'Magical Negro': The Racist Cliche Hollywood Won't Drop
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.
- Spiritual wisdom -
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."