On the occasion of partisan reaction to President Obama’s recent State of the Union address, as often happens when I read one of those Republican rants about the President’s failure to have miraculously solved, in a five-year-term, the eight-years-worth of Republican-generated headaches laid at his doorstep; I can’t help but wonder if perhaps a sizable amount of the disappointment expressed about Barack Obama isn't actually a spiritual disillusionment born of the fact that the first black President elected into office has turned out to be a mortal being. Yes, a mere flesh-and-blood man, and not, as years of literature and movies have culturally conditioned us to expect, The Magical Negro.
The “magical negro” (its antiquated, offensive wording being an intentional reference to its ties to a bygone era ) is a by-now familiar motion picture /TV/ Literature trope dating back at least to 2001, when filmmaker Spike Lee coined the phrase in reference to a type of character that begun to pop up with a distressing frequency in a rash of popular films released at the time (The Legend of Bagger Vance, The Green Mile, The Family Man). But the cultural stereotype has been with us for quite some time...most certainly since 1939 when Hattie McDaniel served as Rhett and Scarlett’s moral conscience in Gone with the Wind (1939).
In an essay about author Stephen King’s frequent use of the magical negro stereotype in his fiction, author Nnedi Okorafor nicely delineated the characteristics of what comprise the magical negro archetype (also known as the mystical black man, the super-duper magical negro, and the black saint ):
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.
When limited to the screen, these images are bad enough, but the real downside is when these stereotypes bleed into real-life perceptions of people of color,as evinced most recently by the whole SNL / Sasheer Zamata debacle. In this instance, a lone female was placed in the unenviable position of having to take on the role of being SNL's black superwoman, making up for decades' worth of Saturday Night Live’s shameful lack of diversity. As a comedian, she's not allowed to be just funny, she has to be SO funny that her mere presence proves to SNL all they've been missing out on; justifies the inclusion of both her race and gender on the show; and just maybe boost the ratings a bit. Who can (or wants to) live up to that?
The danger of this persistent stereotype is that it promotes a simplified image of African-Americans as selfless, ever-placating symbols and saviors instead of the more complex (and narratively problematic) option of just being human beings with weaknesses, anger, desires, and frustrations of their own.
The magical negro: a plot device initially employed with the best of intentions – in the 50s and 60s, it fell upon Sidney Poitier, with his roster of saintly, non-threatening, white-guilt-appeasing roles, to single-handedly prove to America that blacks were different (better) than he derogatory stereotypes of old – is, I think, an outmoded archetype that has worn out its welcome. (But not, it would seem, its popularity...Morgan Freeman).
For further illumination of the phenomenon, I've provided an extensive, but by no means exhaustive, list of films (limited to ones I've actually seen) featuring variations on the magical negro stereotype. Note* Inclusion in this list is in no way a comment on the film’s overall quality.
The Defiant Ones – Sidney Poitier sacrifices himself to save Tony Curtis
A Patch of Blue – Sidney Poitier rescues Elizabeth Hartman
Lilies of the Field – Sidney Poitier builds a chapel for a bunch of German nuns
To Sir, With Love – Sidney Poitier says no to dream job in order to help insubordinate Brit teens
Ghost – Whoopi Goldberg helps dead Patrick Swayze save live Demi Moore
Gone With the Wind – Moral Hattie McDaniel lectures amoral Rhett and Scarlett
The Shining – Scatman Crothers’ shining doesn't help him see an axe coming his way
Living Out Loud – Soulful Queen Latifah helps Holly Hunter find her groove
Hitch – Soulful Will Smith helps Kevin James find his groove
The Jazz Singer– Soulful Franklin Ajaye helps Neil Diamond find his groove (in blackface)
Silver Streak – Soulful Richard Pryor helps Gene Wilder find his groove (in blackface)
The Green Mile – Death row inmate Michael Clarke Duncan uses his powers to save everyone (even a mouse) except himself
The Legend of Bagger Vance – Quoting Spike Lee: "Blacks are getting lynched left and right, and [Bagger Vance is] more concerned about improving Matt Damon's golf swing!”
Kazaam – Shaquille O’Neal is a genie, for chrissake, who pops out of a boombox (!) and is literally owned by an inner-city preteen to whom he must grant three wishes.