The Magical Negro is typically but not always “in some way outwardly or inwardly disabled, either by discrimination, disability or social constraint,” often a janitor or prisoner. He has no past; he simply appears one day to help the white protagonist. He usually has some sort of magical power, “rather vaguely defined but not the sort of thing one typically encounters.” He is patient and wise, often dispensing various words of wisdom, and is “closer to the earth.” The magical negro will also do almost anything, including sacrificing himself, to save the white protagonist, as exemplified in The Defiant Ones, in which Sidney Poitier plays the prototypical Magical Negro.
The Magical Negro serves as a plot device to help the protagonist get out of trouble, typically through helping the white character recognize his own faults and overcome them. Although he has magical powers, his “magic is ostensibly directed toward helping and enlightening a white male character.” An article in a 2009 edition of the journal Social Issues states the magical negro is an expression of racial profiling within the United States:
These powers are used to save and transform disheveled, uncultured, lost, or broken whites (almost exclusively white men) into competent, successful, and content people within the context of the American myth of redemption and salvation. It is this feature of the Magical Negro that some people find most troubling. Although from a certain perspective the character may seem to be showing blacks in a positive light, he is still ultimately subordinate to whites. He is also regarded as an exception, allowing white America to “like individual black people but not black culture.”
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