Monday, September 05, 2005

3 Vectors of The Magical Negro

From Strange Horizons: Stephen King's Super-Duper Magical Negroes By Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu

[R]ecently, in 2001, during a discussion with students at Washington State University, film director Spike Lee popularized the concept by renaming it the "Super-Duper Magical Negro." He was referring specifically to John Coffey (played by Michael Clarke Duncan) in The Green Mile and Bagger (played by Will Smith) in The Legend of Bagger Vance.

Both films are about a white man whose moral and emotional growth is made possible by the appearance of an almost angelic mystical black man. In The Green Mile, Coffey eventually dies after effecting great change on the white protagonist and just about everyone else around him. In The Legend of Bagger Vance, Bagger (whom the author of the book said was based on the Hindu deity Bhagavan Krishna) leaves as mysteriously as he arrived, once Rannulph Junuh's life is back on track. Both characters, John Coffey and Bagger, are only important in relation to the protagonist of each story.

Black Krishna

Interestingly enough, Krishna means "black" in Sanskrit. The name is often translated as "the black one," and early pictorial representations generally showed him as dark- or black-skinned. By the nineteenth century, he had become the blue-skinned deity most are familiar with.

Here are what I call the Five Points of the Magical Negro; the five most common attributes:

  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 Wikipedia:

The "Magical Negro" (sometimes called the "Mystical Negro" or "Magic Negro"), according to some critics and commentators, is a stock character who appears in some films, books, and television programs. The term has been in use since at least the 1950s, but has since been popularized by Spike Lee, who dismissed the archetype of the "super-duper magical negro" while discussing his 2000 film, Bamboozled. The word "negro" in the phrase, despite being now considered offensive, is used intentionally for that very reason by many critics, to emphasize their belief that the archetype is a racist throwback to a less enlightened time.

When he first encounters the (invariably white) protagonist, the Magical Negro often appears as someone uneducated and in a low station of life, such as a janitor or prisoner. The black character is depicted as wiser and spiritually deeper than the protagonist, and the purpose of the "Magical Negro" in the plot is often to help the protagonist get out of trouble, and to help the white character recognize his own faults and overcome them. The black character may literally have special powers, or he may be mysterious in a way that suggests otherworldliness.

Song of the South, 1946
Because of its unrealistic depiction of the post-Civil War "Reconstruction" era,
this film has been quietly retired by the Walt Disney Company in the USA since 1986 (40th Anniversary re-release).

Although it is usually a well-meaning attempt to portray a positive black character, critics like Lee, Ariel Dorfman, and Aaron McGruder believe that the use of this stock character is racist, because it perpetuates the idea that blacks should be subordinate to whites. The racial roles of the archetype are rarely reversed (lower-class white character helps a troubled black character).

The Magical Negro can be considered a form of the "noble savage" or "wise old man" archetype. Variants include the Native American who helps pragmatic whites discover their inner spirituality and brings them back in touch with nature, and the servant (of any non-white race) who sacrifices himself to save his master.

Alleged examples of "Magical Negroes" include:
  • Alexander Levine in Bernard Malamud's short story The Angel Levine
  • Noah Cullen (Sidney Poitier) in the film The Defiant Ones (1958)
  • Dick Haloran (Scatman Crothers) in the Stephen King novel The Shining (1977), later a 1980 film
  • Willie Brown (Joe Seneca) in the film Crossroads (1986)
  • John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan) in the serialized Stephen King novel The Green Mile (1996), later a 1999 film
  • Albert Lewis (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) in the film What Dreams May Come (1998)
  • Cash (Don Cheadle) in the film The Family Man (2000)
  • Bagger Vance (Will Smith) in the film The Legend of Bagger Vance (2000)
  • An angel (Gabriel Casseus) in Bedazzled (2000)
  • God (Morgan Freeman) in the film Bruce Almighty (2003)
  • The blind handcar-pumper (Lee Weaver) in the film O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
  • The old woman seer in the Stephen King novel The Stand
  • The barkeeper Guinan in Star Trek: The Next Generation
  • The Oracle in The Matrix Reloaded
  • Gabriel (voice of Delroy Lindo) in The Simpsons episode "Brawl in the Family" (DABF01, 2002) (a deliberate parody of the archetype)

Note that black characters with apparent supernatural powers who are portrayed as independent, have a power level roughly equal to that of the others and are not subservient to whites, such as Star Wars' Mace Windu, Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) in the film The Matrix (1999) and Storm in X-Men are not usually considered "Magical Negroes", nor are helpful non-white characters without some magical or fantastical element.
Joel Chandler Harris

From Uncle Remus and His Sayings by Joel Chandler Harris, Edited with an Introduction by Robert Hemenway:

"Harris was obviously of two minds about his fame – on the one hand he sought it by continuing to write, on the other he felt unworthy of it – and those two minds were seldom very far from the surface. In an extraordinary letter to his daughter, well after he was a national figure, Harris personified the two sided of his personality:"

As for myself - though you could hardly call me a real, sure author- I never have anything but the vaguest ideas of what I am going to write; but when I take my pen in hand, the rust clears away and the “other fellow” takes charge. You know all of us have two entities or personalities. That is the reason you see and hear persons “talking to themselves.” They are talking to the “other fellow.” I have often asked my “other fellow” where he gets all his information, and how he can remember, in the nick of time, things that I have forgotten long ago but he never satisfies my curiosity. He is simply a spectator of my folly until I seize a pen, and then he comes forward and takes charge.

Sometimes I laugh heartily at what he writes… it is not my writing at all; it is my “other fellow” doing the work and I am getting all the credit for it. Now, I’ll admit that I write the editorials for the paper. The “other fellow” has nothing to do with them, and, so far as I am able to get his views on the subject, he regards them with scorn and contempt… He is a creature hard to understand, but, so far as I understand him, he’s a very sour, surly fellow until I give him an opportunity to guide my pen in subjects congenial to him; whereas, I am, as you know, jolly, good-natured and entirely harmless.

Now, my "other fellow," I am convinced, would do some damage if I didn’t give him an opportunity to work off his energy in the way he delights.

Robert Johnson

(Thanks to Matt and Keri for the conversation.)


Anonymous said...

The character of the "magical Negro" appears in more than just depictions of African Americans. From at least one perspective, that is the role that "Jim" plays in Samuel Clemen's Huck Fin, but the characterization emerges earlier in James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales in "Chingachgook" and later in Herman Melville's "Queequeg" in Moby Dick. The sacrifice of a person of color to redeem the sins of America's dominant and historical culture also has an ironic historical reality to it. Crispus Atticus and his role as the first "sacrifice" of the American blood in the Revolution.

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