Saturday, March 1, 2014

On My Mind: Morgan Freeman & The Magical Negro Dilemma

The 8th and final day of Morgan Freeman Week!
(yup, 8)

It goes without saying that Morgan Freeman is a tremendous actor. With 50 years in the business and over 100 credits, nearly 80 of these are for movies, he has proven himself time and again. He has earned his place among the all time greats and made quite a nice living for himself in the process. Indeed, he deserves all of the respect and accolades that have come his way, and more. His voice is so widely known and recognized, he became the subject of a running internet gag. You might have seen one of these. It's just a picture of the actor with some text sprawled across it letting you know that you are indeed hearing the voice of Morgan Freeman as you read. And it works.

If this isn't evidence that the man is an icon, I don't know what is. However, even icons are not perfect. JFK has The Bay of Pigs, Jay-Z has "Kingdom Come," LeBron James has the 2011 NBA Finals. Morgan Freeman has The Magical Negro. If you've poked around here a bit, you may have come across that phrase a time or two. For those unaware, I'll explain. The Magical Negro is a trope invented in American literature and has since crossed over into the cinematic universe. It's typically an African-American male character with some sort of special ability, often but not always supernatural, whose sole purpose is to aid the white male protagonist. He never saves the day (or gets the girl), but paves the way for the hero to do so. Many times, paving the way means sacrificing his own life so that the hero can go on to glory, or become a better person. This is a variation of the 'noble savage' archetype. According to Encyclopaedia Brittanica, the noble savage is "an idealized concept of uncivilized man who symbolizes the innate goodness of one not exposed to the corrupting influences of civilization." Though The Magical Negro is usually not depicted quite as primitively as to be called savage, the underlying idea of someone being wise despite their own heritage remains.

The Magical Negro is a character Mr. Freeman has played many times in his career, though usually not the supernatural type. Let's take a look just at some of his characters from movies I've reviewed this week. [SPOILER ALERT!] As Red in The Shawshank Redemption, he was the guy who was able to get things no one else could. These 'things' made it possible for Andy to escape prison. What else do we know of him? We know all about the crime Andy is convicted of and what he did for a living before prison. We get a pretty clear picture of his life prior to being incarcerated. In Oblivion he plays the leader of the human resistance. Again, he does what no one else can. He gets Jack Harper to understand what's going on. He also sacrifices himself for the cause without the benefit of having a clone like Harper does. Again, what else is known of this man? As Det. Somerset in Se7en, he's a unique cop pretty much dragging his partner, Det. Mills, along the whole time. It is almost always his work that gets them anywhere on the baffling case they're working. This work entails doing things no normal officer would even dream of. However, yet again, when the climactic scene rolls around, our focus is on Mills. Like the others, we don't really know much about Somerset either, other than he was once married. In Olympus Has Fallen, Freeman plays the Speaker of the House whose ascended to the presidency due to events that find both the President and Vice-President in a bunker being held captive by some very angry North Koreans. Here, he is a guiding voice for the hero. And that's pretty much it.

After reading the above paragraph, some of you might wonder what the problem is? On the surface, each movie features and black man in a heroic role. True. It is far more agreeable to have a black man pigeon-holed as one of cinema's good guys, instead of only playing gang-bangers, pimps, drug dealers, and the like. However, The Magical Negro is still a cardboard stereotype with underlying racist implications. The easiest of these to spot is the tokenism that usually takes place in movies that make use of this particular trope. Again, think of four movies I mentioned above. Also think of other Freeman movies such as Driving Miss Daisy, Bruce Almighty, Evan Almighty, The Bucket List, Invictus and yes the entire Dark Knight trilogy. In most, if not all of these, he is the singular black character of note. He is also much less developed than his white counterpart, also lending to the idea that he is merely a token. And yes, he has some sort of special ability that is put to use by our hero in every one of these.

Morgan Freeman & The Magical Negro Dilemma

When this type of character is the only representative of his race, it lends credence to the idea that only those who are obviously exceptional can contribute to this world. Cultural critic Toure put it best in a Time Magazine article about the re-election of Pres. Barack Obama in 2012, himself occasionally labeled a Magical Negro. Toure wrote "While some may think it complimentary to be considered 'magical', it is infantilizing and offensive because it suggests black excellence is so shocking it can only come from a source that is supernatural."* Think about it. Almost none of the white characters have any sort of special ability. They are often allegorical characters, an Everyman, if you will. They are normal.

Another issue with The Magical Negro is that for all his ability, it's still a character that is subservient to the white protagonist and normally underdeveloped. Go back to something I said early on. He never saves the day, or gets the girl. Regardless what he is capable of, it's used mostly in service to the hero. If you had the power to save the day yourself, wouldn't you just do it? Why all the time and effort to get someone else figure it out when it could already be done? Aside from those questions, what do we know about these guys? I said as much about Freeman's characters in some of the movies I've reviewed this week. What about Lucius Fox in The Dark Knight trilogy? He can make any damn thing Bruce Wayne wants while simultaneously running Wayne Enterprises. Where the hell did he come from? Does he do any damn thing besides coming up with cool crap? By the way, I mean in the movies, not his comic book history. Even God is only there to help Bruce and Evan become better people. Of course, some of these characters are more rounded than others. However, these are the exceptions, not the rule.

There are a few things that cause The Magical Negro dilemma. Becoming an exception is one way. There have been some excellent movies utilizing this stereotype. Shawshank is a great film and Se7en is one of my all-time favorites. I am also a huge fan of The Dark Knight trilogy and a number of other movies where the trope is employed. All of these movies subvert the trope in some way. In Shawshank, after Red's ability to get stuff helps Andy get out, he then sacrifices himself by not uttering a word about how Andy might have done it. Following this, Andy actually shows some special ability of his own and essentially saves Red's life. In Se7en, no matter how knowledgeable Det. Somerset is, he actually can't help Det. Mills save the day. In those Batman flicks, well, it's right there in the hero's name. Batman does indeed have special abilities. Aside from that, it's a series built around the idea of him sacrificing himself. While it's true, he needs Fox to make things for him, he really has no clear cut victories, except possibly in Batman Begins, the first of the three. Therefore, The Magical Negro is like many other devices used in story-telling. They are often better when the rules governing them are skillfully broken, things turn out better.

Finally, Morgan Freeman himself is part of the dilemma. Should African-Americans be up in arms with him for playing such characters? Maybe. Should we demand he stop playing them? No. As I said earlier, he's made a nice living doing what he does. Who are any of us to tell him he's done it wrong? It's a career that's given us so many wonderful performances its hard to count them all. And if there are levels of Magical Negroes, he certainly plays the ones on the higher end of the scale. He's not playing gifted imbeciles like Michael Clarke Duncan (R.I.P.) did in The Green Mile, or half-beast buffoons like Brandon T. Jackson does in the Percy Jackson movies. Other than God in the ...Almighty flicks, he's not portraying a supernaturally magical being. For the most part, he's playing highly intelligent and authoritative men. And he's playing them like only he could. Morgan Freeman brings an uncommon dignity to his roles. It's that dignity which makes me proud even if I wish he were in more movies where it really was all about him.

* "The Magical Negro Falls to Earth". TIME. Sep. 26, 2012


  1. Great post, Wendell! Great, great post.
    Of course the problem is not with Freeman - he's the last in line to blame, but there are obviously lots of fingers to point here. Thanks for pointing this out and keeping us honest.

    1. Thanks. I won't completely absolve Freeman, but you're right. there are lots of entities, institutions, and people, to point fingers at before we getting to him.

    2. I don't know. I mean, at what point do we have to take responsibility for the decisions we make? He makes a lot of money in these roles. I know that I am responsible for my little decisions in my life.

  2. Really good consideration of the issues. Freeman has done it so often that you actually feel surprised when he shows up in a bit of a sinister role, like "Wait, Morgan Freeman can't play that role!" But in looking at his filmography, there are actually more examples of this than I would have thought -- Nurse Betty, Now You See Me, Wanted, Unlucky Number Slevin and Dreamcatcher are some. Unfortunately, these roles tend to be the ones people don't remember, possibly because they are conditioned to see Freeman within strict parameters and have an instinctive reaction to block out those examples that don't conform to those parameters. Nice post!