By Cian Pierce
One of the main characters of the Stephen King novel ‘The Green Mile’ is John Coffey (played in the movie adaptation by the late Michael Clarke Duncan). Coffey finds himself on death row, wrongfully convicted for the “killing” of two white girls, but he possesses enormous supernatural powers. While in jail he performs a multitude of miracles including curing the main character’s bladder infection, curing the warden’s wife of her brain cancer and bringing the mouse, Mr. Jungles, back to life. Regardless, by the end of the novel, Coffey feels he is tired of suffering from his heightened awareness of the world’s suffering and of his disadvantaged position in the world as a poor black man, requests they go through with his execution. The end of Coffey’s story is him thanking the jailers that never questioned his guilt or that have done anything to try help or convince him to try get out of jail.
Coffey is a textbook example of the trope known as ‘The Magical Negro’, a trope that should be retired. The Magical Negro is a trope in literature, television, and cinema; popularized by director Spike Lee (known recently for BlacKkKlansman in 2018 and Da 5 Bloods in 2020) in 2001 while discussing how Hollywood continues to employ the trope. The “Magical Negro” is a black character whose sole purpose is to help advance the desires and plot for the white protagonist(s), they are usually old/poor and possess a deep spiritual wisdom, and sometimes, actual magical abilities. The existence of a magical black character who selflessly helps white people harkens back to the stereotypical “noble savage”.
Another more commonly known example of the Magical Negro trope is almost every Morgan Freeman character. Most well known is his portrayal of God in the Bruce/Evan Almighty films, here Morgan plays a literally magical neigh-omnipotent being whose sole purpose in the films is to assist the selfish white main characters in finding wisdom. In Batman Begins, he plays the character Lucius Fox, a tech genius who happily agrees to make and give Bruce Wayne all the gear he needs, no questions asked. The Magical Negro often serves as a crutch for a character playing the part of the trope known as ‘The White Saviour’, a problematic trope where a white character is presented as a knight in shining armour coming to save a non-white group (Green Book, the 2018 movie that won the Oscar for Best Picture, is built around this trope).
Why has this trope survived in Hollywood? One possible reason is that by turning black people into a supernatural character, they become no longer entirely human. As Jonathan Braylock, co-host of the “Black Men Can’t Jump (In Hollywood)” podcast said: “Even 150 years after slavery has ended, white people still feel more comfortable with a black person if they don’t have to recognize their full humanity. […] They only explore the outer edges of the black experience and refuse to recognize that being black is normal.” The exoticization of black people in media functions primarily to lessen the impact of the audience’s white guilt, this occurs also in other industries, notably in the beauty industry where historically, from Sarah Baartman to Beyonce, black bodies have consistently been over-sexualized.
In the incredible short story “The Magical Negro”, Nnedi Okorafor attempts to dissect the mythology surrounding the ever-present stock character in the white imagination and literature. For far too many black people, the trope reflects an uncomfortable reality, as suggested by research on the deadly effects of super-humanization bias. Researchers Adam Wyatz, Kelly M. Hoffman and Sophie Trawalter wrote: “a subtler form of dehumanization of [black people] persists [that] increases endorsement of police brutality against [black people] … and reduces altruism toward [them].”
The ’Magical Negro’ trope has acted as a tool to reinforce antiquated beliefs, beliefs that directly affect the perception of black people’s humanity. Through literature and cinema, the Magical Negro aids in the systemic dehumanisation of the black community, and in this day and age, it is an outdated trope that should be retired. The African diaspora has so many unique and interesting stories, it is truly a shame that for so long we have only served a supporting role in the stories of perceived white saviours.