Where do “Magical Negro” characters come from?

March 15, 2017

Why do characters of color in mainstream movies and books so often have magical powers, but not a full story line?

Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, Penn GSE
Dr. Ebony Elizabeth Thomas

That was the listener question Penn GSE’s Ebony Elizabeth Thomas helped answer on NPR’s Code Switch podcast. Director Spike Lee coined the term “Magcial Negro,” Thomas explained, but the trope of a character of color with mystical powers has been used for centuries.

Like Rue, from the Hunger Games series, these characters exist to help the often-white protagonists achieve their destiny, Thomas said. Typically, the plot turns when the magical character of color is killed off. And this trope is still heavily used, Thomas said, even as more characters of color appear on screen.

“They don’t get a chance to have a storyline,” Thomas said. “They don’t get a love interest. I think it’s a rather cynical way that Hollywood and mainstream publishing have responded to calls for greater diversity. We keep seeing magical characters of color who don’t provide an adequate or accurate representation.”

Listen to the whole interview here.