While perusing some recaps of this season's Dexter, I came across a fascinating concept: the construct of the Magical Negro in fiction. While the term might not be familiar to you, its presence probably is.

The Magical Negro is a black character introduced in a work of fiction that finds a white protagonist in his moment of doubt, and teaches him a lesson or offers up some grand revelation, only to disappear the second their purpose has been served. The term was popularized during a Spike Lee speech in 2001, in which he dismissed this archetype while speaking to a group of film students. The characters aren’t always “magical” in the literal sense, but are often insightful or enlightened in a way that the protagonist isn’t. They also exhibit other exaggerated traits, such as empathy, patience, and a desire to talk to strange white people. The introduction of such characters has been criticized for being trite, lazy, and of course, they have been interpreted as racist.

I’m not really inclined to discuss the racist implications of such characters, though I feel the implication does exist, as the characters often work menial jobs or are criminal, and are treated as a curiosity that facilitates storytelling rather than enriching it.

So, without (much) commentary, here is an inexhaustive inventory of Magical Negroes in films, and what purpose they serve in their contexts.

Dick Hallorann – The Shining

The groundskeeper, played by Scatman Crothers, has a telepathic ability to communicate with youngster Danny. This gift is of course the titular “shining,” and it serves as a harbinger that not all is right at this hotel. Of course, once Jack Nicholson descends into madness and we’re already capable of figuring that out on our own, Dick is killed off with an axe.

Cash – The Family Man

You best believe that a Brett Ratner-directed film is going to a hackneyed and mildly offensive character in it! In the film, Nicholas Cage plays an executive asshole who is shown how his life could have been different by a criminal named Cash (played by Don Cheadle). Cash serves as a sort of spirit guide, and embodies the idea of "playing-against-type" that is inherent in the Magical Negro construct, in which a down and out or “second-class citizen” offers the better-off white protagonist the secrets to life.

John Coffey – The Green Mile

Michael Clarke Duncan plays John Coffey, a gentle giant on death row for supposedly raping and killing two white girls. Here, the character plays against type as he’s depicted as being about 17 feet tall, but having a childlike innocence about him, fearing the dark and constantly crying.

Coffey is soon revealed to have magical powers, healing Tom Hank’s character’s urinary tract infection (Wait. What?) and the warden’s ailing wife. He also manages to resurrect a mouse. It is later demonstrated that Coffey is innocent, though he chooses to die anyway because of all the suffering in the world, or something like that.

Louise – Sex and the City

I really don’t want to spend too much time talking about Sex and the City…ever, but on a show rife with one-dimensional characters, Jennifer Hudson’s Louise manages to shine. She appears as her assistant only when Carrie is completely distraught and in an emotional funk, offering advice and perspective, then is quickly written off from the show as Carrie rebounds and gets back to being her old self.

Lamont – American History X

As Derek Vineyard (Edward Norton) finds himself in prison after a racially motivated assault, he comes across Lamont, a wrongly-imprisoned black man who manages to talk and talk and talk, despite Vineyard’s clear unwillingness to listen. Eventually, Lamont gets through to Vineyard and essentially teaches him about regret and also that black people aren’t so bad after all. He also serves to protect Derek throughout his stay in the prison.

Brother Sam – Dexter


It’s pretty clear that Dexter has spent its past few seasons scrambling for new plot points and angles, so the introduction of Brother Sam, a born-again Christian with a criminal past, might not have been surprising. But it was still a little cringe-worthy.

Sam teache Dexter that people can change, and that faith is a big part of that. Of course, as soon as Dexter starts to learn the lesson, Brother Sam is killed, and Dexter finds he is fated to return to his homicidal self.

A great performance by Mos Def as Brother Sam, but a pretty conventional storyline through and through.

Angel – Bedazzled

In perhaps the most spot-on appearance of a Magical Negro, Angel, played by the eminently likable Gabriel Casseus, is Elliot’s (Brendan Fraser) cellmate when he is briefly incarcerated. It become clear that the cellmate is an angel, meant to guide Elliott on his journey, ultimately making him realize what is really important, etc.

The director of this film really hits audiences over the head with this one, offering up a soft-spoken, unbelievably wise criminal, who has everything but a halo hanging over his head.

Chubbs – Happy Gilmore

Not all Magical Negroes are lame characters. Happy’s mentor, Chubbs, appears from nowhere to give him the insight to become a great golfer. But as soon as Happy makes the cut for the pros, Chubbs is killed after falling out a window after being spooked by an alligator, only to appear later in Happy’s mind as a guiding light.

Chubbs is a pretty awesome character, but also a great example of what purpose the Magical Negro serves. While it can go unnoticed in a film like Happy Gilmore, it’s a little more objectionable when it appears in films that don’t have grandmothers dressed up like KISS.

The Legend of Bagger Vance

No list on this topic would be complete without the inclusion of Bagger Vance. In fact, when Spike Lee polarized the term "Magical Negro," it was in reference to this film.

Vance is a magical black caddy, played by Will Smith, who serves no other purpose than to help guide the main character through his troubled life. Once this purpose is served, he literally disappears as mysteriously as he arrived, although he does show up years later, having never aged a day. Now that's magical.

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