'Mag­i­cal Ne­gro': The racist cliche Hol­ly­wood won't drop

Kuwait Times - - LIFESTYLE -

One trope in film­mak­ing that is sure to draw scorn from cul­tur­ally aware crit­ics is the "Mag­i­cal Ne­gro"-a black char­ac­ter whose sole pur­pose is to help the white pro­tag­o­nist. From Whoopi Gold­berg's psy­chic Oda Mae Brown in "Ghost" (1990) to Chief Gus Man­cuso, played by Lau­rence Fish­burne, in 2016's "Pas­sen­gers," it is a rel­a­tively new de­vice with roots deep in the tra­di­tions of Amer­i­can sto­ry­telling.

The lat­est pro­duc­tion to come un­der the spot­light is ABC's forth­com­ing dram­edy "Kevin (Prob­a­bly) Saves the World," which was pre­viewed on Sun­day as part of the sum­mer press tour hosted by the Tele­vi­sion Crit­ics As­so­ci­a­tion in Los An­ge­les. Star­ring Ja­son Rit­ter, "Kevin" fol­lows a self-ab­sorbed loser who is given a chance at re­demp­tion by a ce­les­tial guide played by African Amer­i­can ac­tress Kim­berly He­bert Gre­gory. Gre­gory ("Vice Prin­ci­pals") was asked by jour­nal­ists how the show would avoid her char­ac­ter be­com­ing a "Mag­i­cal Ne­gro."

"I un­der­stand that con­cept but the char­ac­ter is not an an­gel. She's flawed, she's not an­gelic. She doesn't nec­es­sar­ily be­have like an an­gel, she doesn't use lan­guage that's an­gelic," Gre­gory said. "She has a real pur­pose and her pur­pose is re­ally big­ger than just help­ing Kevin do what he needs to do." "Mag­i­cal Ne­gro" char­ac­ters avail them­selves, some­times lit­er­ally clad in the white garb of a Bi­b­li­cal an­gel, to of­fer folksy wis­dom and, of­ten, mys­ti­cal pow­ers in the ser­vice of the cen­tral white char­ac­ter.

A re­peat of­fender, Mor­gan Free­man has ar­guably played ver­sions of the trope in "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves," "The Shaw­shank Re­demp­tion," "Bruce Almighty" and its se­quel, Christo­pher Nolan's Bat­man tril­ogy and, most re­cently, last year's "Ben-Hur" re­make. "With such deep spir­i­tual wis­dom... you might won­der why the Mag­i­cal Ne­gro doesn't step up and save the day him­self. This will never hap­pen," notes the TV Tropes web­site.

"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 word "ne­gro" is con­sid­ered of­fen­sive and anachro­nis­tic by mod­ern English speak­ers, and "Mag­i­cal Ne­gro" is de­lib­er­ately provoca­tive in its fram­ing of a trope con­sid­ered to be borne of sub-con­scious racism.

In the af­ter­math of the "Os­cars So White" so­cial me­dia cam­paign that be­rated the Academy for fail­ing to rec­og­nize a sin­gle ac­tor of color among 40 nom­i­nees for the 2015 and 2016 cer­e­monies, it has been tempt­ing to as­sume any movie cast­ing among eth­nic mi­nori­ties for lead­ing roles must au­to­mat­i­cally be a good thing.

'Re­cy­cling the no­ble sav­age'

But crit­ics have ar­gued that ob­vi­ous ex­am­ples of dis­crim­i­na­tion, such as the un­der-rep­re­sen­ta­tion of mi­nori­ties on both sides of the cam­era, are ob­scur­ing this more sub­tle, in­sid­i­ous form of racism. The term "Mag­i­cal Ne­gro" was pop­u­lar­ized by film­maker Spike Lee, who said in 2001 he was frus­trated that ex­ec­u­tives were con­tin­u­ing to em­ploy the stereo­type, nam­ing and sham­ing "The Green Mile" (1999) and "The Leg­end of Bag­ger Vance" (2000). "Blacks are getting lynched left and right, and (Bag­ger Vance is) more con­cerned about im­prov­ing Matt Da­mon's golf swing," the "Mal­colm X" di­rec­tor, now 60, said.

"I've got to 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 added. Tara But­ters, co-cre­ator of "Kevin (Prob­a­bly) Saves the World," ar­gues that the show's guardian an­gel, far from be­ing just a guide for the white pro­tag­o­nist, was "her own hero" in the one-hour weekly drama, which premieres on Oc­to­ber 3. "And as the show ex­pands over mul­ti­ple episodes one of the things she'll re­al­ize is that, as much as she is there to help Kevin, Kevin ends up help­ing her," she said. "They end up cre­at­ing this re­ally in­ter­est­ing part­ner­ship." — AFP

Mor­gan Free­man

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