Obama And Film's 'Magic Negroes'

Jabari Asim, author of What Obama Means, explores connections between the president-elect and a variety of oversimplified black movie characters who critics have mockingly called "magic negroes."

Copyright © 2009 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

If President-elect Barack Obama pauses this week to thank African-Americans who came before him, he might tip his hat to some black actors. We're about to meet a writer who explores the connection between Obama and movie stars like Sidney Poitier. In the movie "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," Poitier plays the black fiance of a white woman, whose father is played by Spencer Tracy.

(Soundbite from movie "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner")

Mr. SPENCER TRACY (Actor): (As Matt Drayton) Have you given any thought to the problems your children are going to have?

Mr. SIDNEY POITIER (Actor): (As Dr. John Wade Prentice) Yes, and they'll have some.

Mr. TRACY: (As Matt Drayton) Is that the way Joey feels?

MR. POITIER: (As Dr. John Wade Prentice) She feels that every single one of our children will be president of the United States. And they'll all have colorful administrations.

MR. TRACY: (As Matt Drayton) But how do you feel about that problem?

Mr. POITIER: (As Dr. John Wade Prentice) Well, frankly, I think your daughter is a bit optimistic. I'd settle for secretary of state.

INSKEEP: Sidney Poitier in "Guess Who's Coming To Dinner." The writer Jabari Asim has been thinking about that kind of character. He wrote a book called, "What Obama Means." In that book, Jabari Asim describes a type of movie character that is mockingly called the Magic Negro.

Mr. JABARI ASIM (Author, "What Obama Means"): It kind of ties into this mythical notion of a certain kind of heroic black character that exists, primarily, to redeem white American lives.

INSKEEP: What is an example of that?

Mr. ASIM: I guess a notable example would be Bagger Vance in "The Legend of Bagger Vance," played by Will Smith. Another, Michael Clarke Duncan in "The Green Mile."

INSKEEP: Where the black character is not the central character, but he's the guy who moves the white star in the right direction. Is that what you're saying?

Mr. ASIM: Yes.

INSKEEP: Let's listen to a little bit of Will Smith, acting here with Matt Damon in this movie, "Legend of Bagger Vance." Will Smith is playing a golf caddy, and Matt Damon is the guy who is going to benefit from his advice.

(Soundbite from movie "The Legend of Bagger Vance")

Mr. WILL SMITH (Actor): (as Bagger Vance) The trick is to find your swing.

Mr. MATT DAMON (Actor): (as Rannulph Junuh) What'd you say?

Mr. SMITH: (as Bagger Vance) Well, you've lost your swing. We've got to go find it. Now, somewhere in the harmony of all of this...

(Soundbite of golf swing)

Mr. SMITH: (as Bagger Vance) ...all that was...

(Soundbite of golf swing)

Mr. SMITH: (as Bagger Vance) ...all that will be.

INSKEEP: Deeply philosophical bit of practice there, I guess.

Mr. ASIM: Yes, very much so. But I think that it has become a convenient place in movies, and in literature, for African-American characters to exist. And it's a different kind of stereotype. These are not inferior beings. They're often magical, mysterious beings. But I think they speak to some need in the mainstream American imagination to place African-American figures in a way that makes them beloved and non-threatening, but somehow still defined by others' perceptions of them.

INSKEEP: What, then, gets you from thinking about the Magic Negro, as it's described in film, and Barack Obama? What's the connection there?

Mr. ASIM: Well, you know, I think Barack Obama in many ways fills that role. But he seems to have some knowledge of how people respond to him. I mean, he doesn't entirely resist this notion that he exists to redeem America. We are the ones we have been waiting for, he says. But at the same time, I think he subverts that stereotypical image, because these characters, for all their gifts, are not especially resourceful. They're not especially intelligent. And I think that his ability to marry this mystical notion with real-life policy proposals and down-to-earth language, as well as the elevated eloquence that he's capable of, sort of subverts the notion at the same time that he profits from it.

INSKEEP: In other words, he has to go beyond that image if he's going to be credible.

Mr. ASIM: Exactly.

INSKEEP: Now, what about Sidney Poitier? Why do you end up writing an entire chapter comparing Barack Obama to Sidney Pointier?

Mr. ASIM: Well it's interesting that when Barack Obama's campaign team first began to do testing, in terms of how the public was responding to him - and this was when he was putting together a run for Senate - some of the white women of a particular generation responded in focus groups by comparing him favorably to Sidney Poitier. And at first, I scoffed at that. You know, I said, boy, that's a really limited response. But as I began to think about it, it made sense. In many ways, the characters that Sidney Pointier played over the years helped make possible the very idea of black men not only in leading roles, but in leadership positions.

INSKEEP: I want to come back to that notion of the Magic Negro - and again, that's the film character who helps the white character along in some fashion. Do you think that on some level, that there are lots of white Americans who do feel that way about Barack Obama? Who are comfortable with him in that particular role in their lives?

Mr. ASIM: Well, I think that there are a significant degree of mainstream Americans who may regard him in that way, but I don't think that it is an entirely bad thing. I think that he can be cast in a heroic way, in a way that provokes admiration and inspiration as opposed to earlier, more negative responses to blackness. And that if it's necessary to embody this particular personality for a while, if it means that it will lead us to more wholehearted and comprehensive notions of what black people are and what they're capable of, then this isn't a bad thing.

INSKEEP: Jabari Asim is editor of the NAACP magazine "The Crisis," and author of a new book called, "What Obama Means."

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.