Getting past the ‘Magic Negro’ stereotype

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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Academy Award nominee Michael Clarke Duncan passed away the other day. He will be missed by movie fans. Duncan oozed charisma, and it’s hard to imagine anyone portraying the “gentle giant’ role any better.

But though few obituaries have mentioned it, the role that Duncan made famous was not without controversy.

“Duncan’s affecting portrayal of the child-like death row inmate, opposite the likes of heavy hitters Tom Hanks and James Cromwell, earned him the respect of his new peers, crystallized in the form of an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor,” boasts Yahoo’s! biography of Duncan. But a few years ago, when a controversy sprang up over a parody song Rush Limbaugh played on air, Yahoo! also noted,

The Magic Negro comes out of nowhere, and is most likely sent by God, to help poor old white people find their way, without any thought of helping a fellow poor black man instead.

The Magic Negro stereotype has become especially powerful in movies over the year, like with Michael Clarke Duncan in The Green Mile,Will Smith in The Legend of Bagger Vance, and half of Morgan Freeman’s films.

Critics of the plot device lament that African-American actors are rarely hired to play other leading roles. As the Grio observed, “[I]f you’re not the Magical Negro, chances are you’re the thug, the wise-cracking token black friend, or the mandigo. Compound this with being an older black male actor ([Morgan] Freeman just recently turned 75), and you’re swimming upstream.”

(In fact, despite being best known for his role in The Green Mile, Duncan had a pretty impressive catalogue of performances.)

We can all hope that in the future, actors won’t feel compelled to portray what many deem to be negative stereotypical roles. But it is also curious that — despite the fact that Duncan is perhaps the most iconic representation of this criticized plot device — aside from Moviefone — very few mainstream media outlets have noted it in the days since he passed.

What is more, from political standpoint, it is interesting that most of the men associated with perpetuating this stereotype, such as Stephen King (who wrote The Green Mile novel), Tom Hanks (who starred in the film), and Morgan Freeman, tend to get a pass from liberal elites in Hollywood — probably because they are among the top echelon of Hollywood elites.

Duncan was an accomplished actor, and the fact that some view one of his roles as a stereotype should not diminish his legacy.  But this was also a missed opportunity for an uncomfortable, if important, conversation.

Matt K. Lewis