Thursday, October 9, 2008

get emotional and spiritual with blackness

Before you read this post about another thing that a lot of white people do, you should watch this brief preview of a hilarious new romantic comedy. While you’re watching, see if you can count how many Magical Negroes get crammed into a mere two minutes of advertising, for a movie that's actually about white people.

Okay, so I lied to get your attention, this movie isn't a lighthearted romantic comedy (although to me, it does look pretty funny, in an unintentionally clumsy sort of way). Fireproof is actually a somber, apparently heavy-handed drama, about a marriage that isn't "fireproof" because the husband (played by Kirk Cameron, of TV's Growing Pains fame) just isn't there in emotional terms for his wife. The reason he's not "there" is because he hasn't encased his "home," as it were, in the fireproof siding of Christian faith, thereby locking himself and his wife inside it until, as the preacher sayeth, "death do us part."

The fire metaphor seems messed up--don't firefighters rescue people from burning homes? Or, wait, let's see, Jesus was a carpenter, so if this husband finds Jesus . . . together they can build a new, “fireproof” home?

Anyway, this movie's painfully serious storyline probably accounts for the presence of one of the black characters, the one pushing a broom and cracking wise with a white guy--he's comic relief, and he wouldn't be there otherwise. He's also cracking wise about emotional things, matters of the heart, which is why, as I'll explain in a minute, he's a Magical Negro. As for the other black characters, I counted four more--two straight-talking friends of the white wife, a straight-talking nurse, and yet another straight-talker near the end, who looks to be a co-worker of the much-too-literally firefighting husband.

And what are these black folks talking so straight about with the two white protagonists? Love, baby, nothin' but love, and especially, how to fix it. Which is, again, what makes them "Magical Negroes." Black folks, you see, are supposedly closer to their emotions, and even to the spirit world. So when white folks in movies need help in those areas, they often reach out to conveniently located black folks for help.

I shouldn't say much more about this movie, since I haven't seen it. Reading around a bit reveals that it was made by Sherwood Pictures, a division of the Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Georgia. Its distributor is Provident Films, a Christian-oriented division of Sony Pictures, which in turn was apparently inspired to create such a division by the success of Mel Gibson's "Just try to tear your eyes away from THIS!" spectacle, The Passion of the Christ.

So Fireproof is actually a vehicle for Christian proselytizing, or "outreach," as the Sherwood Baptist Church might put it. As their website explains, on a page advertising a spinoff from the movie, marriage-counseling services: "Sherwood Pictures was birthed with the purpose of engaging the culture in a format that is understood." I think the culture they’re mostly engaging with is a largely white one—in terms of race, then, the Great Unsaid (the word "white") once again remains unsaid here.

I don't imagine the members of this church have any problem with appealing to an image of a falsely whitened Jesus (which is yet another contentious racial tar pit that’s ably navigated here by Tim Wise). I also doubt they realize just how much their whiteness is showing in their third feature film, Fireproof. It's not just that the central characters are white, with non-white characters shoved off to the sides. What this movie's trailer demonstrates is the trouble with white fantasies about interracial friendship, and the way that such fantasies impede white Americans from thinking straight about race.

Bonus points to you if you saw what I just did there--my allusion, that is, to the title of an entire book on the phenomenon that’s come to be known as the "Magical Negro," Benjamin DeMott's The Trouble with Friendship: Why Americans Can't Think Straight about Race, which was published in 1995. DeMott saw that most media-generated portrayals of interracial friendship are merely comforting to whites, rather than truly constructive, because they gloss over the more complicated, entrenched, and guilt-inducing problems of systemic and institutional racism, with a cozy liberal vision of interracial harmony.

Three years earlier, in Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the American Literary Imagination, Toni Morrison explained several ways that white authors have also repeatedly used such black stock characters, including those who help white ones with their mystical, seemingly magical proximity to the emotional and spiritual worlds. Since those distant, early-Clinton-Era days when these two books appeared, the term “Magical Negro” has entered the race-conscious lexicon, and dozens of insightful thinkers have offered fine-tuning of the concept.

This recent LA Times article, for instance, demonstrates that common conceptions of Barack Obama function this way (and as this one demonstrates, Rush Limbaugh also pinned the label on Obama, in his own special way). And in some circles, Will Smith, Morgan Freeman, and Whoopi Goldberg have become notorious for repeatedly playing such “I-live-to-help-the-white-folks” characters.

In Ghost, for instance, Whoopi played a second-banana spiritual medium, who contacts the ghost of Patrick Swayze's character for his left-behind wife, played by Demi Moore (um, so make that "third-banana"). And there you have it, that same combination that gets played out again with Fireproof’s multiple Magical Negroes—white emotional and spiritual problems coaxed back to health and happiness by friendly, kind, ever-willing black folks.

This white American fantasy about convenient dark friends has actually been going on for a long, long time. The history of stock, stereotypical non-white characters that conjure up and appeal to white American emotions is long and varied, including Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom and his many Stepin Fetchit descendants; the blackface minstrelsy tradition; comforting imagery on food products; ridiculous and offensive sports mascots; and assorted loyal sidekicks, like James Fenimore Cooper's Chingachgook, Herman Melville's Queequeg, and the Lone Ranger's Tonto (who, by the way, is about to be exhumed by . . . Johnny Depp?!).

Speaking of Tonto, let’s pause for another brief trailer, for a 1956 version of The Lone Ranger.

I haven't seen this film either, but it looks like the plot revolves around the masked crusader’s defense of his Injun sidekick from a bunch of racist cowboys. If so, maybe that’s not so bad for a pre-Civil Rights Era Hollywood movie.

However, while the filmmakers' intentions might have been good, and Tonto is portrayed as a "good Indian" (even though he's alive), the character of Tonto himself was simply racist, in similar ways to the Magical Negroes and Other Helpful Non-Whites who still populate today's Eurocentric diversions. All of these characters are racist because they lack three-dimensional, full-fledged humanity. But worse than that, they also function as mere repositories for specific white fantasies about non-white people. And about how to deal with racial conflict (while obliviously ignoring the ongoing facts of racial oppression).

So that movie was released in 1956, and things like blackface minstrelsy and Stepin Fetchit ended many decades ago. Then what accounts for the ongoing appeal of emotionally and spiritually enhanced Magical Negroes, like those in Fireproof? As I've explained before, white folks still have a historical legacy of basically thinking of themselves as the opposite of what they imagine non-white folks to be. Thanks to a combination of religious, racial, and class-based influences, white people are often encouraged to restrain themselves, primarily in terms of their bodies and their emotions. In turn, whites in general have led themselves to believe that non-white people don’t do that.

This is not to say, of course, that other, non-white folks are not also encouraged to restrain themselves in various ways; it's more that an evolving history of whiteness, which largely defined itself in contradistinction to non-whiteness, encouraged particularly "white" forms of bodily and emotional restraint. One result is that in a subtle psychological process, white folks still project some of their own repressed human qualities onto other, darker people.

This racial dynamic explains, I think, why so many consumers of the more regrettable modes of swaggering, booty-shaking, angry, and generally unrestrained hip hop are white guys--white producers and distributors of such mainstream, white-framed culture make tons of money by appealing to these kinds of fantasies about darker people (and so, of course, do the non-white performers selling out themselves in the middle of this dynamic).

So if you’re white, you might keep Magical Negroes and other such stereotypical, stock non-white characters in mind. The next time you see secondary characters of color--in movies, TV shows, music videos, games and so on--you might consider if those characters are aimed at you. And not only that, aimed at some part of you that you should try to, shall we say, burn out of yourself. After all, none of our white fantasies are fireproof.

Footnote: Here's as a nod to those white folks who like to jump up and say "but other people do it too!" The term "Magical Negro" has gained enough currency to have its own Wikipedia entry, which notes:

The magical negro is a recurring theme in Chinese Literature from the Tang Dynasty. Known as "Kun-lun" (崑崙, an ancient Chinese term that denoted all dark-skinned races), these African slaves were portrayed as having supernatural strength and the power to invade people's dreams to reveal great knowledge. One tale known as the Kun-lun slave mentions a slave leaping over high walls while laden with the weight of two people in order to rescue his master's lover. Other tales mention them swimming to the bottom of raging rivers to retrieve heavenly treasures for their lord. The color of their skin was believed to be a medicinal balm that could be wiped off and used to cure a person's illness.


  1. Thanks for the warning, thelady, about what's been called "perhaps the whitest film ever made." I'll be sure to miss that one (though I suppose it could have anthropological interest).

  2. I have mixed feelings about "Corrina, Corrina".

  3. Secret Life of Bees comes to mind; so does the Bucket List. In both cases the African American characters provide the emotional care, instruction, and meaning missing in white lives, as well as serving as the medium within which or substrate across which the white characters play out their stories.

    It gets worse, though; in both stories -- particularly in
    Bees -- a black person dies (must die?) in a way that can be interpreted as atoning or redemptive, because it enables the breakthrough or salvation of the white character.

    Yes, we white people (still) export our pain and suffering onto black people, who we expect to carry it for us or die trying. Either outcome is acceptable to us white people, because it has gotten the pain and suffering off us.

  4. Thank you so much for a very eye/mind-opening post. This concept never occurred to me and I was completely unaware of this phenomenon.

  5. How many Magical Negroes? I counted 8, plus 2 of the white guy with the sooty blackface... I admire their commitment towards hiring black actors, but way too many Magical Negroes for one movie.

  6. Here we go again Mr. know-it-all supposed 'liberal' whines and opines about the 'evils' of racist imagery then placates that verrrrry SAME racism with your b.s. about the 'regrettable' aspects of hip-hop spare me please hypocrite!! That's a bunch of b.s. nobody in this country gave a DAMN about the images in hip-hop until WHITE KIDS from the suburbs started buying it now all of a sudden everyone wants to play 'polly and peter pureheart' and call out the 'problems' with said images when you didn' give a RAT'S ASS about how 'horrible' it was before rap and hip-hop even existed! It's just like white film critcs who whine about 'blaxploitation' yet praise tripe like "Gone with the Wind" and "Birth of a Nation". Funny how everything ONLY went 'wrong' when black actors became the STARS of the show and not the 'backdrop' or 'sidekicks' and played characters who were strong,smart,sexual,tough,a##-kickers,dangerous,quick witted,brave,good with guns,and stood up for themselves. Same thing with this music what crap if there were more WHITE males in rap ala Eminem there would't be a problem plain and simple. Furthermore you don't seem so 'torn up' about negative images of black people from Hollywood,reality tv,talk shows,tv shows,magazine articles,news columns,shock jocks,and most local and national news programs. So god FORBID those 'Negroes' actually be in charge of their image and money and production rather than once AGAIN whitey comes along and rips it off then reaps the rewards. Sucks to be in the back seat don't it?!!

  7. After buckling to pressure from the boss(my wife) I agreed to see the Sex in the City movie. The one black person in the movie (Jennifer Hudson) was most definitely a magical Negro. Personally speaking, it ruined what would've otherwise been a decent film. I've seen most of the referenced films but didn't realize that this form of character sublimation is so pervasive.

  8. Though it's true, Anonymous, that American white people do not care about what American people of color think about cultural products until it affects them as well, remember that no one has to wait for white people to give a shit, anyway. That's just an unconscious giveaway of your own power. If you have a problem with something, speak up yourself!

    However, out of all the films listed, in none of them were black people or any POC in the drivers' seat as directors or producers. They are playing sidekicks. They are playing second bananas. Did you really read this post? Morgan Freeman gets hired for parts because he's a soothing presence and in no way are any of his characters explored in depth, just like Samuel L. Jackson is hired to get angry and use vulgar language. Not even Tyler Perry does any characterizations of any real depth in his pictures, a la, say, Meryl Streep. And these days, mainstream films, but for Perry's, are all productions of white-run studios and made for a majority white audience. Even that new Philanthropist show is Jesse Martin the sidekick and "conscience" to James Purefoy's lead character. Ugh.

    I went to a screenwriting seminar recently where the speaker pointed out that films and TV are the bibles of today, so looking at how people are being portrayed, who the audience is and examining the subtext of what's being put out is very important.

  9. Its funny Whoopi Goldberg in 'Ghost' is mentioned here, because the character was originally white. I remember Patrick Swayze said he had to fight for Whoopi to be cast in the movie.

    (ignore the ignorant YouTube title of the video)


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