Movies

Magical Negroes can’t exist without a Mister Charlie or Miss Ann

A look at a persistent movie trope in which clueless white characters depend on selfless Black helpmates

This project was supposed to be a joke.

Some months ago, I saw a tweet proposing that someone make a bracket of Magical Negroes in film, leading to a champion of one of film’s most awful tropes. A race to the bottom, tongue fully in cheek.

“Let’s do it,” I thought. It could be a fun way to mock the absurdity and ubiquity of these Black characters, typically unexplained vessels of mystery characterized by quiet suffering and patient dignity. They often lack expertise and intellect, but somehow are evolved and wise about capital-L Life.

But in the midst of watching or rewatching 18 films over the course of several weeks, something happened. The enterprise became increasingly depressing.

A Magical Negro Film Festival is grotesque, profane and dispiriting. It’s a project that requires wandering from universe to universe in which Black people exist to do nothing but be happily obsequious toward the white people they serve. It’s stomach-turning.

In 2017, a few weeks after stories published by The New York Times and New Yorker revealed that Harvey Weinstein was a serial sexual abuser, prompting a geyser of other high-profile revelations, Lili Loofbourow published an essay called The myth of the male bumbler. She wrote about a type of false male innocence that has a parallel in the white innocence James Baldwin identified and decried in The Devil Finds Work.

“There’s a reason for this plague of know-nothings: The bumbler’s perpetual amazement exonerates him,” Loofbourow wrote. “Incompetence is less damaging than malice. … The bumbler takes one of our culture’s most muscular myths — that men are clueless — and weaponizes it into an alibi.”

Why do I bring this up? Because in the fun house mirror that displays Magical Negroes, there is always a hapless Mister Charlie or a helpless Miss Ann standing next to them. Magical Negroes cannot exist without a clueless white person — sometimes an entire family of them! — who requires their aid, which of course is offered for free, or close to it. (Art that’s got a Magical Negro and no white people in it is minstrelsy.) While trying to come up with names for these types of white characters, I figured they needed to be as retrograde as “Negro,” hence “Mister Charlie” and “Miss Ann,” as opposed to the more contemporary “Chad” and “Karen.”

All the films cataloged in this project re-create the same dynamic, one that has roots in Lost Cause ideology. Over and over, in the white imagination, Black people exist only to serve or help or comfort white people or teach them lessons about life. The white people in these stories are usually incurious, whiny or co-dependent, and utterly lacking in self-awareness. But perhaps these hapless Mister Charlies and helpless Miss Anns can finally learn to assist themselves without the aid of a Negro whose only purpose is to usher them along in their personal growth or otherwise save them from themselves. In Barb and Star Go To Vista Del Mar, the new comedy starring Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo, there is a talking crab named Morgan Freemond, an obvious reference to the actor Morgan Freeman, one of the most notorious inhabitors of Magical Negro characters in the history of American film.

“The name’s Morgan. Morgan Freemond. … I am going into the ocean tonight and I shall never return,” the crab says, as dramatic music swells, signifying an important revelation.

“Oh, I have lived a full life — bathed in the sun, slept in the sand. I was in jail, even drove an old lady around and taught her about tolerance and true friendship. But that kid is long gone. This old crab is all that’s left. Goodbye, me,” he says before walking off into the ocean.

The films listed below stretch across decades, genres, cinematic sophistication, budgets, themes, etc. Both The Shining and Same Kind of Different As Me feature Magical Negroes helping emotionally handicapped white people, but they sit on opposite ends of the quality spectrum. Nevertheless, the element of white solipsism is always present.

God willing, maybe Feb. 12 (Barb and Star’s release date) can mark the beginning of the end of the Magical Negro. It probably won’t, but a girl can dream. Regardless of what the future may hold, the pernicious lie of blanket white innocence, embodied by hapless Mister Charlies and helpless Miss Anns, is deserving of just as much scrutiny and ridicule as the fictional Black folk who serve them. So let’s zoom in on a few of these suckers and get off some jokes. Happy Black History Month! (Or, as we like to think of it here at The Undefeated, Black History Always.)

SONG OF THE SOUTH (1946)

From left to right, James Baskett, Hattie McDaniel, Bobby Driscoll, Lucile Watson and Ruth Warrick in Song of the South.

Walt Disney/courtesy Everett Collection

Director: Harve Foster and Wilfred Jackson | Screenplay by Dalton S. Reymond, Morton Grant and Maurice Rapf

Mister Charlie: Johnny (Bobby Driscoll)

Magical Negro: Uncle Remus (James Baskett)

Conundrum: A boy goes to stay with his grandmother on her Georgia plantation while his father does work in Atlanta. He tries to run away with a hobo kerchief tied to a stick, but the voice of an old Black man who tells him stories about foxes, rabbits and bears keeps him sticking around. Uncle Remus, who has no interests or desires of his own, makes the Old South sound mighty nice with his stories, and when Johnny gets gored by a bull, he magically heals him with a story about Br’er Rabbit. Apparently, white children experiencing problems with their parents confide in bored old Negroes a lot.

IMITATION OF LIFE (1959)

Juanita Moore (left) and Lana Turner (right) in a scene from the film Imitation of Life.

Universal/Getty Images

Director: Douglas Sirk | Screenplay by Eleanore Griffin and Allan Scott

Miss Anns: Lora Meredith (Lana Turner) and Susie (Sandra Dee)

Magical Negro: Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore)

Conundrum: How will a widowed mother and aspiring actress make it in the world? With a wife, of course! That’s not what she calls her live-in maid, Annie Johnson, but that’s basically what Annie is, in her own words: “a strong, healthy, settled-down woman who eats like a bird and doesn’t care if she gets no time off and will work real cheap.” I mean, sure, Annie’s kid Sarah Jane is a brat with an identity crisis — she hates that her mother is a living reminder that she is not, in fact, white, even though she looks it — and the two women live with their daughters in a tiny apartment where it’s impossible to have secrets, but that’s not Lora or her daughter Susie’s problem!

This dynamic of Annie knowing and caring about all things Lora and Susie while the two barely know anything about her and Sarah Jane goes on for decades and is best typified by this exchange, which takes place when Lora has become rich and successful and Annie, having fulfilled her duty of making this woman’s life possible, can finally kick off and die.

Lora: “It never occurred to me that you had any friends.”

Annie: “You never asked.”

SILVER STREAK (1976)

Richard Pryor (left) and Gene Wilder (right) in the 1976 film Silver Streak.

20th Century Fox Film Corp./courtesy Everett Collection

Director: Arthur Hiller | Screenplay by Colin Higgins

Mister Charlie: George (Gene Wilder)

Magical Negro: Grover (Richard Pryor)

Conundrum: George sees a dead body hanging off the roof of a train, stumbles into figuring out who killed the man, and then has to elide the killers while getting to his sister’s wedding and nurturing a budding relationship. Grover, who apparently likes to follow strangers and their life-endangering drama, encourages George to put on blackface to disguise himself, then helps George and his girlfriend survive being on a speeding train with no one at the controls that’s hurtling toward a station.

THE SHINING (1980)

Scatman Crothers in a scene from the 1980 movie The Shining.

Warner Brothers/courtesy Everett Collection

Director: Stanley Kubrick | Screenplay by Stanley Kubrick and Diane Johnson

Mister Charlie and Miss Ann: Danny Torrance (Danny Lloyd) and Wendy Torrance (Shelley Duvall)

Magical Negro: Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers)

Conundrum: A grumpy teacher (Jack Nicholson) who moonlights as a writer takes a job as a winter caretaker for a hotel in the Colorado Rockies called the Overlook. He takes his wife and son, too, where they’ll be alone for the winter season. The head chef is Dick Hallorann, the one Black person on the property, who possesses magic called “shining,” which is a more efficient descriptor for psychic old Negro telekinesis. Hallorann jets to Florida, but sees news of a terrible snowstorm, and his shining tells him that Jack is going to murder his family.

Meanwhile, a hallucination corners Jack in the bathroom and tells him, “Your son is attempting to bring an outside party into this situation. … A n—– cook.” Jack goes full loco and tries to kill everyone. When the nice telekinetic Black man attempts to intervene in a horrifying domestic violence situation at a freezing hotel buried in snow instead of minding his own business and enjoying his vacation, he gets axed to death.

TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE – Kick the Can (1983)

From left to right: Bill Quinn, Priscilla Pointer, Selma Diamond, Martin Garner, Helen Shaw and Scatman Crothers in Twilight Zone: The Movie.

Warner Bros./courtesy Everett Collection

Director: Steven Spielberg | Screenplay by George Clayton Johnson, Richard Matheson and Melissa Mathison

Mister Charlie: Residents of the Sunnyvale Retirement Home

Magical Negro: Mr. Bloom (Scatman Crothers)

Conundrum: The residents of an old folks home are depressed about having one foot in the grave, so Mr. Bloom gives them a chance to be their youthful selves again. Realizing they’ll have to assume all the duties and responsibilities of youth, they ask to be old again, and Mr. Bloom, who is basically old Black man Tinker Bell, grants their wish. One old grump who tried to rain on everyone’s parade tries to regain his youth, too, but can’t, because he scoffed at Mr. Bloom.

DRIVING MISS DAISY (1989)

Morgan Freeman and Jessica Tandy in the 1989 movie Driving Miss Daisy.

Warner Brothers/courtesy Everett Collection

Director: Bruce Beresford | Screenplay by Alfred Uhry

Miss Ann: Daisy Werthan (Jessica Tandy)

Magical Negro: Hoke Coburn (Morgan Freeman)

Conundrum: An imperious, racist old Jewish lady (“They all take things, you know”) in Atlanta needs to go places, but her son doesn’t trust her to drive herself after she nearly backs her Chrysler off a small cliff. She’s cheap, paranoid and she hates everyone, so naturally it takes an unflappable old Black man who never stops smiling or talking or being affable to her — even when she tries to deny him the right to decide when and where he’ll heed the call of nature — for Daisy to learn how to act like a person who isn’t completely monstrous and unpleasant.

GHOST (1990)

Whoopi Goldberg (left) and Patrick Swayze (right) in Ghost.

Paramount Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection

Director: Jerry Zucker | Screenplay by Bruce Joel Rubin

Mister Charlie and Miss Ann: Sam Wheat (Patrick Swayze) and Molly Jensen (Demi Moore)

Magical Negro: Oda Mae Brown (Whoopi Goldberg)

Conundrum: A New York capitalist gets murdered by his greedy frenemy for being a stand-up guy. Now he’s wreaking havoc on a woman who was just minding her business uptown, where she made up communiques with dead Black folk. Faced with Oda Mae’s protestations — apparently there are no people who charge to talk to ghosts in SoHo — he threatens to sing “I’m Henry the Eighth” at her for eternity. But saving a life and preventing an undeserving colleague from stealing millions isn’t enough. Having pressed their luck with the laws of nature, Sam and Molly shamelessly goad Oda Mae into letting an undead person take over her body. For romance.

FRIED GREEN TOMATOES (1991)

Mary Stuart Masterson (left) and Stan Shaw (right) in Fried Green Tomatoes.

Universal/courtesy Everett Collection

Director: Jon Avnet | Screenplay by Fannie Flagg and Carol Sobieski

Miss Ann: Ruth Jamison (Mary-Louise Parker) and Idgie Threadgoode (Mary Stuart Masterson)

Magical Negro: Big George (Stan Shaw)

Conundrum: When you need to disappear a body of an abusive, racist ghoul who’s married to the girl you have a massive crush on, it helps to have a barbecue master named Big George. Big George simply cooks up the abuser on his grill and feeds his body to the man investigating his death. Then he goes back to his usual pork-grilling duties, no questions asked, no post-traumatic stress disorder experienced.

FORREST GUMP (1994)

Mykelti Williamson (left) and Tom Hanks (right) in a scene from Forrest Gump.

Paramount Pictures/ Courtesy: Everett Collection

Director: Robert Zemeckis | Screenplay by Eric Roth

Mister Charlie: Forrest Gump (Tom Hanks)

Magical Negro: Benjamin Buford “Bubba” Blue (Mykelti Williamson)

Conundrum: Forrest is a simpleton who needs to stay alive while fighting for the U.S. Army in Vietnam. He finds a friend in Bubba, who tells him of his dream of owning his own shrimp boat. Bubba conveniently perishes at the hands of the Viet Cong. After turning up at a number of American historical events, completely by coincidence, Forrest starts a shrimping business, and his substance-abusing commander, Lt. Dan (Gary Sinise) becomes his first mate. He calls it “Bubba Gump.”

KAZAAM (1996)

Francis Capra (left) and Shaquille O’Neal (right) from the 1996 film Kazaam.

Buena Vista Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection

Director: Paul Michael Glaser | Screenplay by Christian Ford and Roger Soffer

Mister Charlie: Max Connor (Francis Capra)

Magical Negro: Kazaam (Shaquille O’Neal)

Conundrum: A genie who lives in a boom box insists that a kid who is being bullied, hates his life and has no interest in being a genie master, make wishes and use the genie’s magical powers. Having thoroughly situated himself in Max’s life and the life of Max’s long-lost father and his criminal business partner, Kazaam saves the lives of Max and his father and this counts as credit toward becoming a djinn, which is basically a graduate degree-level genie.

MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL (1997)

John Cusack (left) and Irma P. Hall (right) in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.

Warner Bros./courtesy Everett Collection

Director: Clint Eastwood | Screenplay by John Lee Hancock and John Berendt

Mister Charlie: The town of Savannah, Georgia

Magical Negro: Minerva (Irma P. Hall)

Conundrum: Local closeted nouveau riche socialite Jim Williams (Kevin Spacey) murders the town’s favorite piece of rough trade and calls it self-defense. Before he’s indicted, he meets with Minerva, a voodoo woman who’s the widow of a voodoo practitioner named Dr. Buzzard. (Dr. Buzzard was a common name for Black root practitioners in the South Carolina low country.) “To understand the living, you gotta commune with the dead,” she tells Jim. Minerva may be the only character on this list who is actually magical for some reason other than white convenience, even if the film doesn’t really explain her power, perceived or otherwise.

Instead, Minerva rights the universe by striking down a murderer when the community fails to imprison him because he’s got a great antique collection and throws the best Christmas party in town.

WHAT DREAMS MAY COME (1998)

Robin Williams (left) and Cuba Gooding Jr. (right) in a scene from What Dreams May Come.

Everett Collection

Director: Vincent Ward | Screenplay by Ronald Bass

Mister Charlie: Chris Nielsen (Robin Williams)

Magical Negro: Albert (Cuba Gooding Jr.)

Conundrum: A man needs a guide to his own afterlife even though he’s created it with his imagination. Then it turns out that Chris’ dead son has been assuming the physical form of Chris’ wise Black friend — who is also dead — so that his father will listen to his advice.

THE GREEN MILE (1999)

Tom Hanks (left) is guided by Michael Clarke Duncan (right) in a scene from the 1999 film The Green Mile.

Warner Brothers/Getty Images

Director: Frank Darabont | Screenplay by Frank Darabont

Mister Charlie: Paul Edgecomb (Tom Hanks)

Magical Negro: John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan)

Conundrum: Sometimes you don’t need antibiotics for your raging urinary tract infection. You just need a mysterious Black man on death row who will grab the offending area and emit flies from his mouth once he’s cured you! And even though he’s been accused of murdering two little white girls, he’ll never give a moment’s trouble by proclaiming his innocence or fighting for justice. Instead, he’ll absorb everyone’s pain, never ask for anything and then be executed by the state, leaving everyone to feel bad, but not too bad.

THE LEGEND OF BAGGER VANCE (2000)

Bagger Vance (Will Smith, left) dispenses advice to Rannulph Junuh (Matt Damon, right) in Robert Redford’s The Legend of Bagger Vance.

David James/Newsmakers

Director: Robert Redford | Screenplay by Jeremy Leven

Mister Charlie: Rannulph Junuh (Matt Damon)

Magical Negro: Bagger Vance (Will Smith)

Conundrum: When your golf yips are actually World War I PTSD, an all-knowing saint/caddie who exists simply to assure you of your own greatness may be in order. We suppose bonus points must be awarded for giving Bagger Vance actual dialogue; rival golfer Walter Hagen (Bruce McGill) has a Sikh caddie and driver who is so magical he never even speaks.

BRUCE ALMIGHTY (2003)

Morgan Freeman (left) and Jim Carrey (right) share a scene in Bruce Almighty.

Universal/courtesy Everett Collection

Director: Tom Shadyac | Screenplay by Steve Koren, Mark O’Keefe and Steve Oedekerk

Mister Charlie: Bruce Nolan (Jim Carrey)

Magical Negro: God (Morgan Freeman)

Conundrum: A local Buffalo, New York, TV newsman wants to be promoted to anchor and is frustrated that he’s sent to cover inane non-news stories like giant cookies instead. Convinced of his own victimhood — “I’ve hit some kind of a ceiling here. There’s an anti-Bruce barrier I can’t get past.” — he shows up at an empty warehouse and rudely refuses to help a kindly Black man mop the floor.

The Black man turns out to be God, who temporarily gives all his powers to Bruce to teach him a lesson. Bruce uses it to run on water, blow a woman’s dress up so he can see her panties, steal some new clothes, sabotage his professional competitors and disregard global ramifications of his drawing the moon too close so he can get it on with his girlfriend.

Having heard everyone’s prayers, and having been granted all the power in the world, Bruce finally learns gratitude for having been born on third base. He doesn’t ask God why he lets systemic racism continue to be a thing.

Mr. CHURCH (2016)

Britt Robertson (left) and Eddie Murphy (right) from the 2016 film Mr. Church.

Cinelou Releasing / courtesy Everett Collection

Director: Bruce Beresford | Screenplay by Susan McMartin

Miss Ann: Charlotte (Britt Robertson) and Marie (Natascha McElhone)

Magical Negro: Henry Church (Eddie Murphy)

Conundrum: A man with an endless supply of patience cooks for a woman with terminal breast cancer and her child until she dies. Then he basically continues to raise the child while never asking for anything, sends the child to college with money he saves from using coupons at the grocery store, and gets irrationally angry any time the child tries to learn about his life.

Like Song of the South and Kazaam, Mr. Church employs the universal innocence of childhood as a shield. It also insists that the reason we don’t know anything about Mr. Church is because he is irrationally, obsessively private.

SAME KIND OF DIFFERENT AS ME (2017)

Renee Zellweger (left) with Djimon Hounsou (right) in Same Kind of Different as Me.

Paramount/courtesy Everett Collection

Director: Michael Carney | Screenplay by Michael Carney, Alexander Foard and Ron Hall

Mister Charlie and Miss Ann: Ron Hall (Greg Kinnear) and Debbie Hall (Renee Zellweger)

Magical Negro: Denver “Suicide” Moore (Djimon Hounsou)

Conundrum: A philandering art dealer with bad taste needs to be nice to the biggest, Blackest, scariest Negro at the homeless shelter his wife volunteers at in order to save their marriage. Heaven knows why — they’ve been married for 19 years and unhappy for 10. Anyway, this man, who answers to the name “Suicide,” wields a baseball bat and doesn’t trust anyone, grows close to the art dealer after talking about himself over a meal of cheeseburgers and fries.

Suicide, who grew up on a Louisiana plantation even though this movie takes place in present-day Texas, fixes the Halls’ marriage and helps them be good Christians by giving them a project (himself) they can feel good about repairing.

SOUL (2020)

From left to right: 22 (voice, Tina Fey) and Joe Gardner (voice, Jamie Foxx) in Soul.

Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection

Director: Pete Docter and Kemp Powers | Screenplay by Pete Docter, Mike Jones and Kemp Powers

Miss Ann: 22 (Tina Fey)

Magical Negro: Joe (Jamie Foxx)

Conundrum: A lost soul named 22 who can’t find her purpose drops into the body of a dead music teacher and jazz musician (Joe) and teaches him to appreciate his life by living his life while he observes through the eyes of an orange tabby he’s inhabited. Joe teaches her how to “jazz” through life. Finally convinced that maybe life isn’t pointless, 22 runs off with Joe’s body, which he has to fight to get back, before conceding it to her because she seems to have made more of it than he has.

Liner Notes

This article has been corrected. Morgan Freeman did not voice the character of the talking crab named Morgan Freemond in Barb and Star Go To Vista Del Mar. That character was voiced by Josh Robert Thompson.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the culture critic for The Undefeated. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts, and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism, and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on black life.