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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. Magical Negro characters, who often possess special insight or mystical powers, have long been a tradition in American fiction.
The term Magical Negro was popularized in 2001 by film director Spike Lee, while discussing films with students during a tour of college campuses, in which he said he was dismayed at Hollywood's decision to continue employing this 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".
Fiction and film
The Magical Negro is a trope created by white people: 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. The character often has no past but simply appears one day to help the white protagonist. He or she usually has some sort of magical power, "rather vaguely defined but not the sort of thing one typically encounters." The character is patient and wise, often dispensing various words of wisdom, and is "closer to the earth". The character will also do almost anything, including sacrificing him or herself, to save the white protagonist, as exemplified in The Defiant Ones, in which Sidney Poitier plays the prototypical Magical Negro.
This trope might be related to a similar trope in literature and film in which lower class characters (such as Mary Poppins, and Phoebe Figalilly of Nanny and the Professor) give advice or magical aid to upper-class characters.
It is possible that the trope traces 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.
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.
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 and teaching them to be a better person. Although the character may have magical powers, the "magic is ostensibly directed toward helping and enlightening a white male character". 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.
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. 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.
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."
Comedian Dave Chappelle made several references to this trope in his mid-2000s series Chappelle's Show, including a sketch entitled "Black Pixies". Chris Rock did likewise on his show The Chris Rock Show in the same period, 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.
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.
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.
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". 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. 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. Saltsman's campaign imploded as a result of the controversy caused by the CD, and he withdrew from the race; Michael Steele, an African American, was elected.
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."
- Farley, Christopher John (May 27, 2000). "That Old Black Magic". Time. Retrieved February 3, 2007.
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 [MAAF]. Along with Bagger Vance, MAAFs appear in such films as The Family Man (2009, co-starring Don Cheadle) and last year's prison drama The Green Mile.
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- 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 August 19, 2015.
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- Rush Limbaugh Show Transcript. March 19, 2007 Liberal Calls Obama "Magic Negro"
- 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.
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