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The 'Magical Negro' Trope Makes a Comeback in Two New Movies

Hollywood has a long history of portraying people of color as wise or exoticized figures whose only function is to assuage white guilt.
Image: Eddie Murphy, his partner Paige Butcher and members of his family applaud as he takes his seat for the Mark Twain prize for Humor honoring him at the Kennedy Center in Washington
Eddie Murphy, his partner Paige Butcher (L) and members of his family applaud as he takes his seat for the Mark Twain prize for Humor honoring him at the Kennedy Center in Washington October 18, 2015.JOSHUA ROBERTS / Reuters

The trailer for the upcoming Renee Zellweger film "Same Kind of Different as Me" is generating a lot of buzz — and not just because of the uncomfortable ongoing debate over whether she has surgically altered her appearance — but in part over the presence of what some have called a "magical negro" in the film.

The term, first attributed to director Spike Lee in the early-2000s, refers to films that usually feature a lone, saintly black character in a predominately white universe who, either through supernatural or just plain saccharine means, only serve to enrich the lives of white characters.

Zellweger's film, which ironically comes out during Black History Month next year, is already being widely ridiculed for a plot involving a misunderstood homeless black man (played by actor Djimon Hounsou, no stranger to these types of roles) who helps a well-to-do white couple (played by Zellweger and Greg Kinnear) grow romantically closer and more conscious of class.

This film is arriving around the same time as "Mr. Church" — Eddie Murphy's first big screen role in four years — in which he plays a kindly cook who spends the better part of his life feeding and then financially supporting a white family. Early reviews have suggested that while Murphy turns in a fine performance, the film's racial politics feel like a reactionary step backwards.

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Or as the black news website The Root described it: "Just Another Film About a Black Man Being a White Woman’s Servant."

"Even 150 years after slavery has ended, white people still feel more comfortable with a black person if they don't have to recognize their full humanity," Jonathan Braylock, an actor and one of the co-hosts of the "Black Men Can't Jump (In Hollywood)" podcast, told NBC News. "This is why films that deal with slavery or films that have a magical negro are the most rewarded by prestigious institutions. They only explore the outer edges of the black experience and refuse to recognize that being black is normal."

Hollywood has a long history of portraying people of color as preternaturally wise or exoticized figures whose only function is to assuage white guilt or make pithy statements about our collective humanity, but in the last few decades there appears to have been an uptick in these sorts of films.

Lee's grumbling about "magical Negroes" came amid a spate of films that included "The Family Man," "The Green Mile," and "The Legend of Bagger Vance," all of which featured black characters with mystical powers that were employed entirely for the benefit of white leads.

"Those movies were kind of horribly accurate reflections of a society dealing the with the ramifications of integration," argues actor Chris Myers, a Juliard-trained, Obie Award winning seven-year veteran of the industry. "Those movies are a reflection of this kind of popular idea that whiteness is standard ... benevolent, and it is our job as a society to gravitate towards that center."

"There was this promise of whiteness," he added. "I think even many black people kind of suspected or believed and hoped it was true. The stunning urgency of Black Lives Matter is kind of an affront to that kind of institution."

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In recent years, much louder criticism has been lobbed at movies like "The Blind Side" — in which a black character only gets to experience familial life due to the largesse of whites, and he in turn provides "teachable moments" for his benefactors on the issue of race.

That film, like "Mr. Church" and "Same Kind of Different as Me," is loosely based on a true story, but that may offer little comfort to audiences of color who have been clamoring for more and better representation in the wake of the #OscarsSoWhite controversy of earlier this year.

For the last two years, not a single actor of color has been nominated for Hollywood's top honors.

The irony is that films like these often are popular with the Academy Awards. For instance, the late Michael Clarke Duncan was nominated for his role in "The Green Mile," and Sandra Bullock actually took home the Best Actress statuette for her work in "The Blind Side."

In another ironic twist of fate, "Mr. Church" is directed by Bruce Beresford, whose 1989 film "Driving Ms. Daisy" is the Best Picture winner often cited as a hallmark of the "magical negro" genre. Meanwhile, Spike Lee's seminal "Do the Right Thing," released the same year, wasn't even nominated for the top prize.

"Audiences will always go and see what is familiar. Since so many white people do not truly know black families, their only experience of black people is through movies," said Braylock. "So if your experience of a black man is Michael Clark Duncan in 'The Green Mile,' it makes you feel good about yourself for liking black people, even if it's a problematic stereotype. I mean, if I'm on a highway and the only thing I see to eat is McDonalds ... hell, I will eat that before Joe Blow's Burger Shack any day because I know what I'm getting when I roll up on those golden arches."

Still, this awards season there will be plenty of alternative takes on the black experience — from Nate Parker's already controversial but acclaimed Nat Turner biopic "The Birth of Nation" to "Hidden Figures," starring Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monae and Octavia Spencer as black women who played a crucial behind the scenes role in the early era of NASA's space program.

Although Myers laments the fact that the top studio executives are still overwhelmingly white and male, or that the Hollywood machine has always prized profits over art, he has reason to believe the business is substantively moving in the right direction on race and that 'magical negro' movies will soon be a relic of the past, if they're aren't already.

"I definitely have a lot of optimism," Myers said. "I believe the 'Black Lives Matter' cry is invariably going to have a number of responses. As [studio executives] continue to make missteps, we on other side will continue to critique them."

He is convinced that "Mr. Church" is going to "bomb," and that "Birth of a Nation," will be "triumphant" if for no other reason because audiences are getting increasingly "fed up" with the mythologizing of "the other." And not just when it comes to race — but in terms of gender and sexual identity, too.

"It's not like these people are intentionally perpetuating these stereotypes," said Myers, "In life we don't often look at 'the other' and understand that their lives are just as complex as ours."