WHAT IS A MAGIC NEGRO? (As if you didn’t already Know)
Well, you know that wise person in a story that helps the hero achieve his quest? You know the one. He’s usually older, maybe has some magic or special knowledge. We don’t know where he (or she) came from, but he imparts his wisdom onto the hero and fades back into the shadows when the quest is over and the dragon is dead. Sometimes the wise man dies, or sometimes he just sits back and smiles at the hero for answering the call. And when this wise character is black, he is called the Magic Negro.
(John Amos isn’t the best example, but wasn’t it awesome seeing James Evans rise from the grave and star in Beastmaster?)
To a writer or storyteller, this role is very respectable for a black person to play. It’s also a great way to diversify your cast of characters. Age and Race – Check! And black people are just cooler and give off that spiritual mystique, right? Just look at Morpheus in The Matrix. Too Cool. Or look at Morgan Freeman in several films. He’s so commanding and authoritative.
SOUNDS LIKE A GREAT CHARACTER! SO WHAT’S WRONG?
The problem with black people playing these roles is that they play them more times than not. If you look at the main archetypes in many written pieces – The Hero, The Villain, The Sage, The Trickster, and The Lover – you don’t see black people (or other POC) cast across the board in equal amounts. Most writers stray away from putting a black person in the hero role because they want white people to read or see their stories. Even though black people watch and read stores with white protagonists all the time, somehow it’s assumed that black heroes won’t draw the mainstream audiences unless it’s Will Smith or Washington. I don’t even think this is a conscious effort all the time. It’s just habit for most mainstream writers to start off with a white protagonist and go from there. And those writers rarely want to cast a black person as a villain because “Why does the black guy have to be the bad guy?” backlash must be avoided. Personally, I think villains who are black work great. The Lover? Very Rare. The Trickster? Maybe for some comedy relief – Ruby Rod of Fifth Element. But it seems in the typical writer’s imagination, a black sage, teacher or wise man is a perfect role.
Unfortunately, besides being all too common, it paints the black image in a shallow light because of the lack of back story for them. Just like when a woman always plays the ‘lover’ or damsel-in-distress. The Sage character isn’t fleshed out like the villain, and only serves as a tool to help the protagonist. Keyword – tool. It speaks consciously and subconsciously that the black character is there only to help the usually white, usually male character.
Don’t get it twisted. Seeing the black Sage is cool. Actually it’s really cool. I can not think of many that I didn’t like. But seeing black actors play them all the time, and not the other roles, is tiring.
NOW A NEW NEGRO GRACES THE SCREEN
Now let me introduce you to a new character archetype that I’ve affectionately called – THE NOBLE NEGRO. I came up with this term when I started noticing a shift in the storytelling paradigm several years ago. I noticed this character showing up in stories who I would consider a second potential hero, equal to the hero or better in every way. And I find that this role is given to black actors or actors of color more than the hero role also.
I define a Noble Negro as – a black character that is courageous, has a moral or righteous center, and/or has the potential to be the hero or lead the group. In fact, he or she is more capable of being the hero than the chosen hero is. He also wins the hearts of the audience early in the story. And after a time, he’s killed off while saving the not-so-ready white hero, or some other character, or even the whole group. It gives the story a dramatic push, and a reason for the hero to step up and face the challenges. Here are some examples (spoiler warning):
- X-Men: First Class – Darwin (Edi Garthegi)
- Hunger Games – Rue (Amandla Stenberg)
- Chronicle – Steve Montgomery (Michael B. Jordan)
- Event Horizon – Captain Miller (Lawrence Fishburne)
- This Is The End – Craig Robinson (Craig Robinson) – Spoiler! Little bit of a cheat here because he sacrificed himself, but lived anyway!
- The Core – Dr. Ed ‘Braz’ Brazzleton (Delroy Lindo) – little magic/noble mix.
- The Walking Dead TV show – T-Dawg (IronE Singleton)
- The 100 TV show – Wells Jaha (Eli Goree) – Should have been the leader. Got shanked so a little girl could sleep better.
For the general audience, when a Noble Negro ‘willingly’ dies, it’s a poignant moment. And if you’re part of the theatrical crowd, you hear in chorus one big ‘Awwww Mannnn, I really liked him/her!’. With this Noble act of bravery the writers have made it clear that the hero has enough motivation to complete the quest. But for the black audience, the emotional draw of the Noble Negro is more intimate. We excitedly get to see ourselves possibly become a hero or share in the heroics, and then that image is abruptly and violently destroyed. A feeling of acute unfairness arises. Added to this is the idea that the weak hero now finds strength to move on where he/she didn’t have it before. So do they really deserve to be the hero?
And the genius of the writers (in their minds) that use this character archetype is that they say “Hey, he was a great courageous character! It wasn’t racist or wrong that we killed him off. He died a hero!” So in their minds they have (1) increased diversity, (2) made the black guy a hero, and (3) killed a darling. Oh, you don’t know about the ‘Must be willing to Kill your Darlings” theory of storytelling? It’s when you can’t be afraid of killing your most beloved characters. George R.R. Martin does it all the time, black and white.
This isn’t an opportunity to just bash writers for using black characters in what I feel is a cliché manner (maybe a little). And it certainly isn’t a mark of reproach or dishonor to the actors and actresses that have played in these roles. As I mentioned, I love most of these characters. This commentary is to address and question true diversity versus what is commonly accepted as diversity in story. And bring to light the confining parameters that black actors and actresses have to deal with in pursuing their career. There is no sound reason that a black actor (or any race) can’t play any of the main archetypes in a fictional tale. It just takes the courage of the writers, producers or studios to make the decisions not solely based on color (or gender or ethnicity for that matter).