Yesterday, I wrote about how the death of Michael Clarke Duncan sparked very mention of the “Magic Negro” plot device. After all, many believe that Duncan’s portrayal in The Green Mile was an iconic representation of the stereotype.
I reached out to a few cultural observers for their take, and received some interesting responses. Perhaps the most thoughtful came from cultural critic and co-host of MSNBC’s The Cycle, Touré, who emailed me this:
Now is perhaps not the time to dig in to the magic negro trope because we should not blame actors for the roles they take. Michael Clarke Duncan was a great one who brought skill and humanity to all the characters he inhabited. But I am troubled by the magic negro trope. It presents a Black person as a vehicle who’s present to help the white person get to where they need to get or become a better person. Magic negroes are symbolic caddies, carrying morality and humanity and character in their bag and then handing that over to the white person. Mostly they make me roll my eyes. But they can be heroic like Morpheus in the Matrix or vomit inducing like the maids of the Help who are just there to help the white kids become better humans but are allowed no humanity themselves. Gross.
I think Touré is basically right. As I noted yesterday, Duncan was a fine actor, and should not be blamed for portraying a role some believe to have perpetuated a negative stereotype.
But I don’t think cultural observers should have ignored the elephant in the room, either.