Politrix: The Magical Negro

Yes, the U.S. is way too mixed up in Russia-Georgia relations, and we’re still competing in the 24/7 commercial that is the Olympics, and I suppose I could have written about one of those topics this week, but instead I feel compelled to write about something that’s been rattling around in my head for a while, in hopes that fishing it out and examining it will set it free. So here goes: “Scatman Crothers.”
Until recently, I’d never watched The Shining all the way through (yeah, I get scared), so I had no idea to whom the high cats in Knocked Up were referring in one particularly hilarious scene-you have to see that movie, no description does it justice-I just laughed because the name “Scatman Crothers” sounded funny to me. But a couple of weeks ago, while writing a column for this very magazine, I got sucked into this still-creepy movie. When the credits rolled, I read that the guy playing “Dick Hallorann” (the Black man who gets killed trying to save the family from Nicholson’s insane character) was named none other than Scatman Crothers. Connection made. Then it started to bother me that this brother had given his life for a family that he barely knew, and it made me think of a term that I had heard before, but never really delved into: The Magical Negro.

Used by ass-face Rush Limbaugh last year to great racist effect, it basically refers to a stock African-American character who appears to help white folks out of scrapes. He usually has no past, simply appears to solve a problem, then fades back into the background, and he sometimes gives his life to protect the white protagonist. “Dick Hallorann” was a MN. So was Morgan Freeman’s character in Driving Miss Daisy (and Se7en, and Bruce Almighty, and Evan Almighty, and Million Dollar Baby…). Same goes for Jennifer Hudson’s truly-awful character in the Sex and the City movie, Will Smith as “Baggar Vance” and “Hancock,” Denzel Washington as “Creasy” in Man on Fire and Laurence Fishburne’s “Morpheus” in The Matrix trilogy.

I had spent so much time rebelling against The Great White Hope (the white guy who saves the savages, ie: The Last Samuari, Freedom Writers, The Mummy) that I didn’t do more than pause when I saw the Magical Negro save the day (except when I saw the heart-wrenching Man on Fire, which pissed me off through my tears).

But watching the race for president unfold has brought it to the fore, and I can’t help but ask: Is Barack Obama a Magical Negro?

Let’s examine the requirements. The Republicans keep saying Obama has no experience, that he swooped in out of nowhere after making an amazing speech at the 2004 National Democratic Convention, so I guess that means he has no past. Except that he does, as a civil right attorney and grassroots organizer in Chicago, state senator and elected member of the U.S. Senate.

And what of the part about saving cats? It’s undeniable that he’s here to solve our nation’s myriad ills, so that fits. But the thing about a MN is that he often has some mystical source of power (like Morgan Freeman being God, or Scatman having visions of mayhem in the old hotel), and unless hopemongering counts as a superpower, I’m afraid Obama is SOL in that department. Not to mention that he needs a lot more than some vague mystical power to turn this mammoth ship around.

As for the third part of the MN Test, only time will tell if he fades into the background after his time in the spotlight is over. (here’s hoping that the light shines long and bright.) But the more interesting question is: Will he sacrifice himself to save the protagonist? I guess that depends on who the leading lady is: America? His party? The establishment? Black folks?

Who knows? I just hope that if he does rescue us, we don’t allow him to go the way of the MN for our own advancement.

What do you think?


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