John Coffey in The Green Mile. Cash in The Family Man. Bagger Vance in The Legend of Bagger Vance. These are just a few of the magical negro archetypes that have appeared in American fiction, particularly films, for decades.
For anyone unfamiliar with the term, magical negro refers to a black character, who often by virtue of some magical or spiritual power helps the white protagonist through some personal challenge or crisis. The magical negro is seldom developed as a character in his or her own right, and often adheres to a number of different stereotypes. The character of Bagger Vance is particularly ironic given that the film is named after him, yet we never learn anything about him, and once he has fulfilled his role as purveyor of the white protagonist’s salvation or redemption, he disappears just as suddenly as he came.
Because the character is not developed, the audience does not really get the opportunity to peer into the magical negro’s thoughts, their concerns, their own personal take on the events as they transpire. One might wonder what would happen to the truly self-aware magical negro, and by that I mean one who is aware of the archetype and his or her own adherence to it.
Nnedi Okorafor’s Magical Negro presents an unnamed fantasy world, perhaps even an alternative Earth. Given that the main character’s name is Thor the Brave, Okorafor evokes Norse mythology, and makes it plain that the main character is white, with his “long blonde hair blowing in the breeze”.
It is one of the oldest clichés that the “forces of darkness” will set upon that which is good and “light”. In a medium where the heroes are most often white and characters of color – especially black characters – are reduced to plot devices, and in a society where power is designated along lines of “light” and “dark”, the old trope is necessarily racialized.
Poor Thor the Brave stands at the brink of death – literally, as he stands at the edge of a cliff, with malevolent shadow creatures approaching his back to destroy him. Then out of nowhere – at least not anywhere important enough for us to know in any detail – a black man appears and attempts to explain to Thor how he can save himself, by tapping into the power within his own heart. Shortly thereafter, the shadow creatures fall upon the black man and pierce him through the chest.
Here, Okorafor points the finger at another popular Hollywood tradition: killing off the black character first, and before s/he has a chance to develop. These two conventions complement each other so well, it is a wonder that they are not used together more often. Perhaps that is where Hollywood draws the line; after all, they wouldn’t want to be seen as ham-fisted in their approach. No, never that.
But Okorafor’s story takes a dramatic turn, as the magical negro has a moment of self-awareness. He dismisses the shadow creatures with a stern rebuke, then turns to Thor with some choice words:
“Look…fuck you.” Then he looked up at the blue sky and said, “My ass comes here to save his ass and after I tell him what he needs to do, I get sixed? Whatchu think I am? Some fuckin’ shuckin’, jivin’, happy Negro still dying for the massa ‘cause my life ain’t worth shit?”
The Magical Negro then proceeds to use his unexplained powers to magically toss Thor off the cliff to his death. He breaks the fourth wall, warning the reader that things are about to change, that the end is nigh for the mystical black sacrificial lamb.
One can only hope that while Hollywood continues to use the Magical Negro archetype, that there will be a parallel stream of stories where characters of color get their due. After all, I certainly would pay the price of admission for a film about such a bombastic character, especially as he goes off in pursuit of “Hobbits, castles, Rastas, dragons, juke joints, princesses and shit.”