Adam Serwer reports in Mother Jones that George Lucas’ latest film, Red Tails, had trouble getting made, partly because the “studios weren’t willing to finance a film without a White protagonist as an anchor”. Lucas’ claim can be put into wider historical context by examining the entrenched racist practices of big Hollywood studios. In particular, the idea of the “magical negro trope” puts things into perspective. This term refers to the way valiant non-White characters in movies exist only as a narrative device to teach the White protagonist how to be a better person. I also delve into other variations of the “magical negro” and the gendered dimensions of these characters. Hollywood studios bemoan that paying audiences have stopped going to the cinemas. Is it any wonder, when big productions treat us all as if we’re stuck in some arcane mono-cultural bubble?
Putting the Red Tails Debacle into historical context: the Magical Negro Trope
…Richard Brookhiser argues that America has long loved the idea of the numinous negro, that is, African-American politicians, preachers and movie characters that lift up the spirits of White audiences. He notes this is in contrast to the “thuggish” characterisation of African-Americans that is also prevalent in the American psyche. Brookhiser’s point is that African-Americans are only allowed to be at either extreme – criminal or saint. They cannot be complex and flawed human beings, either in fiction or in public life. The magical negro is one variation of the numinous negro.
Okorafor-Mbachu, director Spike Lee and other cultural critics have argued that while the magical negro may have been Hollywood’s first minority group stamped onto celluloid, Hollywood uses the same characteristics of the magical negro to “positively stereotype” other minority groups. This includes other non-White groups, with a special fixation on Indigenous cultures (also known as the noble savage trope); disabled people (refer to the inspirationally disabled trope); socially disadvantaged individuals, primarily poor non-White people (the White man’s burden); and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) groups (see the magical queer trope). Okorafor-Mbachu describes the gambit of magical minorities this way:
- He or she is a person of colour, typically Black, often Native American, in a story about predominantly White characters.
- He or she seems to have nothing better to do than help the White protagonist, who is often a stranger to the Magical Negro at first.
- He or she disappears, dies, or sacrifices something of great value after or while helping the White protagonist.
- He or she is uneducated, mentally handicapped, at a low position in life, or all of the above.
- He or she is wise, patient, and spiritually in touch. Closer to the earth, one might say. He or she often literally has magical powers.
TV tropes has an extensive list of examples of the magical negro trope from film, television and other genres. Morgan Freeman features in many examples. An exceptionally talented actor, Freeman is often cast as a benevolent sage with mystical qualities in films such as Driving Miss Daisy, Shawshank Redemption, and Million Dollar Baby. Morgan best embodies the supernatural power of the magical negro trope in the Bruce Almighty and Evan Almighty films where he plays the personification of God. Even when playing one of the world’s best-known social activists in his role as Nelson Mandela, Freeman’s character is the second-fiddle inspiring the White South African rugby captain to victory in Invictus.
Okorafor-Mbachu also points out that Stephen King often uses the “Super-Duper Magical Negro” as a literary trope in his most famous novels: The Green Mile, The Talisman, The Stand, and The Shining. TV Tropes writes of the magical negro:
So enlightened and selfless is he that he has no desire to gain glory for himself; he only wants to help those who need guidance…which just happens to mean those who are traditionally viewed by Hollywood as better suited for protagonist roles, not, say, his own oppressed people.
The sidelining of non-Whites and other minorities sends a clear message to audiences about established social hierarchies. [Director Spike] Lee says that his film Bamboozled attempted to address the consequences of such narrow Hollywood narratives: “It’s about the power of images and how they hurt”.
The hypothesis that audiences will not go see movies without White leads has never been properly tested out, as these movies are usually released with a limited distribution. This is not withstanding the popularity of “Blaxploitation” films in the 1970s, and the independent movie industry that grew in the 1980s and 1990s, with filmmakers such as Spike Lee and John Singleton. Narratives involving interesting, complex and fully-fleshed-out non-White characters have only rarely been available to mass audiences. Until recently. This may well change very soon.
Read more about how the magical negro trope is used in various films; how war films are depicted as a White Man’s territory (muting the contribution of women, African-Americans, Native Americans and other minorities); why it is that the magical negro and its minority variants won’t die; and what can be done to challenge these film stereotypes.
Via my other blog: The Other Sociologist.