The Magical Negro is a supporting stock character in American cinema who is portrayed as coming to the aid of a film's white protagonists. Magical Negro characters, who often possess special insight or mystical powers, have long been a tradition in American fiction.
Spike Lee, while discussing films with students at Washington State University and at Yale University, said he was dismayed at Hollywood's decision to continue using the premise; he noted that the films The Green Mile and The Legend of Bagger Vance used the "super-duper magical Negro".
Critics use the word "negro" because it is considered archaic, and usually offensive, in modern English. This underlines their message that a "magical black character" who goes around selflessly helping white people is a throwback to stereotypes such as the "Sambo" or "Noble savage".
The Magical Negro is typically but not always "in some way outwardly or inwardly disabled, either by discrimination, disability or social constraint," often a janitor or prisoner. He has no past; he simply appears one day to help the white protagonist. He usually has some sort of magical power, "rather vaguely defined but not the sort of thing one typically encounters." He is patient and wise, often dispensing various words of wisdom, and is "closer to the earth." The magical negro will also do almost anything, including sacrificing himself, to save the white protagonist, as exemplified in The Defiant Ones, in which Sidney Poitier plays the prototypical Magical Negro.
The Magical Negro serves as a plot device to help the protagonist get out of trouble, typically through helping the white character recognize his own faults and overcome them. Although he has magical powers, his "magic is ostensibly directed toward helping and enlightening a white male character." An article in a 2009 edition of the journal Social Issues states the magical negro is an expression of racial profiling within the United States:
These powers are used to save and transform disheveled, uncultured, lost, or broken whites (almost exclusively white men) into competent, successful, and content people within the context of the American myth of redemption and salvation. It is this feature of the Magical Negro that some people find most troubling. Although from a certain perspective the character may seem to be showing blacks in a positive light, he is still ultimately subordinate to whites. He is also regarded as an exception, allowing white America to like individual black people but not black culture.
In 2012, writer Kia Miakka Natisse in The Grip opined about actor Morgan Freeman playing parts more or less conforming to the Magical Negro form. Natisse addressed recent roles including the doctor fitting a dolphin with a prosthetic tail (Dolphin Tale) and "an ailing CIA mentor — in both roles [Freeman] reprises the Magical Negro type, coming to save the day for his imperiled white counterparts. One could argue his gadget guru in the upcoming The Dark Knight Rises fits under that same umbrella."
He's there [Obama] to assuage white "guilt" (i.e., the minimal discomfort they feel) over the role of slavery and racial segregation in American history, while replacing stereotypes of a dangerous, highly sexualized black man with a benign figure for whom interracial sexual congress holds no interest.
In Christmas 2008, Chip Saltsman, a Republican politician and chair of the Tennessee Republican Party, sent a 41-track CD containing the song to members of the Republican National Committee during the Republican National Committee chairmanship election. The resulting controversy from both Republicans and Democrats resulted in Saltsman's withdrawing from the election one day before voting commenced.
In September 2012, an article in Time by cultural critic and TV personality Touré on the re-election of Barack Obama said, "While some may think it complimentary to be considered 'magical', it is infantilizing and offensive because it suggests black excellence is so shocking it can only come from a source that is supernatural."
What made this particular instance poignant was the presence in the ballroom of our first African-American president, the Magic Negro who was somehow expected to relieve a nation founded and built on slavery from the toxic burdens of centuries of history.
- Farley, Christopher John (2000-05-27). "That Old Black Magic". Time. Retrieved 2007-02-03.
In The Legend of Bagger Vance, one of the more embarrassing movies in recent history, Will Smith plays a magical black caddie who helps Matt Damon win a golf tournament and the heart of Charlize Theron. ... The first is the Magical African-American Friend. Along with Bagger Vance, MAAFs appear in such films as the upcoming The Family Man (co-starring Don Cheadle) and last year's prison drama The Green Mile.
- Jones, D. Marvin (2005). Race, Sex, and Suspicion: The Myth of the Black Male. Westport, Conn.: Praeger Publishers. p. 35. ISBN 0-275-97462-6. OCLC 56095393.
- Kempley, Rita (June 7, 2003). "Too Too Divine: Movies' 'Magic Negro' Saves the Day – but at the Cost of His Soul". Retrieved 2012-03-17.
- Okorafor, Nnedi (2004-10-25). "Stephen King's Super-Duper Magical Negroes". Strange Horizons. Retrieved 2006-12-03.
- Gonzalez, Susan (2001-03-02). "Director Spike Lee slams 'same old' black stereotypes in today's films". Yale Bulletin & Calendar (Yale University). Retrieved 2008-12-29.
- Hicks, Heather J. (2003-09-01). "Hoodoo Economics: White Men's Work and Black Men's Magic in Contemporary American Film". Camera Obscura (Camera Obscura) 18 (2): 27–55. doi:10.1215/02705346-18-2_53-27. Retrieved 2007-02-03.
- Colombe, Audrey (October 2002). "White Hollywood's new Black boogeyman". Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media (45). Retrieved 2006-12-03.
- Persons, Georgia Anne (2005). Contemporary Patterns of Politics, Praxis, and Culture. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers. p. 137. ISBN 1-4128-0468-X. OCLC 56510401.
- Gabbard, Krin (2004). Black Magic: White Hollywood and African American Culture. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press. p. 173. ISBN 0-8135-3383-X. OCLC 53215708.
- Hughey, Matthew (August 2009). "Cinethetic Racism: White Redemption and Black Stereotypes in 'Magical Negro' Films". Social Problems 25 (3): 543–577. doi:10.1525/sp.2009.56.3.543.
- Natisse, Kia Miakka, "Morgan Freeman, it’s time to retire the ‘Magical Negro’ role", thegrio.com, June 6, 2012. Retrieved 2015-08-19.
- Ehrenstein, David (2007-03-19). "Obama the 'Magic Negro'". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2010-05-12.
- DeParle, Jason (2008-12-28). "G.O.P. Receives Obama Parody to Mixed Reviews". New York Times.
- Barr, Andy (December 30, 2008). "'Magic Negro' flap might help Saltsman". www.politico.com. Retrieved December 2, 2014.
- Stein, Sam (January 29, 2009). "Chip Saltsman Withdraws From RNC Race After 'Magic Negro'l Star Spanglish Banner' Stirs". Huffington Post.
- Nagourney, Adam (January 29, 2009). "Candidate Linked to Obama Parody Song Leaves Race for G.O.P. Chairman". New York Times.
- "The Magical Negro falls to Earth". TIME. Sep 26, 2012. Retrieved November 21, 2013.
- Rich, Frank, "Why do America’s riots so precisely mirror each other, generation after generation after generation?", New York magazine, May 17, 2015. Retrieved 2015-08-17.
- "'magic Negro' definition". Double Tongued Dictionary. Retrieved 2007-10-04.
- "The Numinous Negro". National Revew. Retrieved 2001-08-20.