Sunday, July 09, 2006

The Magic N****r

America’s finest band, TV On The Radio, opened their first album, Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes with the finest lyrics I’ve heard in years:
“Woke up in a Magic Nigger Movie/ with the bright lights pointing at me as a metaphor”
As great lyrics often do, these got me thinking. We all like our black people tagged and profiled, but The Magic Nigger was a brand new old thing, a species that was always among us, but perhaps not noticed until now. That may be because so many other Negroes got in the way. There is the Mammy of course and the Uncle since everybody knows that black kids ain’t got no daddy. There’s Steppin’ Fetchit: the well-meaning but intellectually spotty coon who sho is funny. There’s the Oreo who is white on the inside and the Black whitey who plays the racially vague card. There's Miss Sassy Black Woman, the post hip-hop Mammy showing sass but no ass. Then there is, as Greg Tate once called him/her, the black sex machine gone berserk. An insidious creature typified in the text of Mandingo and the subtext of Alien. Lately we’ve have had to deal with the thug who came rather curiously in hetero and homo varieties. So boisterous have these stereotypes been in the jostling for attention that the Magic Nigger almost passed by unnoticed. Almost.

But bringing attention to oneself is anathema to the Magic Nigger. His mission in life is to bring attention to the white people around him. The Magic Nigger is no Bojangles. In fact most times the Magic Nigger is more intelligent, more refined and just plain smarter than the white hero. He is not really the good guy, but like Will Smith in The Legend of Bagger Vance, his purpose is to make the good guy better. The Magic Nigger’s purpose is to humanize the bitch as Wanda Sykes did for Jane Fonda in Monster In Law. His purpose is to help the white man tap into his latent humanity as Morgan Freeman did for Miss Daisy; to have him recognize his inner power, as Morgan Freeman did for Jim Carrey in Bruce Almighty; or to introduce him to cool new gadgets as Morgan Freeman did for Christian Bale in Batman.

The Magic Nigger is not as old as blackface, but he is older than Will Smith. Sidney Poitier and Bill Cosby may have been the first two. These men were not maids with big breasts or butlers with big eyes, but smart scene-stealers with little big minds (a Magic Nigger like any other black character “steals” a scene). In I-Spy, Cosby was Ivy league educated, cultured, refined and poised in a way that challenged black stereotypes before he became one. In To Sir With Love, Poitier was a teacher whose job it was to teach one-dimensional white kids how to become three-dimensional human beings, even if he never moved from one dimension himself.

In some cases the Magic Nigger has actual magic. Look no further than The Green Mile where Michael Clark Duncan, mistaken and imprisoned as a Black Sex Machine Gone Berserk, turns out to be a truly magic nigger after all, who uses his powers, to heal rats and the brutal blockage of Tom Hank’s urinary tract. Ditto Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost, a Miss Sassy Black Woman who becomes another magic nigger with real magic, a blackie who didn't even know she could talk to them dead people until the white ghost shows up. Bagger Vance is such a force of nature; effortless, natural, instinctual, primitive that one is not even sure he exists, hence The Legend Of.

The Magic Nigger has a fantastic head, but no penis. Harry Belafonte, a man blessed with foresight in those earlier years turned down the roles that Sidney Poitier eventually accepted because of this reason. So the story is changed in the Pelican brief to make sure that Julia Roberts and Denzell Washington do not have sex, despite showing a screen chemistry that Roberts has not drummed up with another man since. The Magic Nigger is here to help the girl not have sex with her. A magazine recently pointed out that Morgan Freeman and Ashley Judd had the sexual chemistry that neither Brad Pitt nor Tom Cruise has ever managed with a woman on screen and yet they will never, ever do it. But it’s not just the missing penis that makes the magic nigger unreal, but also the missing conflict.

Conflict is when a character starts at x, goes through y to get to z. For the magic nigger who is perfect to begin with it’s xxx. He is the noble savage transmogrified in a three-piece suit. His purpose is to add the third dimension to the white character, not himself. Some people view this as progress.

Not even Spike Lee could kill the magic nigger. That’s because the magic nigger is a fixture of the white movie, not the black one. The magic nigger is the refuge of stability in a turbulent white life. It where Mel Gibson needs to go to be reminded that family after all is everything. Only in movies it seems do large black families sit to have dinner. No matter what the occasion—Every day is thanksgiving day in the Magic Nigger household. And given that the Magic Nigger may show but never reveal, he or she doesn’t even have to be black. Bruce Lee was The Green Hornet’s magic boy for so long that it’s a wonder he ever entered the dragon.

But like every other film idea, this concept was stolen from Literature, dating back to the first magic nigger, Uncle Tom. Uncle Tom has no real flaws or real humanity for that matter, but he feels the conflict of slavery and racism in all of his pulse-less being. Were James Bond an American franchise, Q would have been black. He actually became black in Batman Begins.

Othello, the first and still the most comprehensively real portrait of a black man in “white” literature is still played mostly by white actors in brownface. Othello’s rage is not so much black rage as warrior rage, the anger of a man taught nothing but, who lives by his passions and is doomed by them as well. His murder of Desdemona may be the most sexual moment in the play, but Shakespeare exposes the scene for what it truly is; an act of jealousy, rage and perversely love that sprung from the deepest betrayal. It’s a moment of stark, shocking clarity; a moment that revels in the glory and flaws of truly three-dimensional black hero. We have not seen a black character with so much colour since.