These days, as Rush Limbaugh swims in controversy over his “Barack, the Magic Negro” parody, it occurs to me that I use the phrase “magical Negro” in some of my reviews, and some folks might not know what I mean by this, thus possibly taking offense at my use of it. (Of course, I wouldn’t have to use the phrase so often if I would quit seeing so many examples of it).
Simply put, a magical Negro is a story-telling device, a stock character used to impart wisdom on another character. Sometimes such characters are referred to mystical negroes, though Spike Lee used the phrase “super duper magical Negro.” If you detect an undercurrent of hostility or resentment, it’s because typically the magical Negro is a person of color who arrives in time to impart critical knowledge, sometimes spiritual information, or general sagacity in order for the white protagonist to succeed in their endeavor. They are depicted in non-threatening terms, being janitors, prisoners, or homeless. They are a plot point, a Deus ex machina, and a late addition to Tom Bogle’s seminal work on the depiction of blacks in cinema, “Toms, Coons, Mammies, Bucks, and Mulattos.”
(Basically, it’s the antithesis of the “white savior” model we’ve also come to see: lone white character goes among minorities/natives and saves them. See: City of Joy, The Last Samurai, Dances with Wolves, and any of a number of white teacher in the inner city movies).
Stephen King is often guilty of employing the magical Negro in many of his works: Dick Hallorann in The Shining (1977), Mother Abagail in The Stand (1978), and John Coffey in The Green Mile (1996). For the character to be the magical Negro, they have to have several telling characteristics (from the King article):
1. He or she is a person of color, typically black, often Native American, in a story about predominantly white characters.
2. He or she seems to have nothing better to do than help the white protagonist, who is often a stranger to the Magical Negro at first.
3. He or she disappears, dies, or sacrifices something of great value after or while helping the white protagonist.
4. He or she is uneducated, mentally handicapped, at a low position in life, or all of the above.
5. He or she is wise, patient, and spiritually in touch. Closer to the earth, one might say. He or she often literally has magical powers.
From Uncle Remus (James Baskett) in the film Song of the South (1946) to The Ode to the Magical Negro, aka The Legend of Bagger Vance (2000), the magical Negro has a long history. Do I consider the image racist? Part of me does, yet a bigger part of me sees them as Christ figures. The Suffering Servant calling people to their full potential, there is a redemptive element to their imparting of special knowledge and even the sacrificial death is typical of the Christ figure in a story. Stephen King being the master of the model, with John Coffey (J.C. – get it?), from The Green Mile, being tried and convicted unfairly, having the miraculous gift of healing, and dying for the sake of others. Maybe I’m just getting older and don’t have the energy for cosmetic battles when there are still real ones left to fight.
And there has been some progress: at least now black folks are beginning to live through the end of horror movies (well, mostly, or else the sites Dead Bro Walking and the Unfair Racial Cliché Alert would have no raison d’etre).