I first heard of the Magical Negro from author Steve Barnes during a Clarion East Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop discussion in 2001. He explained that a Magical Negro was a black character—usually depicted as wiser and spiritually deeper than the white protagonist—whose purpose in the plot was to help the protagonist get out of trouble, to help the protagonist realize his own faults and overcome them.
As I sat there listening to Barnes, I realized with dismay what bothered me about several of Stephen King’s novels. Several of his greatest works hinge on Magical Negroes and, furthermore, the result was a propagation of racial stereotypes.
To fully understand how deeply King’s Magical Negroes affect, it’s best to first look at the history of the Magical Negro. Sometimes called the “Magic Negro” or the “Mystical Negro,” the term “Magical Negro” typically references characters in film and dates back to the 1950s, around the time of the film The Defiant Ones .
In this film, a white man named John “Joker” Jackson (played by Tony Curtis) and a black man named Noah Cullen (played by Sidney Poitier) are convicts on a southern chain gang. When they escape because of a bus accident, they make a run for it. The going is slow because they’re shackled together by a thick chain and both are also full of racial assumptions. At first, they hate each other; they argue over which way to go and Joker’s use of the word “nigger.” But in the end, after many trials and tribulations, they become friends. When Cullen is able to jump on the moving train, Joker can’t make it. Cullen then sacrifices his own freedom to help Joker. And so the first famous Magical Negro was born.
Much more recently, in 2001, during a discussion with students at Washington State University, film director Spike Lee popularized the concept by renaming it the “Super-Duper Magical Negro.” He was referring specifically to John Coffey (played by Michael Clarke Duncan) in The Green Mile and Bagger (played by Will Smith) in The Legend of Bagger Vance.
Both films are about a white man whose moral and emotional growth is made possible by the appearance of an almost angelic mystical black man. In The Green Mile, Coffey eventually dies after effecting great change on the white protagonist and just about everyone else around him. In The Legend of Bagger Vance, Bagger (whom the author of the book said was based on the Hindu deity Bhagavan Krishna) leaves as mysteriously as he arrived, once Rannulph Junuh’s life is back on track. Both characters, John Coffey and Bagger, are only important in relation to the protagonist of each story.