Skip to comments.Movies' "Magic Negro" Saves The Day [use of term in film criticism]
Posted on 05/07/2007 1:49:34 PM PDT by Dajjal
The following is an editorial from DVRepublic, The liberated zone of cyberspace.
Movies' "Magic Negro" Saves The Day -- But At The Cost Of His Soul
by Rita Kempley
Morgan Freeman plays God in "Bruce Almighty;" Laurence Fishburne a demigod in "The Matrix Reloaded," and Queen Latifah a ghetto goddess in "Bringing Down the House. "
What's the deal with the holy roles?
Every one of the actors has to help a white guy find his soul or there won't be a happy ending. Bruce (Jim Carrey) won't get the girl. Neo (Keanu Reeves) won't become the next Messiah. And klutzy guy Peter (Steve Martin) won't get his groove on.
In movie circles, this figure is known as a "magic Negro," a term that dates back to the late 1950s, around the time Sidney Poitier sacrifices himself to save Tony Curtis in "The Defiant Ones." Spike Lee, who satirizes the stereotype in 2000's "Bamboozled," goes even further and denounces the stereotype as the "super-duper magical Negro."
"[Filmmakers] give the black character special powers and underlying mysticism," says Todd Boyd, author of "Am I Black Enough for You?" and co-writer of the 1999 film "The Wood." "This goes all the way back to 'Gone with the Wind.' Hattie McDaniel is the emotional center, but she is just a pawn. Pawns help white people figure out what's going wrong and fix it, like Whoopi Goldberg's psychic in 'Ghost.'"
It isn't that the actors or the roles aren't likable, valuable or redemptive, but they are without interior lives. For the most part, they materialize only to rescue the better-drawn white characters. Sometimes they walk out of the mists like Will Smith's angelic caddy in "The Legend of Bagger Vance." Thanks to Vance, the pride of Savannah (Matt Damon) gets his "authentic swing" back.
A case of the yips hardly seems to call for divine intervention, but then neither does Carrey's crisis in "Bruce Almighty." He's a TV funny guy who wants to be a news anchor. After he loses out to another contender, he verbally lambastes the Lord (played by Freeman with as much dignity as he can muster), and the Lord takes an interest.
Freeman's God can walk on water. But when He first appears, God is mopping the floors. Yes, He humbles Himself to teach the title character, Bruce, about humility. He then hands his powers over to him, popping in from time to time to save the world from Bruce's bumbling.
In "The Family Man," a 2000 version of "It's a Wonderful Life," Don Cheadle turns up as Cash, a meddlesome guardian angel disguised as a street tough. Cash shows Wall Street wheeler-dealer Jack Campbell (Nicolas Cage) how things would have been if he hadn't ditched his college sweetheart to pursue his career. When the fantasy ends, Jack must choose between love or money. Thanks to Cash, Jack has a chance to make amends for his capitalistic piggishness. Cue the heavenly chorus.
"Historically, if a black person is thrust into a white universe, it is inevitable that the white people will become a better person," says Thomas Cripps, author of "Making Movies Black: The Hollywood Message Movie from World War II to the Civil Rights Era" and other books on African American cinema. "Sidney Poitier spent his whole career in this position. Sidney actually carried the cross for Jesus in 'The Greatest Story Ever Told.'"
In 1943 alone, black men became the moral conscience of white characters in four World War II movies: "Sahara, " "Bataan," "Crash Dive" and "Life Boat." Cripps is especially fond of the example set by actor Rex Ingram in "Sahara," the tale of a tank full of men lost in the desert. "When they decide to get rid of somebody so the rest can survive, who stands up and says, 'We either all live or we all die together'? Ingram. The black man becomes the spokesman for Western democracy."
Like Ingram's soldier and Queen Latifah's salty soul sister, many black exemplars don't have halos, but they still work miracles. Her Highness's performance "is especially unusual because most of these characters are male," says Jacqueline Bobo, chair of women's studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara. "When women do show up, they end up in exoticized roles like Halle Berry's in 'Monsters Ball.'"
Cedric Robinson, author of "Black Marxism" and a colleague of Bobo's at UCSB, says, "Males, more problematic in the American imagination, have become ghostly. The black male simply orbits above the history of white supremacy. He has no roots, no grounding. In that context, black anger has no legitimacy, no real justification. The only real characters are white. Blacks are kind of like Tonto, whose name meant fool."
Audiences black and white seem to be accepting of these one-note roles, judging by the financial success of "Bringing Down the House," which brought in about $130 million, and "Bruce Almighty," which has raked in $149 million and was ranked No. 2 at the box office.
And yet other viewers and most critics were appalled by the extreme odd-couple comedy "Bringing Down the House," in which Charlene (Latifah), an obnoxious escaped con, invades the staid bourgeois universe of Peter (Martin), the uptight suburbanite.
Charlene not only shows Peter how to jump, jive and pleasure a woman, but teaches his son to read (a nudie magazine piques the tyke's interest), saves his daughter from a date-rapist and then reunites him with his estranged wife. And she does it all while pretending to be Peter's maid.
"If you were to say to the average person playing God was representative of a stereotype, you would get a curious look," Boyd says. "People are uninformed. They see a black man playing God and that's a good thing. The same principle is at work when it comes to 'Bringing Down the House.' People know she had a hand in creating the movie, so everything must be okay. White people and black people are getting along and having fun. Isn't that great?
Aaron McGruder, creator of "The Boondocks" comic strip, didn't think so. He upbraided Latifah for her "less-than-dignified and racially demeaning performance." His character Huey e-mailed Latifah, informing her that the "Almighty Council of Blackness has unanimously voted to revoke your 'Queen' status."
The mystic icon that first comes to mind with many of today's moviegoers and film aficionados is Michael Clarke Duncan in "The Green Mile." Duncan received an Oscar nomination for the role of gentle giant John Coffey, a healer wrongly convicted of murdering two children. In the movie, Coffey cures the jaded prison guard of corrosive cynicism and a kidney infection. He also saves the lives of the warden's wife and the prison mouse.
Ariel Dorfman sees sinister forces, something disturbing in such portrayals. "The magic Negro is an easy way of making the characters and the audiences happy. And I am for happiness, but the real joy of art is to reveal certain intractable ways in which humans interact. This phenomenon may be a way of avoiding confrontation," says Dorfman, a playwright, poet and cultural critic.
"The black character helps the white character, which demonstrates that [the former] feels this incredible interest in maintaining the existing society. Since there is no cultural interchange, the character is put there to give the illusion that there is cultural crossover to satisfy that need without actually addressing the issue," Dorfman says. "As a Chilean, however, I sense that maybe deep inside, mainstream Americans somehow expect those who come from the margins will save them emotionally and intellectually."
Damon Lee, producer of the hard-hitting satire "Undercover Brother," has come up with a similarly intriguing hypothesis drawn from personal experience. "The white community has been taught not to listen to black people. I truly feel that white people are more comfortable with black people telling them what to do when they are cast in a magical role. They can't seem to process the information in any other way," he says. "Whoever is king of the jungle is only going to listen to someone perceived as an equal. That is always going to be the case. The bigger point is that no minority can be in today's structure. Somehow the industry picked up on that."
Robert McKee, who has taught screenwriting to about 40,000 writers, actors and producers, says, "Try to see [the issue] from a writer's POV. He or she wants to be PC. But you can't expect writers to think like sociologists. They aren't out there trying to change the world; they are just trying to tell a good story."
Morpheus (Fishburne), named for the Greek god of dreams, has an interesting mission, to ensure the rise of the messiah, Neo (Reeves). But Morpheus is the ultimate outsider. He and 100,000 or so others have been enslaved by the Matrix.
Morpheus, a captain in the war against the Matrix, is both a free-thinking renegade and a religious zealot. In other words, he is more complex than similar characters. But his powers are in the service of the chosen one.
Such a worthy cause is no consolation for those who would prefer a fulfilling life of their own, rather than the power to change someone else's. Especially if the souls being saved aren't really in dire straits.
DvRepublic.org is a project of the Black Filmmaker Foundation.
I think this essay may shed more light on what exactly David Ehrenstein meant when he used the term in his op-ed piece for the LA Times.
You might also want to take a look at the Wikipedia page on the term "Magical Negro."
Dave Chappelle had a magic negro skit on his show a few times.
A Black man that truly wishes he had been born White.
This is everywhere, you can only portray black people as the best examples of humanity.
Every commercial with white and blacks will NEVER portray the black person as the one who doesn’t know about the great product the commercial is about. The doofus in a commercial can NEVER be a black person.
Most commercials show happy, succesful, black families as end users, as if showing white families would be an old racist Ozzie & Harriett sterotype.
This black as conscience, all knower, truth seeker is in every movie, tv show, commercial, etc.
God forbid there is a parody about less than perfect black people like there was In Living Color and Chappelle.
If In Living Color or Chappelles show were made by white people there would have been lunatic hysterics instead of the typical complaining we got.
Look at “24” the black president is the even tempered messiah where the white VP is ready to nuke the world. His sister is the keeper of the constitution against the devils who want the Muslim internment camps.
Find me a corportate website or a billboard, print ad, etc. WITHOUT a black person or family even though they are 12% of the population.
The over representation and PANDERING is embarassing.
I don’t see Obama as a “magical negro.”
The white urban liberals may want him to fit that role, and he might morph into it, but he isn’t one now, and clearly wasn’t one before the money men appealed to his vanity and stoked his presidency fantasy. Before, he made jokes about white politicians dancing at black churches which were very funny.
“magic Negro,” a term that dates back to the late 1950s, around the time Sidney Poitier sacrifices himself to save Tony Curtis in “The Defiant Ones.”
Sidney Poitier was a Godsend in Lilies of the Field. Sent to build the “shapel”.
They’re stretching pretty hard, there was nothing magical about Queen Latifah’s character in Bringing Down the House either.
Find me a corportate website or a billboard, print ad, etc. WITHOUT a black person or family even though they are 12% of the population.
Find me a tv show WITHOUT a queer in it.................
South Park played it up in the '05 season when Cartman, in his effort to rid South Park of hippies, required Chef to sacrifice himself.
"Die Hippy Die"
Chef, the Magic Negro, says farewell as he prepares to save the white people.
“They consider Fishburne a demigod in the Matrix films?”
He lost me there.
The “magical negro” in the Matrix movies is a woman, Oracle.
...now that was one funny movie.
You must be watching a lot of cross over demographic stuff. Most of the commercials I see are populated entirely by white people, I watch a lot of hockey and scifi, white audiences get white commercials.
This is all media hype and spin for diversity in an effort to make the coming anointing of Mr. B. Hussein Obama as the next POTUS with the guilt trip that only he will mend all our differences and unite the country liberals and conservatives holding hands signing Kum-Bayh-Yah.....
Read his latest update.
Matt & Trey killed off Chef, because he was a Scientologist and a hypocrit,
but the left would probably say he was knocked off because he was black.
African americans, and native americans might be the only 2 american ethnic groups that get this "mystical" type ot treatment status, as generally the all wise, all knowing full of wisdom character is usually some kind of foreginer.
Lol! That site is why I just LOVE the Internet.
I’m sad the Temple of Black Jesus is gone. That was hysterical.
Washington mutual does this to an EXTREME RACITS level in their commercials.
They have a “magic negro” stereotype with a coral of old white men bankers with the “magic negro” stereotype giving words of wisdom to bank custormers.
If the role was reversed we would hear demands from the usual race baiters for the lynchings of the commercials producers.
yes I know racist not racits, spelling police begone...
I wonder if this author would like it better if the god-like figure were white and the hapless mortal were black?
You mean like in Pathfinder (2007) where the Viking Child has to save the helpless Native Americans?
Don't forget Whoopi's "magic" roles as
Or did they? ....
It fits on another level as well, modern practices of the “religious” are most comfortable when they have god in his neat little box, there to visit when they need and there to witness for their piety to their critics.
Hockey? You watch hockey? On T.V.?
What did you do all last year? Muck out stables?
Watched hockey. The strike season was two years ago, though there was still some college and minor league hockey to watch.
I missed that one! LOL, that's probably what prompted Don Milbury to make his remarks on the CBS site "Where have you people been? That parody has been around since March. Senator Obama has dismissed the charge as 'Ho Hum.' The 'Magic Negro' term was created by a black writer in the LA Times months ago." - Don Milbury", after watching Chappelle.
How about coral? What’s my best guess on that?
What are you watching, satellite T.V.?
We have the Predators here but they’re about to wiggle out of their contract due to low attendance.
Versus. Inspite of the bad blood between Cox and Comcast Cox actually carries the Versus network in Tucson (of course I’ve got a better shot at being President than seeing the ComcastHD channel), though they put it in a dusty section of the lineup away from all the other sports networks. And of course NBC has weekend games, and NBC here has gone all HD. During the strike season I had to go to the seriously dusty end of the digital cable lineup where I found Fox’s college sports networks and somebody else that showed some minor league stuff.
Sorry, but I didn’t see Queen Latifah in BDTH as a Magic Negro. Rather her character was more like “Kitten With A Whip” meets “You’ve Got Mail.”
Not to mention Ossie Davis, mentoring Tom Hanks in “Joe and the Volcano.”
Yeah, I always figured him more patterned along the lines of John the Baptist...
And for every "magic negro" example they can come up with, I suspect we could find several counter-examples. George Burns plays God too. Tommy Lee Jones saves Will Smith's backside in MIB....
Mysticism? Nah, how about they are good actors/actresses, the parts suited them, and their agent was able to come to a deal with the producers? Sheesh, lets not read too much into this...
On that note, have you seen this?
Silly, but fun.
BTW, your “impacted wisdom tooth” characterization of Aaron McGruder is spot-on.
A recent incarnation is Samuel L. Jackson’s Lazarus in “Black Snake Moan,” who straightens out all of the Christina Ricci character’s problems and weaknesses.
You can add Morgan Freeman’s character in the overrated “Shawshank Redemption” to the list of “magic Negroes” in cinema.
The rise of the "magic negro" in film was a sort of pendulum swing -- there were decades of movies in which blacks were pretty uniformly portrayed as lazy, untrustworthy, and intent on nothing more in this world than raping white women.
By the time of Gone With the Wind, even though the civil rights movement was barely in its infancy, filmmakers became more concerned with how they portrayed black characters -- the black characters in GWTW reflected patronizing stereotypes rather than threatening ones, more like children than beasts. Few commentators, and fewer politicians, were arguing then that blacks should have full equality with whites; but at least they had awakened enough to be alarmed by lynchings.
Isacc Hayes killed off Chef, when he quit the show over the Tom Cruise/Scientology spoof. Parker and Stone could have just written out the character, but what kind of satirist lets a story like that go? Especially when you're in the middle of it?
Like the group of "all God's children" who sing with the Marx brothers in "A Day At The Races" of that era.
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