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.
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.
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.
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.