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Magical Negro

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The Magical Negro is a trope in American cinema, television, and literature. In the cinema of the United States, the Magical Negro is a supporting stock character who comes to the aid of white protagonists in a film.[1] Magical Negro characters, often possessing special insight or mystical powers, have long been a tradition in American fiction.[2] The old-fashioned word "Negro" is used to imply that a "magical black character" who devotes himself to selflessly helping whites is a throwback to racist stereotypes such as the "Sambo" or "noble savage".[2]

The term was popularized in 2001 by film director Spike Lee during a lecture tour of college campuses, in which he expressed his dismay that Hollywood continued to employ this premise. He specially noted the films The Green Mile and The Legend of Bagger Vance, which featured "super-duper magical Negro" characters.[3][4][5][6]


Fiction and film[edit]

The Magical Negro is a trope in cinema, television, and literature: the character is typically, but not always, "in some way outwardly or inwardly disabled, either by discrimination, disability or social constraint". The Negro is often a janitor or prisoner.[7] The character often has no past but simply appears one day to help the white protagonist.[8][9] They usually have some sort of magical power, "rather vaguely defined but not the sort of thing one typically encounters."[8] The character is patient and wise, often dispensing various words of wisdom, and is "closer to the earth".[6] The character will also do almost anything, including sacrificing themselves to save the white protagonist, as exemplified in The Defiant Ones, in which Sidney Poitier plays the prototypical Magical Negro.[6]

Screenshot with Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier from 1958 Hollywood film The Defiant Ones

Film critic Matt Zoller Seitz stated that the trope "takes a subject that some white folks find unpleasant or even troubling to ponder (imagining that resentful black people's status in a country that, 50 years after the start of the modern civil rights struggle, is still run by, and mostly for, whites) and turns it into a source of gentle reassurance".[10] Film reviewer Audrey Colombe argues that the trope has been perpetuated by the overwhelmingly White blockbuster film industry.[11] Film director and writer Spike Lee said in 2001 that the White-dominated film industry is "still doing the same old thing ... recycling the noble savage and the happy slave".[12]

Racism historians Francisco Bethencourt and John Beusterien trace the trope to late fifteenth century and early sixteenth century Spanish comedias de negros and their depiction of black "savior soldiers," who reinforce the stereotype of the supposed greater physical strength of Africans. These include El prodigio de Etiopía and El negro del mejor amo by Lope de Vega and El valiente negro en Flandes by Andrés de Claramonte.[13][14]

Christopher John Farley, referring to the magical Negro as "Magical African American Friends" (MAAFs), says they are rooted in screenwriters’ ignorance of African Americans:

MAAFs exist because most Hollywood screenwriters don't know much about black people other than what they hear on records by white hip-hop star Eminem. So instead of getting life histories or love interests, black characters get magical powers.[7]

The Magical Negro stereotype serves as a plot device to help the white protagonist get out of trouble, typically through helping the white character recognize his own faults and overcome them[6] and teaching him to be a better person.[15] Although the character may have magical powers, the "magic is ostensibly directed toward helping and enlightening a white male character".[7][16] An article in a 2009 edition of the journal Social Problems stated the Magical Negro was 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, the character is still ultimately subordinate to whites. He or she is also regarded as an exception, allowing white America to like individual black people but not black culture.[17]

In 2001 Spike Lee used the term in a series of talks on college campuses to criticize the stereotypical, unreal roles created for black men in films that were recent at that time, naming The Family Man (2000), What Dreams May Come (1998), The Legend of Bagger Vance (2000) and The Green Mile (1999) as examples.[3] Talking about the time and place in which Bagger Vance is set, he said:

"Blacks are getting lynched left and right, and [Bagger Vance is] more concerned about improving Matt Damon's golf swing! ... I gotta sit down; I get mad just thinking about it. They're still doing the same old thing ... recycling the noble savage and the happy slave." He went on to discuss his desire to create films showing black people doing all kinds of things.[4]

In a book published in 2004, writer Krin Gabbard claimed that the Oda Mae Brown character in the 1990 movie Ghost, played by Whoopi Goldberg, was an example of a Magical Negress.[16]: 154–155 

In 2012, writer Kia Miakka Natisse discussed actor Morgan Freeman playing parts conforming to the Magical Negro form, such as "a doctor who creates a prosthetic tail for a dolphin (in Dolphin Tale), and an ailing CIA mentor (in Red) – in both roles he reprises the Magical Negro type, coming to save the day for his imperiled white counterparts. One could argue his gadget guru in The Dark Knight Rises fits under that same umbrella."[18]

Chris Rock made references to the trope on his show The Chris Rock Show, including one critical of The Legend of Bagger Vance, entitled "Migger, the Magic Nigger". Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, of MADtv and Key and Peele fame, followed suit in both shows with their own critical Magical Negro sketches.[citation needed][19]

The 2019 indie film Cold Brook, written and directed by William Fichtner, included a Magical Negro named Gil Le Doux, played by Harold Perrineau. The role was a century-old trapped ghost who was saved by two middle-aged men experiencing midlife crises.[20][21][22][23]

The film the American Society of Magical Negroes, critiques and satirizes the magical negro trope by portraying a secret society of African-Americans who make it their job to keep White people comfortable. The film was not well-received, with critiques of it being too safe to make any commentary.[24][25]

Barack Obama[edit]

In March 2007, American critic David Ehrenstein used the title "Obama the 'Magic Negro'" for an editorial he wrote for the Los Angeles Times, in which he described Barack Obama's image in white American culture:

He's there 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 ... The only mud that momentarily stuck was criticism (white and black alike) concerning Obama's alleged 'inauthenticity', as compared to such sterling examples of "genuine" blackness as Al Sharpton and Snoop Dogg. ... Obama's fame right now has little to do with his political record ... Like a comic-book superhero, Obama is there to help, out of the sheer goodness of a heart we need not know or understand. For as with all Magic Negroes, the less real he seems, the more desirable he becomes. If he were real, white America couldn't project all its fantasies of curative black benevolence on him.[26]

Discussing the Ehrenstein editorial at length, Rush Limbaugh at one point sang the words, "Barack the magic negro" to the tune of song "Puff, the Magic Dragon".[27][28] Shortly after that Paul Shanklin recorded a song about Barack the Magic Negro set to that same tune, which Limbaugh played numerous times throughout the 2008 presidential election season.[29] 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.[30][31] Saltsman's campaign imploded as a result of the controversy caused by the CD, and he withdrew from the race.[32][33]

In May 2015, theater and cultural critic Frank Rich, looking back at the coincidence of the 2015 Baltimore protests with the annual White House Correspondents' dinner in Washington, DC, wrote: "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."[34]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Farley, Christopher John (May 27, 2000). "That Old Black Magic". Time. Archived from the original on November 4, 2007. Retrieved February 3, 2007.
  2. ^ a b 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.
  3. ^ a b Seitz, Matt Zoller (September 14, 2010). "The offensive movie cliche that won't die". Salon.
  4. ^ a b Gonzalez, Susan (March 2, 2001). "Director Spike Lee slams 'same old' black stereotypes in today's films". Yale Bulletin & Calendar. Yale University. Archived from the original on January 21, 2009.
  5. ^ Kempley, Rita (June 7, 2003). "Too Too Divine: Movies' 'Magic Negro' Saves the Day – but at the Cost of His Soul". Retrieved March 17, 2012.
  6. ^ a b c d Okorafor, Nnedi (October 25, 2004). "Stephen King's Super-Duper Magical Negroes". Strange Horizons. Archived from the original on November 14, 2006. Retrieved December 3, 2006.
  7. ^ a b c Hicks, Heather (September 1, 2003). "Hoodoo Economics: White Men's Work and Black Men's Magic in Contemporary American Film". Camera Obscura. 18 (2): 27–55. doi:10.1215/02705346-18-2_53-27. S2CID 145204947. Retrieved February 3, 2007.
  8. ^ a b Colombe, Audrey (October 2002). "White Hollywood's new Black boogeyman". Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media (45). Retrieved December 3, 2006.
  9. ^ 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.
  10. ^ "The offensive movie cliche that won't die". Salon. September 14, 2010.
  11. ^ "White films 1". www.ejumpcut.org.
  12. ^ https://web.archive.org/web/20090121190429/http://www.yale.edu/opa/arc-ybc/v29.n21/story3.html Director Spike Lee slams 'same old' black stereotypes in today's films
  13. ^ Bethencourt, Francisco (January 19, 2014). Racisms. Princeton University Press. ISBN 9780691155265. Retrieved April 21, 2019.
  14. ^ Beusterien, John (2006). An Eye on Race: Perspectives from Theater in Imperial Spain. Bucknell University Press. ISBN 9780838756140.
  15. ^ Zuleyka Zevallosm. "Hollywood Racism: The Magical Negro Trope". Other Sociologist, January 24, 2012. Accessed July 16, 2016.
  16. ^ a b Gabbard, Krin (2004). Black Magic: White Hollywood and African American Culture. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press. pp. 173. ISBN 0-8135-3383-X. OCLC 53215708.
  17. ^ 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.
  18. ^ Natisse, Kia Miakka. "Morgan Freeman, it's time to retire the 'Magical Negro' role". thegrio.com, June 6, 2012. Retrieved August 19, 2015.
  19. ^ "Gay Marriage Legalized". Key & Peele. Season 1. Episode 5. February 28, 2012. Comedy Central.
  20. ^ Minow, Nell. "Cold Brook movie review & film summary (2019) | Roger Ebert". www.rogerebert.com. Retrieved November 20, 2019.
  21. ^ "'Cold Brook': Film Review". The Hollywood Reporter. November 6, 2019. Retrieved November 20, 2019.
  22. ^ "Review: Nicolas Cage on the high seas, bloody 'Ballet,' a little Dolph Lundgren and more". Los Angeles Times. November 8, 2019. Retrieved November 20, 2019.
  23. ^ Harvey, Dennis (November 7, 2019). "Film Review: 'Cold Brook'". Variety. Retrieved November 20, 2019.
  24. ^ Aguilar, Carlos (March 15, 2024). "Review: 'The American Society of Magical Negroes' is too timid to land any satirical blows". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved April 9, 2024.
  25. ^ Lowry, Brian (March 15, 2024). "'American Society of Magical Negroes'". CNN. Retrieved April 9, 2024.
  26. ^ Ehrenstein, David (March 19, 2007). "Obama the 'Magic Negro'". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved May 12, 2010.
  27. ^ Rush Limbaugh Show Transcript. March 19, 2007 Liberal Calls Obama "Magic Negro"
  28. ^ Rush Limbaugh recording via Media Matters. March 20, 2007. "Latching onto L.A. Times op-ed, Limbaugh sings "Barack, The Magic Negro" ". Song is at 11:30.
  29. ^ DeParle, Jason (December 28, 2008). "G.O.P. Receives Obama Parody to Mixed Reviews". The New York Times.
  30. ^ Sinderbrand, Rebecca (December 26, 2008). "RNC chairman candidate defends 'Barack the Magic Negro' song". CNN.
  31. ^ Barr, Andy (December 30, 2008). "'Magic Negro' flap might help Saltsman". Politico.com. Retrieved December 2, 2014.
  32. ^ Nagourney, Adam (January 29, 2009). "Candidate Linked to Obama Parody Song Leaves Race for G.O.P. Chairman". The New York Times.
  33. ^ Kleinheider (January 29, 2009). "Chip Saltsman Withdraws From RNC Chairman's Race". NashvillePost.com. Archived from the original on September 19, 2009.
  34. ^ Rich, Frank. "Why do America's riots so precisely mirror each other, generation after generation after generation?". New York magazine. May 17, 2015. Retrieved August 17, 2015.

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