entertainment think of how often American Indians are cast as young whooping men in war paint or the Wise Old Mystical Indian with Special Powers archetype.
For an interesting peek into entrenched racism and the minority otherness of even friendly characters, check out the Indian chief’s song to Peter Pan in the Disney cartoon movie. At one point the chief’s lyrics explain how Native Indians were once white- the regular, appropriate shade apparently- but were so flushed by a kiss from Indians maiden they became red.
Black characters underwent a similar transformation from maids, serving people and criminals in old cinema to the more modern “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 Ian McKellen and films like Anchorman 2. He writes extensively about the movie industry for sites like Gossip Center, Yahoo, NowPublic, and Helium.