By Kate Flood.
In the early days of Hollywood, black characters were most often played by white actors in blackface, an evolution of the racist theatrical practice of minstrelsy. Much has changed since then, but although blackface is now widely criticised and seen as generally unacceptable, this unfortunately does not mean that modern film is free of racist stereotypes about black people.
The ‘magical N*gro’, a term made popular by director Spike Lee in 2001, is one such trope which perpetuates racist stereotypes. Cerise Glenn and Landra Cunningham define the magical N*gro character as “the only Black lead character in a film with a predominantly White cast endowed with folk wisdom, spiritual, and/or magical gifts and abilities that are used to benefit the White characters in the film.” The magical N*gro is selfless to a fault, and lacking in their own interior life; their purpose within the film is to assist the white main characters. Some popular examples of the magical N*gro trope include Morgan Freeman as God in Bruce Almighty (2003); Laurence Fishburne as Morpheus in The Matrix (1999); and Whoopi Goldberg as Oda Mae Brown (a psychic) in Ghost (1990).
The portrayal of black people in these roles as spiritual, carnal, and deeply linked to nature reasserts many troubling racist stereotypes which have persisted since the days of the Atlantic slave trade. As suggested by Matthew Hughey, the magical N*gro trope provides us with “visions of exotic Black mysticism and contented servitude” which endorse an essentialist understanding of race. Characterizing black people as exotic and mysterious perpetuates a centuries-long pattern of racist thought in which black people are seen as inherently ‘other’ to the norms of civilized white society.
This trope can also be seen as a reinvention of other more antiquated racist stereotypes which used to be commonplace in Hollywood movies, such as the ‘Uncle Tom’ and the ‘mammy’. All of these stereotypes emphasise the black character’s submissiveness and willingness to serve their white counterparts, with little to no regard for their own wellbeing and personal desires.
It is highly important for tropes such as the magical N*gro to be avoided in storytelling, not just so that real black stories can be brought to the forefront, but also because people use the images projected in media to draw conclusions regarding the relationship between black and white people in real life. Glenn and Cunningham state that if utopian race relations are shown on screen then “whites may believe that these ideal harmonious relationships depict current social status; therefore, racial problems only exist in the minds of Black people.” In order for a common understanding of the structures of white supremacy which exist in the world today, and how these structures systemically disadvantage black people, it is essential that racially subservient tropes such as the magical N*gro are left to be a thing of the past.
Sources & further reading:
Glenn, C.L. & Cunningham, L.J., ‘The Power of Black Magic: The Magical Negro and White Salvation in Film’, Journal of black studies 40.2 (2009), pp.135–152
Hughey, M.W., ‘Cinethetic Racism: White Redemption and Black Stereotypes in “Magical Negro” Films’, Social problems (Berkeley, Calif.) 56.3 (2009), pp.543–577
Hughey, M.W., ‘Racializing Redemption, Reproducing Racism: The Odyssey of Magical Negroes and White Saviors’, Sociology compass 6.9 (2012), pp.751–767
Parker, Morgan, Magical Negro: Poems (Oregon, 2018) – this is a poetry book with some illuminating takes on modern black womanhood in the U.S.
The Take, ‘A History of Black Stereotypes Onscreen’ (22nd July 2020), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mEy9ZKf5NOo&ab_channel=TheTake
Note: I have censored the term ‘N*gro’ in this article because as a white person I feel uncomfortable using the term, however in the scholarship around this trope the word is featured uncensored
Song of the South – Lobby Card.jpg, Walt Disney Productions, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain.