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Inventory: 13 Movies featuring magical black men

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1. The Green Mile (1999)

In a bitter 2000 Time article titled "That Old Black Magic," critic Christopher John Farley neatly summed up the increasingly common, increasingly annoying "Magical African-American Friends," the black film characters who exist primarily to help troubled white folks, and who generally have few meaningful characteristics of their own. (Spike Lee later popularized the stereotype as "super-duper magical negro," but the term "magical black men" has become more common, even though women do occasionally take on such roles. See Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost.) Farley explains them this way: "Hollywood screenwriters don't know much about black people other than what they hear on records by white hip-hop star Eminem. So instead of getting life histories or love interests, black characters get magical powers." Facile? Sure. But an awful lot of movies, especially from the past decade, fit the bill. Chief among them is the Stephen King novel adaptation The Green Mile, in which Michael Clarke Duncan, a gentle giant wrongly convicted of rape and murder, uses literal magical powers to heal warden Tom Hanks, cure his impotence, and save his cancer-stricken wife. Typical of magical black men, Duncan has no past, no family, and no significant desires of his own; Christ-like (in an undeniably deliberate way; his characters' initials are even "JC"), he placidly goes on to lay down his life in the electric chair rather than troubling his white jailors with the problem of clearing his name and freeing him. Now that's a friend.

2. Unleashed (2005)

In films without fantasy elements, magical black men don't actually have magical powers, they just seem to because they show up out of nowhere to make everything better for no particular reason except munificent kindness. Morgan Freeman excels at this role—until The Green Mile came along, his Driving Miss Daisy role best typified the genre. But he takes it to new heights in Unleashed, in which he calmly brings human attack dog Jet Li back to humanity, never expressing normal, sensible fear or surprise at Li's feral state. When Freeman first appears, sitting at a piano, spotlighted by an improbable golden shaft of sunlight, and acting as though he's just invited the crazed Li to high tea, he comes across like a slumming Oberon, just checking out what those silly mortals are up to lately. And he never really drops that not-quite-there, more-plot-device-than-person quality.


3. The Legend Of Bagger Vance (2000)

When Matt Damon returns home to Savannah from a tour of duty in World War I, he's down in the dumps. He was the only survivor of a dangerous mission, and his painful memories haunt his dreams and put a serious shank in his once-sweet golf stroke. When recruited to duel the world's two best golfers in an exhibition match, he seems content just to drown in the bottle, until… Out of the mist comes Will Smith. Much like fly-fishing in A River Runs Through It (also directed by Robert Redford), golf becomes a honking metaphor for life itself, so when Smith talks about restoring Damon's "authentic swing," his fairy dust extends far beyond the links. And once the job is done, Smith tips his hat and disappears into the vapors from whence he came, no doubt to help another rich white guy knock a few points off his handicap.


4. Hitch (2005)

The blockbuster romantic comedy Hitch takes the archetype to new levels by focusing on a character who's essentially a professional magical black man. Will Smith's improbably tolerant, charming "Date Doctor" makes his living by teaching uptight, fatally unfunky white folks to loosen up, get jiggy with it, and sweet-talk the ladies. In Hitch's most famous scene, Smith even indulges in the quintessential magical black man move by teaching rhythmless Cracker-American Kevin James how to dance. Progressive!

5. Bruce Almighty (2003)

Who could be magical than God himself? With his calm self-assurance, Morgan Freeman makes as good a God as any, though before long, he turns the reins over to Jim Carrey, a local TV weatherman who uses his newfound powers in the least imaginative way possible by giving his wife bigger breasts and turning himself into Buffalo's top newscaster. Ever patient, Freeman-as-God waits behind the scenes for Carrey to learn his lesson and think about the global consequences of his selfish actions, to say nothing of the millions of prayers that have piled up unanswered. Freeman's divine style is pretty laissez faire, however: "When a child says 'no' to drugs and 'yes' to an education," that constitutes a miracle in his eyes.


6. Forrest Gump (1994)

When loveable idiot Forrest Gump joins the Army, his only friend is Buford "Bubba" Blue, a similarly dim-witted Southerner with pretty much the same personality as Forrest. Except that Bubba is black, which may explain why he gets killed in Vietnam, while Forrest only gets shot in the buuut-tocks. However, before dying, Bubba tells Forrest of his dream of starting a shrimp company. Forrest later starts his own shrimp company and becomes a millionaire, proving that even the stupidest white guy knows how to steal ideas from black people.


7. Dogma (1999)

As helpful supernatural beings go, they don't get much more heaven-sent than Chris Rock's "forgotten apostle" Rufus, who literally falls out of the sky just as Linda Fiorentino decides to pack up her noble quest and go home. Rufus' powers are limited to reading minds and revealing Jay's embarrassing masturbatory secrets, but as a personal friend of both God and Jesus ("Nigga owes me 12 bucks!"), he's a mouthpiece for Kevin Smith's typically talky mission statement that, instead of beliefs, "It's better to have ideas… Life should be malleable and progressive. Working from idea to idea permits that." Rock's character—a martyr who was "bludgeoned to death by huge fucking rocks," yet was left out of the Bible for being black—is less a magical savior than a down-to-earth human link to the divine, but with nothing more than a few well-timed speeches, he gives Fiorentino the strength and motivation to carry on, saving the world from the Apocalypse in the process.



8. The Matrix (1999)

As Keanu Reeves' spiritual mentor, Laurence Fishburne isn't nearly as mild-mannered, deferential, and aimlessly selfless as the average cinematic magical black man. But he still fits the archetype in far too many ways. He turns up out of nowhere with all the answers, he focuses all his energies on helping Reeves, even though Reeves seems like an ungrateful, useless, vapid schlub, and he has powers that no one else can match, but that essentially only get used to help a white boy find himself. Once said white boy does start finding himself, Fishburne immediately becomes an utterly disempowered victim, desperately in need of his former student's aid. But none of that is as annoying as the degree to which Fishburne, initially the Matrix series' strongest figure, really has no past and no character of his own. Unlike most magical black men, he does have desires, but they're all sublimated into Reeves' actions. For all his talent, Fishburne is utterly powerless.


9. In America (2002)

One of the more bafflingly two-dimensional magical black men in recent cinema history, Djimon Hounsou's In America character is a howling boogeyman who initially terrifies stressed-out, grieving illegal immigrants Samantha Morton and Paddy Considine and their daughters. But then Hounsou proves that he's all bark and no bite. Or personality. Hounsou is a terrific actor, but he can't do much with a role that can mostly be summed up as "artist with AIDS, meant as poignant piece of human iconography." As Morton and Considine gradually recover from their grief over the child they lost in their Irish homeland, Hounsou proves a selfless spiritual advisor who literally dies away as they need him less and less. He's a grand representation of the immigrants' pain—initially monstrous and alien, he diminishes just as their dislocation and grief diminishes. Eventually, he fades away altogether, conveniently dying just as Morton's new infant quickens in her womb. Reincarnation, or just more evidence that he's more symbol than man?


10. Big Momma's House 2 (2006)

In the belated sequel to 1999's Big Momma's House, cross-dressing FBI agent Martin Lawrence and his magical fat-suit of joy move in with an uptight white family so Lawrence can get closer to a suspect. Lawrence then uses his proximity to crazy-ass honkies to teach the entire family valuable life lessons, when he isn't instructing the lady of the house in how to "put some stank on it" when busting out funky-fresh moves. Oh, Martin Lawrence, is there any dilemma your patented brand of sass-talk can't ameliorate?


11. Song Of The South (1946)

Farley can't blame Eminem-listening ignorant white Hollywood executives for this closeted classic. But he could certainly take Walt Disney to task for laying the cornpone on extra-thick in the live-action segments that link animated versions of Joel Chandler Harris' Uncle Remus stories. Those folktales are generally sly and subversively funny, but Disney's film puts them in the mouth of shuckin'-an'-jivin' friendly fellow James Baskett, who apparently doesn't have anything to do but pop up whenever troubled white boy Bobby Driscoll needs a helping hand, a friendly face, and a life lesson. But no matter how beatific and selfless Baskett proves himself, Driscoll's mother doesn't want her son hanging around him. Nonetheless, in the end, Baskett's magical healing presence not only saves Driscoll from death, but also fixes all the rifts in his angsty broken home.


12. Silver Streak (1976)

The clever Hitchcock homage Silver Streak is famous as the first pairing of Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder, but it's worth noting that Pryor's wisecracking thief doesn't even show up until the film is half over. Wilder springs Pryor from the back of a cop car, and Pryor spends the rest of the film paying Wilder back many times over, saving him repeatedly even when it means placing himself in constant peril, and when he has nothing to gain. While many movies feature magical black men metaphorically teaching Caucasians to channel their inner soul brother, Silver Streak does away with metaphor altogether: Pryor convinces Wilder to don blackface, then instructs him in the nuances of "acting black" to evade capture by the police.


13. The Kentucky Fried Movie (1977)

Of all the powers black men possess, none holds more supernatural awe over the white man than the threat of their sexual prowess. While films like Mandingo stirred controversy for playing to racist fears of black men seducing white women, the idea that black men are more sexually potent (and have bigger equipment) than white men is a common stereotype. This is particularly true in comedies, where black men are often regarded as sexual superheroes—sometimes even literally, as in this early effort from the Zucker brothers. Here, fictitious linebacker Big Jim Slade (Manuel Perry) is like a priapic Kool-Aid Man, bursting through the wall to save the day when a wimpy premature ejaculator finishes too early during a Joy Of Sex record, leaving his partner unsatisfied. Wearing nothing but a Speedo and a confident grin, Slade scoops up the lesser man's girl and hauls her off—kicking and squealing with pleasure—to satisfy her in a way that only a large black man possibly can. As he does, he gives her lover (and the audience) a wink that says, "Don't worry, my penis will take care of this!" The Zuckers dodge any uncomfortable racist subtext by making the cuckolded man black too—but would the joke have worked as well if it were "Big Adam Silverstein"?