While I may not love Spike Lee’s movies, I have to admit he gives one hell of a soundbite. As I’ve briefly discussed before, back in 2001, Lee claimed that he was sick of seeing the “Super Duper Magical Negro” in film — an African-American character who typically had next-to-no storyline or motivations of his own and whose power only went to “help the white man” who is, naturally, the real protagonist.
Salon notes that the coining of this term came as a result of a flush of films that had recently come out:
[P]layed by the likes of Cuba Gooding Jr., in “What Dreams May Come” (a spirit guide helping Robin Williams rescue his wife from Hell), Will Smith in “The Legend of Bagger Vance” (a sherpa-on-the-green, mentoring Matt Damon’s golfer), Laurence Fishburne in “The Matrix” (Obi-Wan to Keanu Reeves’ Luke Skywalker) and Michael Clarke Duncan in “The Green Mile” (a gentle giant on death row whose touch heals white folks’ illnesses).
Obviously the “Magical Negro” has been around in popular culture (Jim in Huckleberry Finn, Uncle Remus, etc.) for ages, but Lee may have been very specifically blasting the fact that, even in the 21st century, filmmakers were still placing African-American characters (and, by extension, African-American actors) into offensively subordinating roles.
But surely now, in our enlightened post-beer summit Obama era, we are free at last from this silly convention. Not so, says Salon. They point to Legendary, a new movie that came out last Friday, with Danny Glover as a local fisherman named Harry who “always has the right things to say” to his white acquaintance, Cal (played by Devon Graye). But surely well-respected veteran actor Danny Glover isn’t just some stereotype. Right?
The only character who speaks to Harry directly is Cal, and their conversations are always about Cal and his well-being. He’s such the benevolent guardian angel figure that the cynical viewer half-expects him to be revealed as a figment of Cal’s imagination.
Sigh — sounds like the very criteria that flunks the Bechdel Test for female characters. There’s also something more than a little troubling about the fact that Glover is at the very back of a poster that contains some guy no one’s heard of and Patricia Clarkson. Even if he’s only a supporting character, Glover is still an A-list actor.
There’s a great moment in NBC’s highly underrated show, Community, when the lead white male, Jeff Winger (Joel McHale) begins bearing his soul to an African-American woman in the cafeteria, and when she looks at him oddly, he apologies and explains that television and film has trained him to believe that African-Americans exist only to be his personal gurus in times of emotional duress or uncertainty. But most importantly at all: my God, it’s high time we were done with this ridiculous, patronizing, non-existent character type.
What always baffles me is: what’s the point of having this kind of character at all? Is it meant to make the lead character look more accepting of other races? Is it meant to give more screen time, but not much more importance, to African-American characters or actors? What’s your take — is the super duper magical negro here to stay, or is Legendary just one of the last dregs of this offensive trope?