Magic Negro

The Magic Negro and the Manic Pixie Dream Girl by Micheaux Mission


By MOE POPLAR @MauricePoplar

Hollywood is so equitable, you don’t have to be a negro to be a Magic Negro. Sure, the cliche is so typically a black dude, hence the name, but Mr. Miyagi is also playing the Magic Negro role.

The problem with the Magic Negro role is he doesn’t have a goal of his own; he sacrifices his life for the hero and he lacks community, history and his own story. One of the oldest examples of this is possibly “Nigger Jim” from Mark Twain’s 1884 classic novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Yup, this cinematic trope comes from the great American Novel. But more precisely, it’s a thing of the American imagination: black people don’t have histories, they’re just here to help us, and we get the credit. Three guesses on who ‘we’ are?

There are tons of cinematic examples of the Magic Negro from Morpheus in the Matrix, Will Smith’s character from Bagger Vance, Morgan Freeman from Driving Miss Daisy AND Shawshank Redemption, Michael C Duncan in the Green Mile and plenty others. In the remake of Robocop, Michael K Williams literally dies twice so that our hero can live. And you don’t have to be a dude to be a Magic Negro: Hattie McDaniels, Taraji P Henson and Octavia Spencer won Oscars being agenda less, sexless and sacrificial to help some white folks get over the hump. I don’t mean to suggest that these women are not amazing, award worthy actresses, but it’s noteworthy that these are the roles they’re recognized for.

The same is true for the Manic Pixie dream girl. Think Natalie Portman from Garden State, Angelina Jolie from Wanted or Zooey Deschanel from 500 Days of Summer. Another way to describe this cliche is the ‘hooker with a heart of gold.’ These women have nothing to do in their lives but sleep with a loser guy to make him feel better about himself, no strings attached. Again, this character seems to exist as extremely attractive, available and aggressive in pursuing and encouraging of our protagonist, usually a man.

Curiously, the Magic Pixie Dreamgirl is rarely ever a sista. Only Rae Dawn Chong in Soul Man comes to mind. This film is so problematic… of course it checks all the boxes. Serpent and the Rainbow and Angel Heart are pretty foggy in my memory, but I seem to recall them fitting the bill too. Is the issue that black women aren’t easily imagined as ‘quirky, and supportive,’ or is it that in order to have a Magic Pixie Dreamgirl, you need a white man as a protagonist?

This tradition is old and played out. There is an idea that race IS background, history, description, etc. That frumpy quirky girl or sage black/ Japanese/ Latino/ Native American dude who seeks to rescue our hero and make him better. They pour everything they have, know and are into the white guy, because that’s how the world should be. Regardless of how lazy and undeserving this makes the hero look, it’s OK, he’s ‘chosen.’ A film like Django Unchained tries to flip the trope on its head, to marginal success. The problem isn’t race, it’s poor storytelling. But the race stuff is a problematic too. Even Howard the Duck gets the treatment. And he’s a duck.

If this were the 80’s, I’d turn and say, “Brotha’s need idle, helpful, white women to support their inadequacies and desires too.” But alas, we’re more woke than that these days.  (And if it wasn’t clear, that was a joke, folks.)

Ironically, we can look to the 1980 for a great couple examples of minorities; race and gender,  in cinema. 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back includes Lando Calrissian and Princess Leia. Both have backstories, goals and agendas that don’t necessarily correspond with the protagonist. Lando is Han’s old friend but he’s got responsibilities now so he sell’s Han out. Leia isn’t just available for any old guy to pick up. She’s got a rebellion to lead. Sometimes she’s helping Luke and Han… sometimes they’re helping her. Leia is an example of how a woman can be a romantic interest, an enabler and a whole person. Lando is an example of how ‘The Other’ can be normal, interesting and not just a throwaway character. One typical trope of the magic negro is that he’s neutered. Lando is not Neutered.

Now Yoda, is a whole different story. Yoda is chillin’ on Degoba, waiting for a young helpless (white) boy to show up. Then the Jedi Master teaches Luke everything he knows, imparts some sage wisdom, and, his work being done here… promptly dies. If that ain’s some movie n!&&@ s#!+, I don’t know what is. Equal rights for puppets, yo! Puppet lives matter!

So, my point is, Hollywood knows better. And on occasion, Hollywood does better. But typically, in the movies black folks and cute white women are just scaffolding to help white boys become men. And the sistas. The sista’s don’t exist unless they’re light skinned, or playing Mammy.  What’s really funny though, is when you meet a white boy who’s seen too many movies, and thinks you’re going to be their footstool to greatness. Yeah, that’s real funny, until one gets elected.

Moe Poplar is a husband, dad, writer, filmmaker, Micheaux Missionary, and habitual line stepper.