In recent years, the conversation around Black representation in film has been way more dynamic. Artists and activists are fighting for more complex Black characters on screen. However, we also need to focus on who is writing the characters. White creators dominate the world of producing and writing, therefore they are the ones to write what type of Black characters get seen. The “ideal” Black person in novels and film are often portrayed by white creators via the trope of “magical Negro.” Scholars have defined the “magical Negro” as the Black character in the film who uses their magical abilities to help the white protagonist achieve their goal. These characters’ arcs are usually limited to aiding the white protagonist and do not use their powers to help themselves. It is important to study the “magical negro” trope because though it is built on racist beliefs it is consistently used in film. This study asks: How is the Magical Negro trope used by white creators to portray the version of Black people they deem ideal? To what extent does Chritian sentimentality influence how the Magical Negro behaves and interacts with the white protagonist? I analyze the 1852 play adaptation of the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the 1999 film The Green Mile, and the 1990 film Ghost. Using these sources, I find that the Christian sentimentality found in Uncle Tom’s cabin greatly influenced the definition of what white people deemed the perfect Black person and how the Magical Negro trope acts as a tool to enforce these antiquated beliefs.
The “magical Negro,” as described by Kwame Anthony Appiah and recontextualized by Cerise Glenn and Landra Cunningham, is “‘the noble, good-hearted Black man or woman’ whose good sense pulls the White character through a crisis.”1Appiah also dubbed the magical negro characters as “saints.” The “magic” these characters imbue varies from “folk wisdom,” “clairvoyance,” “healing,” and other mystical abilities. However, the piece of “magic” that relates most magical negro character to the “other” is Christianity. These saint-like character’s power lies in their connection to God. Their morality causes them to look past whatever wrongdoings white people had inflicted on them in the past and allows them to wholeheartedly help their white protagonist achieve their goal.
This study asks: How is the Magical Negro trope used by white creators to portray the version of Black people they deem ideal? To what extent does Chritian sentimentality influence how the magical Negro behaves and interacts with the white protagonist? I analyze the novel
Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which is the birth of the “Uncle Tom” stereotype.” This stereotype heavily influenced “the magical Negro” trope in film and television. I also analyze the films, The Green Mile and Ghost, both of which feature a Black person with “magical” powers.
The United States has a complicated and complex history in regards to race. This country was founded on the backs of Black people and is rooted in white supremacy. This foundation affects everything produced here, the legal system, the education system and the media. The types of films that have graced American screens all are influenced by this idea of race, whether it be in the forms of stereotypes or the complete absence of Black faces. Some may ask, what role does race play in the media? Isn’t race just a biological thing?
In the article, “Keyword: Race,” author Ann Morning finds that the Census Bureau does not consider race biological:
Biological differences are also declared irrelevant to the official standards. The Census Bureau maintains that its categories “do not conform to any biological, anthropological or genetic criteria.” Instead, the bureau says that its classification system reflects “a social definition of race recognized in this country”—but it does not elaborate further on that “social definition.”2
Why is race so important? Scholar John L. Jackson analyzes this question, “ We must think of race not biologically but as a malleable political and social designation that affects people’s daily interactions and deep seated beliefs about the world and their place in it.”3 Therefore, if white America wants to keep its hold how Black people are perceived and subsequently their place in the world, then they must also control their portrayal in the media. The “magical negro” is a way of maintaining this control.
In the article “The Power of Black Magic: The Magical Negro and White Salvation in Film,” authors, Cerise L. Glenn and Landra J. Cunningham analyze how the Magical Negro trope was originally presented as a form of racial harmony but actually is just a reinvention of old racial stereotypes. While the “magical Negro” and white protagonist are presented as “friends” there is still a hierarchical nature to the “friendship,” leaving the Black character less of an equal and more of an old stereotype.4 By keeping the guise of racial harmony, white creators keep up appearances of growth in representation but actually are maintaining their own perceptions of what Blackness should be. The article goes on to look at how this trope prevails in contemporary media and therefore makes it harder for Black people to progress past them. This aids in my paper because it looks at the contemporary use of the trope as a good thing and further dissects it to how it fully affects the people it portrays.
Professor of theater Heather S. Nathans, talks on the importance of Christian sentimentality in the times of slavery, specifically during the increase in slave rebellions. She uses Elizabeth Styker Ricard’s 1842 play, Zamba, to make her point:
What narrative strategy might offer white audiences a way out of the dire fate that awaited them at the hands of the budding revolutionaries around them? Christian sentiment held the key. Zamba, the lead character in Ricard’s play, overcomes his pagan roots and desire for revenge and saves his master from a threatened slave uprising, demonstrating both his Christian charity and his fitness for freedom.5
Christianity gave whites the protection they needed to keep Black people from inflicting the violence on them they had been inflicting on Black people. The ideal, noble, saint-like Black character eventually evolved into the magical Negro trope we see today. Christianity offered one major facet of the trope, but the other side of the trope is the false sense of harmony/friendship it displays between Blacks and whites.
Methods and Data
I conducted a content analysis of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and the films The Green Mile and Ghost.
For the sake of this paper, I will further analyze Uncle Tom using the 1852 play adaption of the Harriet Beacher Stowe novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The play, written by George Aiken, follows enslaved person, Uncle Tom, and his journey from master to master. Some masters are kind to Tom, others are extremely violent. But regardless of how they treat Tom, Tom always forgives them.
The 1999 film The Green Mile is based on the 1996 Stephen King Novel of the same name. The Green Mile follows the relationship between deathrow supervisor Paul Edgecombe death row inmate John Coffey, who has magical powers. The movie paints the pair as an unlikely friendship, but this essay will prove that is a fallacy.
The 1990 film Ghost is a romantic thriller that follows couple Sam Wheat and Molly Jensen’s relationship after Sam is murdered and becomes a ghost. Molly doesn’t know that Sam is now a ghost after his murder and Sam enlists spiritual advisor Oda Mae Brown as his medium for the two. The rest of the film follows Sam solving his murder and getting close to Molly one last time before he crosses over to the light, leaving the in between.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852)
This character type was born before the magical Negro trope, it was even born before film and television. The birth of this stereotype can be found in the play/novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
The Uncle Tom stereotype is a Black person who is docile, moral, religious and forgiving. Often, Uncle Toms are associated with those who love and adore the white man. In the play, the character Tom also has a very close relationship with a little white girl in the play, Eva, whose family buys Tom after he saves Eva from drowning. Tom and Eva have such a close relationship that she even kisses him on the cheek and showers him with affection. St. Clare, Eva’s father, let’s this slide because Tom is a “moral slave,” devoted to God. Tom, though a Black man, fits into the type of Black person St. Clare deems useful and respectable. Therefore Tom is put on a pedestal and given privileges other enslaved people weren’t allotted. St. Clare speaks of Tom like this:
St. C. What would the poor and lowly do without children? Your little child is your only true democrat. Tom, now, is a hero to Eva; his stories are wonders in her eyes; his songs and Methodist hymns are better than an opera, and the traps and little bits of trash in his pockets are a mine of jewels, and he is the most wonderful Tom that ever wore a Black skin. This is one of the roses of Eden that the Lord has dropped down expressly for the poor and lowly, who get few enough of any other kind.6
Tom is the rose the Lord dropped down. The play was produced at venues throughout the country between 1852 and 1930. The large circulation of this play shows the power of Christian sentimentality in the portrayal of Black characters. The notion of Christian sentimentality Nathans discusses is extremely relevant here. Audiences flocked to theaters to see Uncle Tom. Eva gets sick and passes away, but her dying wish is that her father frees Uncle Tom. Though he agrees to the wish at the time, St. Clare neglects to sign Uncle Tom’s freedom papers over and over, citing that he still needs Tom because he is in mourning. Uncle Tom happily stays by his side. St. Clare eventually receives a mortal wound and dies, telling Tom:
St. C. [After a pause.] Tom, one thing preys upon my mind—I have forgotten to sign your freedom papers. What will become of you when I am gone?
To which Tom simply responds:
Tom. Don’t think of that, mas’r.7
After being there time and time again for St. Clare and his family, Tom still does not receive the one thing he deserves, his freedom, and he is okay with it. This is also a stablizing virtue of the magical Negro. In the article, “The Power of Black Magic,” Glenn and Cunningham cite Entman and Rojecki, who defined “three main purposes for the magical Negro in relation to the lead White character in the film: (a) to assist the character, (b) to help him or her discover and utilize his or her spirituality, and (c) to offer a type of “folk wisdom” used to resolve the character’s dilemma.”8 Though Entman and Rojecki’s study was published in 2001, all of these purposes relate to the character Uncle Tom.
The Green Mile (1999)
We see another incarnation of Uncle Tom, in the 1999 film The Green Mile. The magical Negro in this film, John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan) actually possesses magical abilities. Coffey is a seven-foot, 350-pound Black man convicted for the rape and murder of two little white girls after he was found holding their dead, bloody bodies. However, corrections officer Paul Edgcombe (Tom Hanks) soon discovers that Coffey has immense healing abilities and is extremely empathetic. He is less of a monster and more of a gentle giant. After Edgecombe enlists Coffey in healing himself and others Edgecombe wants healed, he discovers, through another one of Coffey’s magical abilities, he did not kill those girls, he was found holding them because he was trying to heal them, and is in fact innocent. Despite knowing of Coffey’s innocence the film still ends with Edgecombe going through with Coffey’s execution via the electric chair, but he does it with “kindness.”
Though painted in the film to be an unlikely friendship, Coffey and Edgecombe’s relationship is one-sided. As Glenn and Cunningham put it, “John Coffey, the magical Negro, uses his spiritual gifts to help many; however, his actions are directed primarily toward the interests of Paul Edgecombe, the lead white character.”9 Nothing Coffey does in this film is used to benefit himself or help him get off death row. His sole purpose in the film is to help and serve the white characters. Even though Coffey dies in the end, his death helps Edgecombe and his guards on death row “discover their spirituality.” As Coffey dies, Edgcombe and his guards watch him, holding back tears, moved by this magical “miracle.” After the execution, Edgecombe quits his job as death row supervisor and feels forever guilty for what he did. However, though Edgecombe is left feeling guilty for his deed, the end of the movie paints him as having gained some immense wisdom. At the end of it all, he does live a long life and Coffey is dead.
However, Coffey did not have to die. The white creators behind this film chose to let him die. And why? Just like Uncle Tom chooses to be beaten to the brink of death by his master at the end of the play rather than escape, Coffey chose to die rather than escape from jail, even after Edgecombe offers to help him escape. Both Tom and Coffey fit into the melodramatic theme of Black suffering in exchange for white sympathy. As Linda Williams points out in her article, “Melodrama in Black and White”:
When Edgecomb asks Coffey if he wants to run away, Coffey, like Uncle Tom, has no interest in escape. Escape is futile to a saint fatigued by life’s ugliness. It thus remains for Edgecomb to make himself and the audience “feel good” about this execution. To “feel good” is not to feel happy, but to feel appropriately identified with the suffering of the Black saint and thus, melodramatically, to recognize one’s own.10
Uncle Tom and John Coffey are too pure, too saintly for the ugly world they are put in. But the creators of these works make sure that audiences don’t confuse this ugliness for all white people. We see Edgecombe cry over Coffey and Uncle Tom kneels at Little Eva’s feet when he gets to heaven. The ugliness is at the hands of the evil white people who don’t follow the path of God. Like Simon Legree who beats Uncle Tom and denies God, or the actual murder and rapist of the little white girls in The Green Mile. The magical Negros are so magical because, like Zamba, they don’t require revenge, they forgive. They forgive like Jesus forgave on the cross. Stephen King himself said that John Coffey’s initials represent Jesus Christ; he represents the new Messiah.
Williams asks, “Why is it that American audiences, apparently both Black and white, have chosen to warm their hearts with this story of a Black man on death row who suffers mightily?”11 Because both Black and white audiences are used to this depiction of Black people in the media. The magical Negro narrative had become an accepted one. For audiences to accept and love the Black man, he must be magical. This begs to question, what makes audiences love the Black woman? The magical Negro is not just confined to the male body.
Whoopi Golberg’s character, Oda Mae Brown, is the magical Negro in the film Ghost. We meet Oda Mae Brown shortly after Sam realizes he is in fact a ghost and follows his killer to their apartment. The killer is a Black Puerto Rican man who lives in predominantly Black and brown neighborhood. After learning this man was hired to kill him, Sam leaves the apartment and find’s Oda Mae Brown’s place of business. The sign reads “Sister Oda Mae Brown: Spiritual Advisor.” When he enters, gospel music plays on a record and the waiting room is filled with older women waiting to be seen, on the wall of the waiting room is a painting of The Last Supper with Black Jesus and disciples. On the door leading to Oda Mae Brown’s office, there is a crucifix on the door, all the makings of a Christian household. Oda’s office is filled with candles and clothes. It all feels very mystical and magical. However we soon learn Oda has been faking her abilities until Sam speaks to her, and for the first time she can actually hear a ghost. She is initially scared of this and refuses to help Sam, but Sam continues to pester her until she agrees to go to Molly and act as his medium for communicating with her.
As Glenn and Cunningham put it, “Whoopi Goldberg’s role in Ghost (1990), the spiritual assistant with powers used to assist the lead White character, helped transcend the characterization of Blacks in popular film. The film industry views Blacks through the magical Negro lens more often, leading to the growing popularity of these movies in recent years.”12 Whoopi Goldberg won an Oscar for her role in Ghost. But just as the male magical Negro is rooted in the Uncle Tom stereotype, the female magical Negro also exist within stereotype and Christianity.
When Sam, Oda, and Molly first interact, Sam continues to use the Lord’s name in vain, to which Oda Mae says “Don’t take the Lord’s name in vain. I don’t play that mess” and threatens to leave if he continues. The heavy use of Christianity in Oda’s entrance leans heavily toward the use of Christian sentimentality, however, unlike Uncle Tom, Oda is not gentle and docile. Oda is sassy, stubborn, and always opposing what Sam has to say until he eventually guides her to do the right thing. Glenn and Cunningham say, “When a Black woman exists as a magical Negro, she encompasses traits of the mammy and jezebel stereotypes.”13 And though I believe this is true, I would argue another character trope from Uncle Tom’s Cabin is also present in Oda Mae Brown’s magical Negro depiction: The character of Topsy. While Oda did carry many Mammy qualities, such as taking care of Sam and Molly, and her sole purpose in the film is to aid the white protagonist, I believe she leans more toward the Topsy end of the spectrum. The mammy figure is usually imbued with a sense of wisdom, she is the one who feeds, cares for and nurtures the white family, whereas in Ghost, Sam is often teaching Oda Mae the right thing to do. In Uncle Tom’s cabin, Topsy is a little enslaved girl of St. Clare. She is a troublemaker, ignorant and mischievous. St. Clare enlists his cousin Ophelia to take Topsy under wing and teach her the ways of God and civilization. Similar to the relationship between Oda Mae and Sam, though Oda Mae is already a Christian it is not until Sam is in her life that her medium abilities become real.
Even though Oda is the main reason Sam is able to accomplish anything, she is presented as the less intelligent of the two, the one in need of more guidance. There is a scene in the film, where to enact revenge on the person hired to kill him, Sam gets Oda Mae to pretend to be someone else and close an account in a bank worth four million dollars. He tells her to wear something nice to which she appears in a bright pink suit and matching hat. Here, he criticizes her but also treats her like a child who did not know what was appropriate to wear. Oda Mae just laughs and struts into the bank. This moment reminded me of a scene in Uncle Tom’s cabin between Ophelia and Topsy:
Oph. Will you tell me, now, you didn’t steal the ribbon?
Top. No, missis; stole de gloves, but didn’t steal de ribbon. It was permiskus.
Oph. Why, you young reprobate!
Top. Yes—I’s knows I’s wicked!
Oph. Then you know you ought to be punished.
[Boxes her ears.]
What do you think of that?
Top. He, he, he! De Lord, missus; dat wouldn’t kill a ‘skeeter. [Runs off laughing, R. U. E. OPHELIA follows indignantly, R. U.E.]14
Both interactions follow a similar arc. The Black woman/girl is wearing something the white character deemed “foolish,” the white character scolds them for it, and the Black character carelessly laughs and runs off.
Discussion and Conclusion
The “magic” of the Magical Negro is not a superpower for Blackness, it is a tool for whiteness. What Black audiences need is more Black characters who magic is used to better them and their community. We need more Black characters whose magic is not rooted in a Black stereotype but pushing for a Black future. We need fewer magical Negros and more Black superheroes. As Adilifu Nama writes in his study of Black superheroes:
Superheroes are the embodiment of American morality and the national ethos, Black superheroes become that much more captivating as symbolic figures—they signify a type of racial utopia where whites can accept Blacks as superhuman, intellectually and physically superior, and benevolent protectors of all humanity.15
Magic implies something outside of a person being used through them, power implies it is in that person all along. By making Black people magical because they help a white protagonist implies they are only useful, worthy, noble, when they are helping witness. But Black people are still powerful when they are not helping whiteness. Black people are still worthy when they are not Christian. Black people are still worthy when they aren’t superheroes. Regular, ordinary Black people still matter.
The magical Negro trope enforces the ideal version of Black people through a white lens. More Black creators need to get into creative spaces of power so that they can influence the stories that get told. There is no ideal Black person. Black people are multifaceted and unique. One story is not the universal Black story. The more Black people we have telling stories, the more real they will be.
- Cerise L Glenn and Landra J. Cunningham, “Black Magic: The Magical Negro and White Salvation in Film,” Journal of Black Studies 40, no. 2 (2009): 135-152.
- Anne Morning, “Keyword: Race,” Contexts 4, Issue 4 (2005): 44-46.
- John L. Jackson, “White Harlem: Towards the Performative Limits of Blackness,” Harlemworld Doing Race and Class in Contemporary Black America (University of Chicago Press, 2001), 164.
- Glenn and Cunningham, “Black Magic.”
- Heather S. Nathans, “Slave Rebellions on the Nation Stage,” in The Cambridge Companion to African American Theatre,” edited by Harvey Young (Cambridge University Press, 2013).
- George Aiken, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, University of Virginia
- Aiken, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
- Glenn and Cunningham, “Black Magic,” 138.
- Glenn and Cunningham, “Black Magic,” 151.
- Linda Williams, “Melodrama in Black and White: Uncle Tom and The Green Mile,” Film Quarterly 55, no. 2 (2001): 14–21.
- Williams, “Melodrama in Black and White,” 18.
- Glenn and Cunningham, “Black Magic,” 137.
- Glenn and Cunningham, “Black Magic,” 150.
- Aiken, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
- Adilifu Nama, “For Reel? Black Superheroes Come to Life,” Super Black: American Pop Culture and Black Superheroes (University of Texas Press, 2016.)