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Tropes in Entertainment Media: “Magical Negro”

Tropes in Entertainment Media: “Magical Negro”

Tropes in Entertainment Media: “Magical Negro”
July 03
14:00 2020

In 2001, during a tour of college campuses, Spike Lee talked about his frustrations and dismay with Hollywoods’ continued use of certain Black stereotypes, noting that films like “Green Mile” and “The Legend of Bagger Vance” employ the use of the “Super Duper Magical Negro.” 

“Blacks are getting lynched left and right, and [Bagger Vance is] more concerned about improving Matt Damon’s golf swing,” Lee said.

This Black trope involves the use of a Black character who is depicted as wiser and more spiritual than the (often) white protagonist they are helping. Their sole purpose in the plot is to be a vehicle for the protagonist to realize their faults, overcome them, and become a better person.

Both characters, John Coffey in “Green Mile” and Bagger in “Legend,” are only important in relation to the protagonist of each story.

The “Magical Negro” trope is a variation of the “mammy” and “‘numinous negro.” The idea is that there’s this Black person who, through their sufferings, has gained great wisdom. They then make this wisdom available to some white character who is in need of guidance.

The use of the trope in film dates back to the 1940s with Uncle Remus in Disney’s “Song of the South.” Uncle Remus is the originator and epitome of this trope, and even the horrors of Jim Crow can’t dampen his determination to being a cheerful mentor to white children in America.

The term gained prominence in the 1950s around the time of “The Defiant Ones.” In the film, John “Joker” Jackson (Tony Curtis) and Noah Cullen (Sidney Poitier) are convicts on a southern chain gang. When they escape because of a bus accident, they make a run for it. They struggle to work together at first because they’re shackled together by a thick chain and both are also full of racial assumptions. 

At first, they hate each other. They argue over which way to go and Joker’s use of the n-word. But in the end, after many trials and tribulations, they become friends. When Cullen is able to jump onto a moving train, Joker can’t make it. Cullen then sacrifices his own freedom to help Joker. Yeah…seriously.

Despite the criticism, this trope would continue to be seen repeatedly — Dick Halloran in “The Shining,” Oda Mae Brown in “Ghosts” and Rafiki in “Lion King.” Most famously, Morgan Freeman plays this role in “Robin Hood,” “Shawshank Redemption,” “Unleashed,” Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight Trilogy,” “Red,” “Dolphin Tale” and “Bruce Almighty” where he played God himself.

The use of the “Magical Negro” in films is an issue of race. The inferiority of a minority figure masked as the empowerment of one. The “Magical Negro” has great power and wisdom, yet he or she only uses it to help the white main character. He or she is not threatening because he or she only seeks to help, never hurt. The white main character’s well-being comes before the “Magical Negro’s” because the main character is of more value, more importance, because they’re white… see?

Noah Cullen, John Coffey, Bagger Vance and others like them are portrayed as happy slaves, glad to sacrifice themselves, their happiness, their time or something of value to them, in order to help the white character. This is because most Hollywood screenwriters don’t know much about Black people other than what they hear on records by white hip-hop stars like Eminem. So instead of getting life histories or love interests, Black characters get magical powers.

The trope can still be seen in films today such as “Peter,” “Unicorn Store” and 2019 Academy Awards winner for Best Picture, “Green Book,” an interracial buddy cop film disguised as a Don Shirley biopic.

The trope has long existed and possibly dates back to the late fifteenth century and early sixteenth century Spanish “comedias de negros” and their depiction of Black “savior soldiers,” and the trope will stay alive as long as white filmmakers refuse to properly write Black characters. 

Because “Magical Negroes” are always interesting, being magical and mysterious, they make things happen. When a “Magical Negro” pops up, the story crackles and pops.

Featured image: Courtesy DreamWorks Pictures

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Chance Townsend

Chance Townsend

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