Batman and The Black Man

July 8th, 2008

I can only apologise if the title offends; it’s not intended to, but it does seem a little risque and I’ve kind of realised I’m not so sharp as I had thought on racial politics this week. The implications for me, sexual orientalism and gender bias are pretty disconcerting therefore. (Secret origin: my username is actually derived from the country of my birth.)

The notion here has its genesis in Douglas Wolk’s initial SavCrit review of the latest installment of Batman, #678 – it’s true! Mindless Ones covers really all your Batman and Grant Morrison needs several times over. Tune in shortly for more BatMoz coverage than you can possibly handle. I then get irked in the comments and Marc ‘I am NOT the Beastmaster‘ Singer talks me back off the ledge of flipping out, saying some shit I don’t even believe and schools me, unabrasively, on how it be. I invite him here to extend the conversation and it’s a blogversation or some other hideous neology. A blogover. In the interests of making it a blogevent, here’s Jog’s review (which I’ve already invoked not once, but twice) and our own amypoodle‘s. Here’s Tucker Stone’s, just for fun.

Frankly, I’m almost pathetically grateful to have the attention of the author of what’s (in my assessment -and I read a few) the best piece on the web about The Wire (a little more on which shortly) and not exactly short as a comics blogger either. It’s really up to him how he chooses to repond or add to the discussion – I’d be delighted if he ever updated his blog in relation to this or otherwise, but in comments would be perfectly adequate. As long as there is a response and I don’t look a total dick.

The controversy, such as it is, centres around Douglas’ citing of a piece on the Magical Negro and blunt assessment that Batman’s latest ish “is basically a straight-up Legend of Bagger Vance-athon.” I’ve not seen the film but it sounds pretty fucking terrible, as any mixture of golf and salt-of-the-earth homilising could only conceivably be, before even contemplating dubious racial portrayal overtones. Now, I got miffed because I – essentially – I really liked the issue and it didn’t even occur that there might be much wrong with it. It might have been when commenter Nick upped the ante thus:

Having just read Seven Soldiers, I was appalled at the way he handled Shilo Norman. It was just one cliche after the next; he clearly only knows African-Americans from MTV. This social and artistic mediocrity is all the more distressing because Morrison’s concepts in that series were so great otherwise.

that I got really annoyed. It’s a common enough event in comics fandom that you can see readers wanting to distance their escapism from troubling and worldly issues – the idea that one’s reading may be, in some sense, corrupt or that the ethical idealism of the text – I think this is pretty noteworthy given we’re talking superheroes - fell far short. I like to believe this generally comes from a good place, that it’s more difficult to deal with the possibility the story is tainted, ruined by its failings, somehow. For my own part, I do tend toward the heeldragging on ‘issues’ – see comments here for the most recent example. It is, of course, possible to acknowledge that e.g. The Wire is the best TV programme ever, even although David Simon by his own admission can’t write women. With that in mind, I’d like to try and offer a sober and delicate reassessment.

I began, initially, to adopt the posture of disavowing the concept altogether, which would be the first of a number of contradictory backward scattershot defenses – in my defence, my first encounter with the term was at the point when I decided I’d had enough of ‘Doom Patrols’ author Steven Shaviro for this lifetime and, additionally, I do kind of hate the sort of smug, case-closed definitive terminology fandom tends to offer up. Invocations of Mary-Sueism, in particular. Jesus, that shit makes me want to chainsaw faces. It’s not immediately clear from a 20 second Google the etymology of our term du jour; the wiki entry claims it was popularised by Spike Lee and, given that Shaviro is – I believe – a professor, it does seem to have penetrated the edges of academia. Possibly “Mary-Sue” has done the latter, too, though God I hope not. In any case, equivocating the two won’t serve because one is about authorial egotripping in fanfic and the other about (mis)representation the racial Other. As any fule who’s seen the Matrix kno (and there are millions, I am one such) – the earthy, mytic one-two Otherpunch of Morpheus and the Oracle is more than evidence enough that such a motif abounds, with – unfortunately – fantastical fiction appearing to provide more than its share. Because of the magic, obvs.

I’m going to examine Honor’s agency in the issue and offer up some similarish caveats, some new, hopefully somewhat cohesive, to the SC comments thread, initially in direct relation to the 5-point plan cited there. Looking at the list, initially, it does seem there’s a good chance that the character will probably score at least 70% against it:

  • He or she is a person of color, typically black, often Native American, in a story about predominantly white characters.

Yup, 20%. Jezebel Jet is the only other nonwhite character – or certainly the only character coloured as markedly nonwhite (aren’t Ra’s al-Ghul, his family and cohorts supposed to be Arabian or something? This is also a fairly common problem at present with superhero books and another one that I never notice at first blush.)

  • He or she seems to have nothing better to do than help the white protagonist, who is often a stranger to the Magical Negro at first.

Unfortunately, we’re well on our way here – Bruce Wayne is a stranger to Honor, but he does have a glimmer of recognition because Batman had Robin hand him $100 only two issues back after he’d said Bats had a “kind face”. That $100 is important, pay attention. Honor’s sole agency in the issue is escorting Bruce Wayne around town, introducing him to begging, buying cheap alcohol and ultimately – we must presume – heroin. This isn’t, on the face of it, terribly helpful (and this being midway through a serial arc, it may not prove the last we see of Honor Jackson – I’d not expected to see him after the initial cameo, but I’m not massively optimistic) but he clearly believes he has saved Bruce – viz, his final soliloquy:

See, I never did nuthin’ I could be proud of. But imagine I could know I’ve saved one life. That would mean I was worth sumthin’ after all

  • He or she disappears, dies, or sacrifices something of great value after or while helping the white protagonist.

Well, yes. Immediately afterward, Honor goes for the hat-trick; again, it’s not clear whether he has actually handed Bruce the “Bat-Radia” or if this is delusion, but at this point we’re batting .1000. To be fair, one’s already in the bag because he died yesterday having dropped five Jacksons, acquired from see above, on a whole lot of horse. To a degree, this recalls Audrey Murray at the end of The Invisibles and her act of Samaritancy to the Undeserving, saving the man who killed her husband. The chronology is possibly more baroque here, but allows for brevity and compression.

  • He or she is uneducated, mentally handicapped, at a low position in life, or all of the above.

Definitely the last, but I certainly – on reflection – feel invited to assume the previous two.

  • He or she is wise, patient, and spiritually in touch. Closer to the earth, one might say. He or she often literally has magical powers.

Being about when you’re dead is pretty magical – there is, throughout, a hallucinatory, liminal air which the other reviews linked uptop have covered better than I could hope to that does cast everything, not for the first time in a Grant Morrison comic (and, really, it’s my preference over ratified, hard plot mechanics.) There’s kind of an immediate fictional antecedent in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, I think, although I gave up on that fairly shortly into it. Additionally, at their parting Honor has escorted Bruce to the siltline of the river that runs through Gotham, taking him quite literally as close to the earth as the essential Bat-milieu allows. Honor doesn’t strike me as particularly ‘wise’ or ‘spiritual’, except possibly in the case of actually being a ghost; we’ve already seen Morrison rooting this somewhat in spooky, urban Victorian and post-Victorian lit, with the Three Ghosts and Club of Heroes arc’s roots in Dickens and Christie – I do think, on the evidence of this, and the dockside stuff particularly in Final Crisis that he has almost certainly been watching The Wire (rightly so) and trying to process it in his inimitable and very different way; whether Honor’s trolley and habit are in direct homage to Bubbles‘… I’d like to think so, but this does seem – given what’s covered above – inept. I’ve offered fairly strident defence(s), but really the best out is the one Marc offered, that European understanding of, particularly black/white, race-relations is at “arms-length” if not retrograde.

I had also already suggested that Bruce’s culpability does, to an extent, undercut what’s clearly emerged as – moreso than I thought, pre-assessment – a cast-iron stock character; Morrison does occasionally interject class dialectic into his psychedelic and fantastic worlds, such as in the conversation between Alicia Masters and Sue Richards in FF:1234 or indeed last issue where Jezebel pondered out loud on the waste of the Bat-billions. I think I get that “We should make everyone a millionaire” line from back at the beginning of this run, now, but I’m not sure how I feel about it. They’d only spend it on H? It’s interesting that both black characters have pointed up Bruce Wayne’s financial irresponsibility, certainly, and I’m a little wary of how it’s going to turn out with Jezebel now – she physically embodies not only the black & red motif throughout the uberplot, but also really the two types of women Morrison fetishised in The Invisibles; I’m desperately hoping she and the Bruceman are the “two innocent lovers” from the Black Glove film now and that she’s not some vessel of bitter regret over objectification or something. I’ve also offered No-Beard and Tom O’Bedlam as analogous, in terms of agency, to Honor Jackson – you could quite possibly add Metron to Shilo Norman to make a full black/black, white/white, white/black, black/white quadrangle of protagonist/magic homeless helper but I’d think i) Batman will be read by more people than Seven Soldiers or the Invisibles (I don’t know at what point good-selling Vertigo trades eclipse mainstream superhero serials – I imagine Y the Last Man will probably be read by more folk than Busiek’s Superman but that might be way off, and I can’t imagine a massive audience for Seven Soldiers that precludes Batman here) and is thereby the most overground, mainstream book with the most pat pairing and ii) there’s really no decent way racial context or connotation is inescapable here.

I was certainly surprised that no-one thought this noteworthy at (primarily Brit) Barbelith – perhaps it really wasn’t worth the effort there? – but, God, thinking about some of Mark Millar’s incredibly stupid things he’s said about black people (memorably “they don’t get Down’s Syndrome”) it does seem very feasible that British (comic-reading, at least) people are not as nuanced in their understanding of African-Americans. It’s unsurprising, really, given our exposure to them is primarily as athletes, musicians or acting in, overwhelmingly, underclass roles.


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62 Responses to “Batman and The Black Man”

  1. Marc Says:

    I’m not sure what I’m supposed to say, Duncan, now that we have almost the same reading of Honor, but in the interests of not making you look a total dick I will quibble a little over your quadrangle of heroes and their homeless magical helpers.

    Certainly it’s great that Morrison varies his roles and writes heroes and mentors of all races (and writes his black heroes with much more confidence now than he did with Boy–although I always liked Jim Crow, so maybe her gender and her relative level of realism were the real problems), but the power relations change at each corner of the quadrangle, they aren’t equivalent, and since those power relations are one of the major constituent elements of the magical negro type, one corner doesn’t necessarily excuse another. Morrison may write around the quadrangle but if his black mentor/white hero pair fits the markers of the magical negro then it’s still a stereotype, regardless of whether he also writes Jake Jordan and Shilo Norman.

    The point, insofar as any of my comments have had a point, is to unpack the less savory implications of the magical negro and talk about why it’s a problematic type, not to pass judgment on Morrison. I think discussions of racism, sexism, homophobia, any form of prejudice in literature usually go wrong when they turn into putting simple labels or halo/devil-horn judgments on creators and readers, as that’s typically the point when fans circle the wagons and start denying everything or lobbing counteraccusations instead of re-evaluating what they’re defending. If I understand you correctly, your comments started as a reaction against that sort of chin-stroking, finger-wagging, eminently safe but-of-course-this-is-terribly-racist judgment, which I can see. No argument that begins by rejecting Steven Shaviro can be all bad.

    But Honor Jackson is still a magical negro (five for five, yes?) and the type is still a problem even if the label is sometimes applied too lightly. A better criticism might delve more fully into why, but I can’t fault Doug Wolk for not dropping a dissertation in the midst of his capsule review (and his link pretty much gets the job done).

  2. Qthgrq Says:

    We should have more of these interblog conversations.

    Great post, Duncs, great response, Marc

  3. Adam Says:

    I find it a little hard to believe that you have never heard of the literary figure of the Magic Negro.

    But…doesn’t Morrison believe in actual magic. So is a magic negro (in small caps) really that huge of a stretch?

    But we have also seen magic teenager (Jack Frost, the kid who tried to kill Marget Thatcher in St. Swithin’s Day), magic Homeless Guy (Tom O’Bedlam), Magic Child molester (Mystery Play), and even, alas, Magic Hitler. Wasn’t it just a matter of time?

    Anyway, this sort of micro-tragic, ghostly figure who seems only to be there to help the hero appears in most of morrison’s work. In this one he is a black guy.

    Besides, I think the key isn’t the issue of race, but the fact that he is an Iraq war vet and keeps calling Bruce “soldier.”

  4. Qthgrq Says:

    But…doesn’t Morrison believe in actual magic. So is a magic negro (in small caps) really that huge of a stretch?

    Er, really not sure what kind of point you’re trying to make. That because Morrison believes in real live magycks we should find the concept untroublesome? Ummm… no, no that doesn’t work, I’m afraid.

    By the by, I, for one, have never heard of the Magic Negro before now.

  5. Qthgrq Says:

    If we’re looking for ways to let Morrison off the hook, which I’m not sure is necessary, but if we are, then I think the most salient point’s been made: he’s British, he’s not as close to these issues – the distance leaves quite a bit of room for him to get things wrong, hence mistakes being made.

  6. adam aaron Says:

    In reality I just wanted an excuse to write the words “magic Hitler.” He is like a little mustached Mary Poppins.

    More seriously, I can’t buy that Morrison has never heard or read the term Magic Negro. I think he is too well-read to have never come across the term before. Which leads me to two sorts of theories of what is going on.

    Maybe in the DCU Magic Negroes are real. Like the first Newsboy Legion in the seven soldiers (the ones who got exposed to the tentacles in teh closet of doom), the DCU’s catalog of creations, spirits, angel, and demons is made up of all those ridiculous chimeras of culture that can seem quaint, antiquated, racist, sexist, distasteful, or baffling and unrealistic–but who are still “in continuity.” So you have bondage-era Wonder-Woman, anthropomorphic doggies, Fu Manchu-style Chinese characters who in possession of strange powers and physical deformaties, spirits of venegences, the gods of a political parties (a la Uncle Sam), etc. all coexisting together in the strange stew of pop-art reality that is the DCU.

    Gotham City (or any long standing comic book city) is the city of anachronism, fugue, and madness where kitsch, heroism, transcendence, realism, fantasy and terror all dance, play, and fight for dominance with each other–a place where the cultural landscape and debate is made literal.

    This leads me to a conclusion: that the magic negro in this Batman issue is somewhat similar to Alan Moore’s depiction of a Golliwog as a blazing creature of imagination in most recent League of Extraordinary Gentle collection.

    On the flip side isn’t there an upcoming issue called “The Thin White Duke of Death.”

    My guess is that Morrison is acutely aware of the racial and class issues going on in this depiction, and that, unlike Moore who seemed to be depicting or arguing for a “safe place” or “transcendental security blanket” for fictional characters to exist as blazing stars innocently free on context, Morrison will remove the safety screen and create some sort of direct commentary on the racial issues these character represent without using the excuse of “it’s all pretend” or “it’s apart of some sort of sacred space under the stairs in one’s personal history or childhood.”

    (Moore: It is okay that I own all these action figures…they are apart of my childhood!

    Morrison: Yeah…but they are kind of seedy, too!)

    Racial (and class) issues have been implicit in Batman for a long, long time and have been brought to light in the cultural awareness for some time.

    The favored and oft copied joke among comedians (of varying quality) is that Batman is kind of racist since he always seems to be solving robberies for rich people and avoiding black neighborhoods. (Plus did anybody even see Damon Wayenes’s pure pastiche costume in “Blank Man” and not have a flash-back to the Zur-en-ahh Batman, or vice-versa).

    Recently, both class and racial issues have been more and more explicit in the Batman media (movies and comics) And not even to mention that weird fill-in story about the black guy with the robot arm and the white face while Morrison was off on 52.

    Given his Morrison-ness’s hipster, metrosexual post-structural coolness, he has to be aware of these issues (and all the jokes about racist Batman) and what this depiction may connote.

    My guess is that Morrison is crazy and creative enough to try to do something interesting with racial issues in Batman without being too hokey (or too honky)…but will have to see whether these racial issue play into the larger story arc (I bet they do) or if the present example is simply an embarrassment.

    p.s. Is Morgan Freeman a magic Negro in Batman Begins?

  7. Marc Says:

    As a rule of thumb, Morgan Freeman is almost always a magical negro in anything.

    But Lucius Fox actually doesn’t fit the type all that well, thank god. The first Nolan film certainly cast him as a mentor figure and traded on the same “black = instant gravitas” cliche that fuels the magical negro, but he isn’t a sacrificial victim (yet, hopefully ever), he’s highly educated, middle class if not higher social status, and his assistance is primarily technical, not spiritual. Nothing irrational about him. Demerits for being played by Freeman, but the character only hits a few of the stereotypes.

    As for hipster poststructural coolness, that could also describe some of the poor excuses Moore and O’Neill and a few defenders trotted out to justify the Golliwog. Morrison might do better to avoid that whole quagmire by not writing the stereotypes in the first place.

  8. adam aaron Says:

    I have to disagree. There is nothing innately wrong with using a stereotype or archetype.

    It only seems wrong when it is used to justify ignorance or reinforce oppression.

    I argue that Morrison will use this character type and Batman to explore racial issues. And my guess would be that the values would be progressive and ultimately critical of racist power structures.

    I however don’t think avoidance of risk or risky subjects seems at all good for art or cultural product.


    Also, as noted in the essay about Stephen King, the Magic Negro has to be used as scapegoat so “an individual white person can like an individual black person, but but avoid the race and culture as a whole.” So while the character definitely is a magic negro, the character does not seem to be used to commit an evil trick on the audience.

  9. Qthgrq Says:

    Dude, I doubt that Morrison is significantly better read than me, so if I haven’t heard of the magical negro before now it stands to reason that he might not have. Although I suppose I might be some kind of aberration.

    That said, once highlighted it’s a pretty easy stereotype to spot, although spotting it isn’t quite the same as appreciating it’s significance. By that I mean, that even if Grant is aware of it, he might not fully appreciate the implications of using it.

  10. bobsy Says:

    Although, he is fifteen or twenty years older than you and doesn’t have children or a day job, so really it’s not inconceivable that he might have managed to get a few more books in under his belt, is it?

    I think the issue here really is that the Magic Negro isn’t a concept taught much outside of American University Humanities departments.

  11. Marc Says:

    It isn’t taught that much inside them, either–the label is fairly new and it’ll take a while to percolate into the academy. Very few of my students have heard of the term before I introduce it (though they all recognize the type as soon as I do), and I teach at an historically black university.

    Adam, it’s true that there’s a difference between stereotypes that reinforce oppression or prejudice and archetypes that recur from story to story, but since this post is talking about the racist magical negro stereotype the distinction is moot.

    And I don’t think avoidance of risky subjects is good for art either, but I wonder if the state of race relations in America is perhaps a subject best tackled someplace other than a Batman story written by a Scotsman. The tools seem inadequate to the task, especially when Morrison is already trying to do a million other things in “Batman RIP”–the issues are too large for what little space he could give it. And frankly, social critique wouldn’t be my first the first thing I look for in a Batman story anyway.

    It’s nice to think Morrison has some master plan for Honor Jackson, but maybe he just dropped the ball on this one.

  12. adam aaron Says:

    Well, I am a lazy academic, but I have known about the magic negro concept ever since Paul Mooney pointed it out as an aspect of “the Green Mile” during the Paul Mooney at the Movies bit on Chappelle’s Show.

    But is a magic negro always innately racist?

    Even if the character is “five for five” on the scale, I am not exactly sure that it is.

    (Well, these two points seem kind of bad in that regard on a surface reading:
    –”He or she seems to have nothing better to do than help the white protagonist, who is often a stranger to the Magical Negro at first.
    –”He or she disappears, dies, or sacrifices something of great value after or while helping the white protagonist.”)I actually think the character can be judge negatively only if device is used to invoke “warm and fuzzy” feelings in the viewer or the white character. It is why the magic negro Green Mile is more clearly offensive, than the example in Batman.

    In fact the only aspect of Jackson’s portrayal that really irks me is the scene where he is begging to share money his with Wayne.

    But I don’t think that the portrait is particular sentimental or paternalistic (unless you take Wayne’s fight scene as expression of white guilt…”leave brittany alone!”); in fact I get the sense that Wayne in a navel gazing daze doesn’t really care about the guy much beyond their interaction.

    (Well, these two points seem kind of bad in that regard on a surface reading:
    –”He or she seems to have nothing better to do than help the white protagonist, who is often a stranger to the Magical Negro at first.
    –”He or she disappears, dies, or sacrifices something of great value after or while helping the white protagonist.”)

    I absolutely see where the magic negro can be troubling in the sense that it might reinforces completely unreasonable (but positive) stereotype that black people are innately closer to earth or possessing a wholesome virtue.

    But it only really troubles me when it is used as way to be dismissive of “black” people and culture and to reinforce the protective bubble of “white” culture or racist oppression.

  13. adam aaron Says:

    didn’t mean to have smiley face on there…computer error

  14. adam aaron Says:

    just reread the strang horizon article:

    The magic negro is more likely racist than not.

  15. Marc Says:

    “I absolutely see where the magic negro can be troubling in the sense that it might reinforces completely unreasonable (but positive) stereotype that black people are innately closer to earth or possessing a wholesome virtue.”

    I think the whole idea of the “positive stereotype” is something of a misnomer, which I believe is Latin for crock of shit. Most of the time the nominally positive trait actually reinforces existing assumptions and prejudices that aren’t so flattering. Implying that blacks are innately more natural, magical, or spiritual than whites also implies that they’re more primitive and less possessed of Enlightenment rationality (as well as their own agency, since their only purpose is to fix the white hero’s spiritual problem).

    Whites don’t come off much better in this formula, permitted rationality but denied spirituality and virtue, at least until the token negro heals them and then disappears. Everybody is barred from part of the human experience; everybody loses.

  16. rieber Says:

    this is a really interesting discussion.

    with no slight intended to the core of the matter, i’d like to suggest the possibility that morrison may–in classic morrison style–also be doing some postmodernist riffing on the denny o’neil/neal adams-era classics, here.

    seems to me as though in terms of characterization and structure, there’s a pretty strong resonance with some of o’neil’s green lantern/green arrow stories.

  17. adam aaron Says:

    I agree that the positive stereotype is a crock of shit, in the terms you formulate. A stereotype is still a stereotype which pretty much always has a negative side. But my us of the word “positive stereotype” hopefully is taken as saying that the stereotype has positive values to those who subscribe to it…I don’t buy positive stereotype stuff, though…or necessary subscribe to the same particular ranking of said values.

    My mind changed on the subject when I read these lines in the strange horizon:
    “These self-sacrificing “characters” come in on a pedestal. Jesus, Buddha, and Krishna are usually the center of the plot. The fact of who they are makes their sacrifices meaningful. The same cannot be said about the Magical Negro. The Magical Negro is expendable because he or she isn’t anyone special. The audience is not expected to feel great sadness at a Magical Negro’s passing, at least not of the prolonged sort. The audience is meant to be a little sad, maybe a little disturbed, but then quickly turn to see what the main character will next do, especially since the main character is usually more energized after a Magical Negro’s death; the path is usually cleared in some way. It brings to mind the ritual sacrifice of animals in some West African cultures where it is believed that through the animal’s sacrifice, the sacrificer is given energy.”

    This is what I find objectionable about Honor Jackson, not because it is necessarily racist…but more for what it suggest about the overarching moral point of view morrison’s world connotes. I will explain this later. But I have two separate posts to explain my perspective.

    Who (or what the hell) is Honor Jackson?

    When we consider the issue of the magic negro: it means two greatly significantly different things to have a poor black man with fuzzy spiritual powers and/or fuzzy special wisdom and a spiritual being actually taking the form of a poor black man. To me it is the difference between embarrassing stereotype and something more deep.

    With regards to Honor Jackson we have three (well maybe four) possibilities:

    1. Honor Jackson is the Ghost of Honor Jackson:
    This is the only one that is truly potentially racist. Honor Jackson really is just the ghost of a guy who died and is helping Bruce Wayne. It really is just the classic magic negro and Grant’s seems both racist (most likely not on purpose) and hokey (or just “dropped the ball.”)

    2. Honor Jackson is a projection of Bruce’s unconscious.

    This is more interest and complex. What if Bruce has
    massive guilt issues about his racism (the Comedy bit thing again) or the racist and class-based system that his wealth base is dependent upon. His transformation in Zur-eh-ahh Batman results from a form of extreme escapism that has Bruce dreaming that he is the super-human bat-man from another planet.

    The already beaten Bruce feels all so dirty for having all that money and creates this false guardian too lead he to his fantasy escape land.

    Consider: the character isn’t really a helpful magic negro. We assume, that his actions have truly helped Batman. What if the character has in fact harmed him?

    3. Honor is a Manipulation of Batmite and/or Batmite himself.

    Ditto. Only here, why choose a magic negro-like figure to help or hinder batman (which itself creates a different kind of discussion)? Either way if the character truly is an god in disguise, doesn’t that change the set-up of the discuss and open a different bag of chips.

    4. Two words: fiction suit

    Honor Jackson (or the Honor-able Son of Jack, if you want to stretch) is Grant Morrison.

  18. adam aaron Says:

    correction;

    The already beaten Bruce feels all so dirty for having all that money and creates this false guardian to lead him into his fantasy land.

  19. adam aaron Says:

    Part II

    –Who the fuck does Honor Jackson (and Batman for that matter) think he is?

    Beyond the racial issues, the use of the character of Honor Jackson (if we assume that he is a “helpful” magic Negro character; i.e. just a ghost) brings up a major issue I have with Grant’s work.

    It is not my intention to project some sort of moral superiority over the author, which is, as I understand it, the nasty little side of effect of post-structural criticism. But Grant’s stories have had a very emotional affective impact on me and have served as developmental cornerstones in my life. I deeply respect his work on many levels. But on the flipside, I am wondering whether or not that I can any longer buy or respect the over-arching world-view Grant projects (or at least the way I interpret it).

    I am however not 100% sure how this works in the case of Honor (more on this at the very end of my long-wined babble) but for me this the breaking point for the character and the way he is used: if we rank the value of the character’s lives/existence, then we, the readers, of course only care about Batman (and the above post’s problem is that the black character is so disposable…but besides that point…the character, regardless of race, is just disposable).

    Batman is the hero: the self built super-man who willed himself into something greater and better in terms of human behavior. Even if that motivation was rooted in some fucked-up whisper from the childish side of his mind, it is still an awesome achievement.

    My problem, I suppose, is that a junkie’s dubious heroism is equated with Batman’s heroism. I find the idea that somebody can be a genuine hero, just by being at the right time and the right place (like so many characters in the Seven Soldiers of Victory), more than a little problematic.

    To some the familiar Morrisonian tools like bullets flying backwards through time, contact with higher reality, and hallucinations are just great comics fun (and indeed, they are). But for me (about to come on like a school girl in a plaid skirt) the way Morrison writes–you get chills and awes and tingles that makes the stuff seem, well, real and special. The way Morrison writes the cosmic stuff it has that quality of oddness that just seems to make sense at some weird guttural level. Now, however, I just don’t know if the stuff (and the morals) Morrison writes is any way compatible with the way I can, should, or want to live my life, though. It is, and will continue to be intensely and emotionally resonate and awesome (too the extreme!!!…hehe)—but I am beginning to find it morally bankrupt in some ways (for me at least): especially if we look at what it means to be a “hero.”

    Ranking the character personal qualities, Bruce is clearly a better person than Honor Jackson. Clearly, this is not because of any innate racial quality, but because Batman has saved the world—-and has the power, skills, and resources to do it again and again. Jackson might have an evolved sense of morality and his “place” in the world, but in my personal estimation, the self-willed but altruistic superman is a way cooler and better for the world than some weak-ass but saintly person. But we are going into William James territory: questioning whether sainthood is the sign of a blessed or diseased personage.

    It begs a debate or discussion or research on the values (and the goodness of those values) of the entire Campbellian (is that a word?) approach towards or regard of the super-heroes of the DCU and the writers’ (esp. Grant’s) approaches toward them.

    I honestly don’t know whether this points to a really fucked-up (subtle) power-fantasy (where even the powerless have power) or to something more honest to the definition of the heroism (but which potentially removes the concept of humanism, or a state of humanity, from the hero at some point in the journey). In the latter case, the hero is merely the quintessential fool (in the Tarot card sense) on a journey where some contemporary (or more evolved and nuanced) moral values (which I feel are missing if Grant aims to make Batman more relevant) are completely disinterested or disassociated by the path of the character’s journey.

    Not to sound like that one arc in the Invisibles where the characters are infected with deconstructionalism, but it is possible for the hero and his world to disappear to our discriminating moral eyes (which is a good thing for us, personally, to break away from the fiction sometimes). However, this presents us with either a great failure on the part of the author, Grant, who in interviews has gone on and on about the importance and elasticity of the character.

    —-
    Returning the magic negro controversy, I think this character does indeed relate to some of his overarching themes (esp. the ones I have the most trouble with). Not to abstract the hell out it (or out of existence…too late, maybe), but taking it back even farther, I think that this character–or if not the character, then the use of the stereotype– (esp. in the context of Grant Morrison comic) brings up issues of free will and destiny. “The earth that Super-Man made” ended up having slavery. Then again Morrison said that the Holocaust was the “big” dark night of the soul for the (I suppose he meant European and western) culture, which itself is debatable on so many levels if not naive to fault…and maybe I am still upset that he would see things that way.

  20. Shep Says:

    As a side note, a recent Warren Ellis essay (but which predates this and Marc’s essays) about mining the Marvel minor-character catalogue makes reference to Brother Voodoo as a potential book where the main character IS the magic negro — so the concept seems to be in play among Morrison’s comics-writing peer group, anyway.

  21. Ben Says:

    While only tangentially related, this article (and the replies) served as a stark reminder of Morrison’s Crisis Times Five arc during his JLA run, and conversations about the possibly stereotypical and/or offensive nature of Jakeem Thunder.
    I’m not sure how this would tie in to the discussion about Honor Jackson, but it still seems relevant. While the idea that Morrison would write to stereotypes is unsettling, it wouldn’t be an entirely new conceit. While I may be familiar with the concept of the Magical Negro (thanks, Digg.com), it’s quite possible that he simply hadn’t recognized the cliche.
    In all honesty I’ve been more curious as to why the New Gods of Apokalips all came back as black people, as opposed to the ethnically diverse group of New Genesis gods we saw in Seven Soldiers.

    …aww, now I’ve gone way off-topic. Sorry.

  22. Bots'wana Beast Says:

    There’s actually a fascinating, much-better-than-mine post at Gutteral about some of that, Ben; I’d advise gving it a read, anyone interested in this topic, because it spins off into a lot of fascinating areas.

  23. Marc Says:

    It’s not quite as uneven as that, Ben–Baron Bedlam (supposed to be Doctor Bedlam) is white, as is either Kalibak or Kanto. With the exception of Metron most of the major characters on both sides are black, at least until the Goth Forever People show up…

  24. Bots'wana Beast Says:

    And that, too. (Fairly sure it’s Kanto who’s white.)

    I reread all the BatMoz, actually, and there’s some interesting mirroring here with the ‘Joe Chill in Hell’ issue in particular; the albino character in that, Frosty, in particular fascinated me – reading some fan theories, there’s this running “Joe Chill is the Black Glove” thing – but (and I didn’t read the scene as such, because it’s such a fugue-state of a comic; the levels, they are unclear) apparently we’re supposed to think the bit where his skin is just discarded – that that’s Batman? I think we’re supposed to think that? Are we? I had rather preferred thinking it was just some awful hallucination.

    Following that, I do wonder – and to some extent this is conceivably a hangover from using the Claremontian ‘possession/telepathy’ trope so much in New X-Men, the fictionsuits – if Honor and, probably, Jezebel in the previous issue actually are being worn as black gloves? I’d think that’d constitute some seriously ropey essentialising if, particularly, they were the sole recipients of this treatment but it’s all a bit fishy at this juncture.

    (My new Black Glove theorem = who wears red and black throughout the entire run? All. The. Time. WHO???!!?)

  25. Kevin Says:

    The dreaded Magical Negro aside…

    And yeah, at first glance Honor Jackson is kind of sketchy… I’m saving any hard look until there’s more of the story on the table, though.

    Yeah, “Mary Sue” lives and breathes as a term in academic circles. Whole panels devoted to the concept at any conference that touches on fan culture.

  26. DA Says:

    I’m jumping into this party late — my LCS ran out of BATMAN and I finally just got ahold of this issue late. But having tracked this debate over at Savage Critic, I kind of feel that the “magical negro” shorthand has obscured some other things that are going on in this story.

    Admittedly, GM can be a bit flatfooted when dealing with issues of race; the hip-hop stylings of MISTER MIRACLE are the prime example. It’s one of the few areas where GM falls prey to a pervasive disease among comics writers: fortysomething nerd making a desperate bid to sound hip. (Though even GM’s worst efforts pale beside Waid’s notoriously clueless “Clobberin’ Time” rap.)

    As some other commentators have noted, throwing out charged phrases like “magical negro” can be the very opposite of thoughtful criticism — the phrase is a loaded one, laden with suppositions and connotations. This story, to me, reads like a “magical negro” tale to some because it’s in part a skillful inversion of same. Indeed, Honor is Bruce’s guide through an underworld, dispensing wisdom and advice… but he also seems to have his own motives and intents. He’s using Bruce as his street soldier; and the ultimate goal doesn’t seem to be an unearned spiritual reward (ala the Bagger Vance model), but a kind of punishment… one that’s intimately connected to Bruce’s blinkered point-of-view about his privileged, white status and how he uses his wealth in the world.

    To me, this is not the author falling unthinkingly into an old cliche… partly because GM has very intentionally been using a whole lot of quite literally “magical negros” lately. His re-conception of the New Gods is heavily influenced by concepts from Haitian Voudon — not surprising, given GM’s long-held interest in this tradition. (Many moons ago, he wrote a long, empathetic piece for RAPID EYE magazine about experimental filmmaker Maya Deren’s personal journey into Voudon.)

    Knowing this, Honor’s one-lensed sunglasses suggest a very specific meaning: in the Voudon tradition such one-lensed glasses are a hallmark of Papa Ghede — a crossroads god who resides at the intersection of life and death, whose hallmarks can include a crass sense of humor and a contempt for white/European culture.

    I’m wondering if the “magical negro” aspects of the tale are here intentionally, intended as a deconstructionist angle on this concept. If anyone’s still paying attention to this thread, but me…

  27. Bots'wana Beast Says:

    I am – but then, it’s my thing, so. Some interesting insights there, DA, glad to have ‘em although I do always wonder about the “is he just being crap/cliched/etc. to serve some higher purpose” defence which almost never works (as it turned out, Frank Miller had flipped the game on All-Star – but, you know, Frank Miller.)

    Even allowing for the voudoun – and Honor’s specs had been bothering me + I think you’re right – there’s still a wide opening for critique on exoticisation, and definition by hallmarking from a pick’n'mix of world spirituality and so forth… I had intended to link but couldn’t find Mark Millar’s (terrible) column from CBR where he talks about Scotland in particular (because it’s so overwhelmingly white) being a place where people do kind of project onto other races – he doesn’t say that, exactly, because he’s Mark Millar – but it’s certainly something I’ve found myself doing in the past, even if what I’m projecting is ‘awesomeness’ or whatever, alongside the desire to delineate oneself as totally non-racist.

    Tricky stuff, anyway.

  28. DA Says:

    Well, yeah: the politics of race are always tricky. There’s a whole complex of issues going on here at once, and I’ve got mixed feelings about the way the story’s dealing with race.

    But to my mind, this piece is clearly inverting the main and most troubling aspect of the Magical Negro motif: the way that the “magical negro” seems to come out of nowhere to recognize and reward some spiritual aspect of our white lead that is unearned and unbidden. One of the interesting things to me is how the story evokes the twisted logic of addiction, where acts intended with kindness can have terrible consequences. Yes, Honor Jackson is dead — but he didn’t die so that Bruce can go on. He died (in a way) because of Bruce and his appearance here is partly to screw with Bruce’s head and give him a wake-up call. This isn’t the typical “magical negro” story, this is the goddamn “Christmas Carol” — where the ghosts are presenting a spiritual trial: admit you fucked up, change or die. There’s work to be done here.

    But the other thing that keeps running through my head is that the thing that’s really interesting about this whole Batman run is the psychological aspects of it. And to me, it seems pretty obvious where R.I.P. is heading: Bruce has been driven to the brink of crisis, confronting funhouse galleries of distorted reflections of himself, with long forgotten (or suppressed) menaces from the past leaping out in new permutations. The Black Casebooks are filled with suppressed material that he can’t fully wrap his head around — what’s real, what’s a hallucination? And GM keeps insistently dragging up the goofiest bits of the Silver Age that don’t jibe with Batman’s grim-’n'-gritty present. The approach suggests that all the different versions of the Bat are parts of a fragmented personality – and Bruce must learn to accept and integrate those aspects, or die.

    From that POV, the presence of Honor in this story makes me think (as others have discussed) that he’s not a “real” presence — he’s a spiritual force invading Bruce’s consciousness, or he’s a manifestation of Bruce’s psyche and it’s wearing the mask of Honor for a specific reason. The people from our lives we meet in our dreams often don’t represent themselves — but aspects within us, that we see reflected in them. And the people who are the most “different” from ourselves may represent our greatest inner challenges: the material that is most deeply repressed, that must be confronted.

    But even if this feels “psychologically” true, is that a defense? The artist always has to consider how his material is intersecting with the world… For example, I always get frustrated by the arguments of violence within the media. In any good story, the violence isn’t literal: it’s an expression of ideas, emotions, themes in collision. But there’s always the danger the audience will only see the literal face of things.

    As GM writes in the TPB of The Filth:

    “WARNING: Contains the active ingredient metaphor… one of a group of problem-solving medicines known as ‘figures of speech’ which are normally used to treat literal thinking and other diseases…. Patients using The Filth are required to participate in the generation of significant content by interpreting text and images which have been deliberately loaded with multiple overlapping meanings and scales.”

    Please, consult your physician.

  29. Marc Says:

    I’m glad you posted, DA, because after rereading the issue I’m even more bothered by the magical negro aspects and your comments give me an opportunity to revisit them.

    Like Duncan, I’m more than a little skeptical of the argument that Morrison (or any other writer) is too good to be this bad, that what appears to be cliche and stereotype must actually be clever subversion (only legible with the application of judicious amounts of faith). Especially because I don’t see how Honor Jackson in any way subverts or departs from the typical applications of the stereotype.

    Having his own motives and intents hardly disqualifies Honor Jackson from being a magical negro. Magical negroes frequently have their own motives (protecting Zion from the machines, for example), but they always use the same methods: giving white protagonists the motivation, information, or spiritual resources they need to get the job done.

    But I’ve conceded too much already; I’m not even sure Honor Jackson does have motives that are independent from the most narrowly subservient mission of the magical negro. The “hazardous personal journey” for which he recruits Bruce Wayne turns out to be a ruse, the whole purpose of which was to “get [Wayne] up and walkin’ long enough to get your head clear.” Wayne’s soldiering is meant to help Wayne, not Jackson, who is far beyond worrying about muggers and dollar bags anymore.

    On the next page, he tells Wayne, “I never did nuthin’ I could be proud of. But imagine I could know I’d saved one life. That would mean I was worth sumthin’ after all, right?”

    His entire purpose has been to get Wayne up and walking, to give him a different perspective on Gotham, to prepare him to make an important spiritual choice (“You can fall… or you can rise”), and, ultimately, to save Wayne’s life–which, in Jackson’s view, defines his entire self-worth. Jackson doesn’t give himself any value or purpose outside saving and redeeming Bruce Wayne. He’s such a textbook magical negro, he’s actually internalized his own role.

    Nor is it at all unusual for the magical negro to confront the white hero with his “blinkered point-of-view about his privileged, white status and how he uses his wealth in the world.” This is a common (if by no means universal) function of magical negroes, the guilt they inflict only serving as another means of nurturing the white hero by first exposing and then filling their moral or spiritual void. Magical negroes don’t just “recognize and reward some spiritual aspect of our white lead that is unearned and unbidden,” as you write; they are just as likely, possibly more likely, to diagnose and correct a spiritual deficiency or malaise. Whoopi Goldberg’s medium in Ghost would be a classic example, as would any number of nonmagical but equally spiritual “wise negro” servant characters a la Morgan Freeman in Driving Miss Daisy. Honor Jackson belongs on this list, too: sure, he shows Bruce Wayne what it’s like to be homeless for a day but it’s all for Wayne’s own well-being. And the critique doesn’t cut too deep–by issue’s end Wayne appears to have learned more about accepting his weird 1950s history than he has about social class in Gotham.

    Finally, to this point:

    “throwing out charged phrases like “magical negro” can be the very opposite of thoughtful criticism — the phrase is a loaded one, laden with suppositions and connotations”

    I’m much more concerned about the suppositions and connotations of actual magical negro stereotypes, which do exist independently of blog comment threads. If the term is loaded, that’s because the cliche it describes is pretty repugnant. As I said to Duncan in my very first contribution to this exchange, don’t shoot the messenger.

    Maybe the phrase does get thrown around too casually elsewhere–certainly its appearances in the US presidential election coverage have been pretty glib–but Honor Jackson is such a perfect example of the stereotype that its application here is anything but “thrown out.” Doug Wolk got this one right from the start.

    Much like arguments that the readers are being too literal or that we still have more to learn about Jackson (it would be nice to think so, but I’m not optimistic), this strikes me as a valiant effort at redeeming Grant Morrison from his own mistakes.

  30. Ink-Stained Wretch Says:

    And I wish Adam Aaron would come back to this neck of the woods, because I’m really intrigued by his comments about GM’s world-view and the nature of heroism.

    There’s a thread of material in some of his work — the later INVISIBLES, SEVEN SOLDIERS, and especially THE FILTH — which touches on the nature of heroism, the redemption of the self: it’s an attempt to reexamine and redefine the heroism motif so common to superhero comix. In a really fascinating way, THE FILTH is a thematic sequel to the King Mob thread in “The Invisibles” — a questioning of why constructing the Ned Slade / King Mob ubercool badass personality is so attractive when it rejects so much of value in the softer, weaker side of the self (Greg Feely/Kirk Morrison). Part of what’s going on in THE FILTH is the redemption of the weak, vulnerable Greg Feely — recognizing that his caritas and empathy are more valuable and real than the bravado and hardness of Ned Slade.

    And in SEVEN SOLDIERS, there’s a recurring theme that the “soldiers” are most successful when they discover and embrace their true selves, replete with their doubts and shadows. The #0 team failed and was devoured in part because they were putting on the garb of heroes, though they weren’t necessarily heroes within. When these characters just happen to be in the right place — it’s because of their true nature. We’re expecting the Bulleteer to turn the corner and finally become active and aggressive. Instead, she defends herself — and reverts to her nature: she doesn’t want to be a superhero, she doesn’t want to fight and hurt people, even her worst enemy. But when she embraces this passivity, she fulfills her destiny: the bullet is also passive, sent to its mission by forces beyond its control.

    This discovery of and embrace of the truer, deeper self and the shedding of false masks seems to be part of the engine under the hood of GM’s BATMAN run… really intrigued to see where it goes next.

  31. amypoodle Says:

    Just to say.

    For those of you putting forward the argument that Honor is attempting to ‘learn’, punish or just plain hurt Bruce, I say: NO!

    He gets him walking around and re-engaging with the world when the only other options are descending into hobonessm, or, more likely, suffocating on his own vomit.

    He gives him the Bat Radia – a classic Morrisonian trope – that could or couldn’t be (WHO KNOWS?!!?23!) a holy artefact reconnecting him to the superhuman.

    He gets him to Crime Alley.

    Uh, no. Evil Honor is just wrong, wrong, wrong.

  32. DA Says:

    Marc:

    Compelling points, many of which I must concede to you. Besides, I fully acknowledge that GM has dealt clumsily with race in the past; and he’s certainly not immune from falling into cliches. (One that drove me batshit recently was the future-Damian-as-Batman story which featured the hoary old “five murders forming a pentagram — OMG! Devil worshipper killer is leaving his mark on the city” trope. Not only is this cliche long past expiration date, but it’s a notion that is far from “harmless” as someone like the magickally influenced GM should be aware — I know many pagans/Wiccans who have struggled to get the pentagram / pentacle recognized as a legitimate religious symbol, one that does not exclusively mean “OMG SATAN! = evil”.)

    I totally get the frustration that the “magical negro” elicits… I was literally YELLING at my TV screen in disbelief (“FUCK, NO! BULLSHIT!!!”) when I was watching American History X, flabbergasted that the ‘Lamont’ character was, pretty much out of nowhere and without real motivation, making nice with the neo-Nazi and giving Ed Norton’s character an opportunity to redeem himself. (Similarly, I threw my jumbo Coke at the screen as the credits rolled for Jacob’s Ladder — a movie I read as insidiously racist, connecting the “demonic” imagery with nonwhite/ethnic/impoverished characters and associating Heaven with perfect little white blonde boy Macaulay Culkin. I wonder how this movie would strike me now…)

    But ticking off the points of the “magical negro” doesn’t really do it for me: there remains a question of intent before this charge is lobbied. For example, I have giant questions about this assumption that Morpheus and Oracle in The Matrix are “magical negroes.” I know other people have brought this up, here and on the SavCrit board, but some “thought experiments” in casting make me wonder where and how the “standard storytelling cliches” intersect with “racist stereotyping.”

    I keep wondering: what if there was some way to transplant Alec Guinness into THE MATRIX and Laurence Fishburne into STAR WARS, without changing anything else, or even one line of dialogue. I wonder what the effect would be. Would Obi-Wan suddenly come across as a “magical negro?” Would Morpheus’s character, or his relationship to Neo change dramatically? Was ‘Morpheus’ even written specifically for a black actor? I keep thinking that in some contexts, the “magical negro” is just a Campbellian “helper” character who has been cast as black. Maybe that says something about our culture: that blackness is a substitute for the wisdom and spirituality suggested by age and monkish robes. But if so: then how should Morpheus be rewritten, to alter the impression that he is a “magical negro?” If the producers and writers/directors wished to have a diversified cast, who should they have cast as black instead? What if a black Neo was not an option, if the studio insisted on a star with a certain “Q” rating and all the major black stars had passed or were unavailable? Is it racist that the oppressed Zion residents have a significant black population, while the Agents are mostly uptight white bureaucrats? Given the limited number of roles in the story, set in a universe with a Manichean dichotomy of good and evil, and given the hot-button nature of racial issues in America, are there any “colorblind” casting choices that could have been made for The Matrix that would be bulletproof from controversy? And so on.

    I don’t disagree that your assessment of the issue at hand is mostly on the mark. However, I read it completely differently for a host of reasons… partly because it feels to me like Honor is intentionally pushing Bruce’s buttons; that this encounter is payback for Bruce’s “good turn”; the cold smirk and half-lidded eye he’s drawn with in some scenes suggest that his words may be calculated, and don’t necessarily mean what they say on the surface; because even when he’s saying things like the “If I could save one life” line, I think he’s intentionally fucking with Bruce who’s about to learn that (in a sense) he didn’t “save”, but helped kill Honor with the way he used his wealth. As Honor mutters a the beginning, there may be a way things work in the deluded world of “bat fairies”, but not in this world. But regardless… I still think there’s something a bit more complex going on here than the “magical negro” trope implies. I could be completely wrong; but the author’s real intentions may only become clear further down the line. Right now, all I can say is: AMERICAN HISTORY X had me yelling at my TV, yet I’m baffled as to the reaction this story has elicited: it didn’t strike me as cluelessly racist and it seemed like there were richer and more nuanced elements beneath its surface.

  33. Adam Aaron Says:

    Couple of points:

    1. Morpheus isn’t a magic negro. In the sequels we find out that the character has not only a sexual past but a crisis of faith as well. The character has a great deal of nuance in this regard if we think of him as a religious zealot. Second, there is the unwritten story of Morpheus’s own escape from the Matrix. He is more of the zen master (or whatever) with a bit of a death wish (IMHO).

    Similarly, the Oracle isn’t that much of a magic negro in the sequels; case in point: she isn’t really human. She isn’t an airy cultural stereotype…she is an all seeing machine!

    2. The reason American History X seems to suck is that seems like an after-school special with violence, titties, cussing, and nazis. In total, the project reads for me as a bad mixture of Hollywood’s feel-good, safe liberalism and the most cliched of film-school tricks, ticks, faux-nihilism. It ends up just turning a serious subject into something cheesy (of course it doesn’t help that my College Sociology professor chose this film to watch one day in class…and yes my education failed me on so many levels. Case in point: we had a “movie day” in college!)

    —-
    I’ll “maybe” have something more to say on the Batman and the magic negro subject.

  34. Marc Says:

    I don’t think intent makes much of a difference, actually. I’m sure that most instances of the magical negro do boil down to writers “innocently” recirculating cliches, but the end result still associates black characters with primitivism, spirituality, and self-sacrifice just the same.

    To follow your thought-experiment, switching Guinness and Fishburne would indeed make Obi-Wan the magical negro, for fairly obvious reasons. The more interesting question, I think, is whether Morpheus would still be a magical negro if the Wachowskis had gone with their (rumored) original casting of Will Smith as Neo, and then I think he probably wouldn’t be. Still a cliched post-Lucas Campbellian mentor character, sure, but no longer a black man sacrificing himself for the spiritual actualization of some much dumber white guy.

    I’m not sure there are any truly colorblind casting choices in American/western culture, but then I don’t think colorblindness is a very honest or healthy response to racial inequalities. It presumes a level of parity we haven’t reached, and it ignores the histories that change the valences of these characters. (There is no way Sir Alec Guiness could ever be mistaken for a nonwhite noble savage–not without blackface.)

    I think you get at the heart of the matter when you say, “Maybe that says something about our culture: that blackness is a substitute for the wisdom and spirituality suggested by age and monkish robes.” This is probably why so many Campbellian helpers characters are written or cast as black; but that same idea lies at the very core of the magical negro, and every association of the two reinforces the stereotype no matter what its intentions.

    There is one casting choice that neatly avoids the traps of the magical negro: cast people from every group as the heroes, not just Mark Hamill and Keanu Reeves. Cast black actors as more than just the mentors and spiritual mechanics. When more black characters are allowed to inhabit the whole range of human experience, then we can probably tolerate the occasional Morpheus. But when the magical negro is all that’s out there–especially in SF/fantasy/superheroes/geek culture in general, which never met a cliche it didn’t like and never bothered to think about a goddamn one of them–it’s a problem.

    And if your protagonist’s race is out of your hands–say, in a work-for-hire Batman comic–at least don’t write black supporting characters who conform so perfectly to the stereotypes.

    (Incidentally, I’ve always thought the Matrix trilogy would have been much better if it had been about either Morpheus or Trinity–they work their asses off. Much more compelling heroes than the guy who was born lucky and can fix anything by wishing hard enough. But, of course, it’s all about the white boy.)

    (Also, complete tangent but I really like the Ink Stained Wretch’s take on Invisibles, Filth, and Seven Soldiers.)

  35. Marc Says:

    Screw you, Adam Aaron, for breaking my streak of odd-numbered posts and tinted boxes!

    Morpheus is one of the classic examples of the magical negro. His romantic history and religious doubts might be nice filigrees in the sequels but they do nothing to change his basic structural purpose of educating, motivating, and supporting the white hero. A magical negro can be nuanced and still fit the stereotype. I’m especially unclear how an “unwritten story” affects the story that actually exists in the movies. If that story is ever told, and if it’s about him and not some white character he’s in the business of perfecting, then he would indeed break out of the type–but it hasn’t been.

    Saying the Oracle “isn’t really human” by the logic of The Matrix is completely irrelevant. She looks like a black woman; she’s played by two black women; and, here in the world where those movies were produced and viewed, that casting taps into a host of cultural associations that are absolutely dependent on the character being both black and female. (In much the same way that the Architect or the Merovingian absolutely depend on being white, male, and European, even though the programs wouldn’t “really” have any nationality either.) None of these characters may “really” be human but their races shape the way we read them, and the characters in turn reflect back on our ideas about the racial guises they assume.

    I would also note that focusing on the sequels is a bit of a dodge. In them, Neo has already made his biggest spiritual leap and is less need of mentoring–though he still goes to the Oracle for guidance and, surprise, even after the actor changes this program that isn’t “really” any race or gender is still a black woman.

  36. Marc Says:

    Oh, and needless to say, being “not really human” doesn’t make the Oracle any less a stereotype. By that logic, the various aliens in The Phantom Menace (to make an analogy that goes far, far beyond the magical negroes in The Matrix and into outright bigoted caricature) couldn’t possibly be stereotypes either since they’re not actually human beings. But they just happen to reinforce some of the ugliest cliches and stereotypes about blacks, Asians, and Middle Easterners/Jews.

    These the-characters-aren’t-what-they-appear-to-be arguments (see also: Honor Jackson as fiction suit?) strike me as very odd and extreme forms of special pleading. I’m not sure why you have so much invested in arguing that they aren’t cliches when they fit all the criteria.

  37. DA Says:

    There is one casting choice that neatly avoids the traps of the magical negro: cast people from every group as the heroes, not just Mark Hamill and Keanu Reeves. Cast black actors as more than just the mentors and spiritual mechanics. When more black characters are allowed to inhabit the whole range of human experience, then we can probably tolerate the occasional Morpheus…

    …and this is exactly where the perfect becomes the enemy of the good. A whole host of factors — including, but not limited to, the legacy of institutional racism and the predominance of young white males in the development offices of major entertainment companies — has led to a situation where there are only a tiny handful of black men who are considered big enough stars to potentially “open” a movie. If Will Smith passes, or he’s busy, or some studio honcho vetoes the choice for reasons that have nothing to do with race, there may not be another appropriate black action star / leading man who can get your movie green-lit. (And by the way, some of Smith’s recent projects have been cases of “colorblind” casting — where he was cast in roles that weren’t specifically or originally conceived of as an African American character. At least the early drafts of I AM LEGEND didn’t specify a black lead, and I believe that’s also true of HANCOCK and I, ROBOT.)

    Among that handful of black stars, many of them have achieved their status through long trials of proving themselves in secondary and ensemble roles… and even some of the the most famous black male stars (Samuel L. Jackson, Morgan Freeman) are often relegated to secondary roles in “big” movies (though they may lead in lower budget, lower profile projects). Even freakin’ DENZEL still finds himself in projects where he co-leads with a white star or where his role shadows an (often arguably) lesser white talent (see AMERICAN GANGSTER, TRAINING DAY).

    That’s the reality of Hollywood: it’s damn tough to be a black actor. And even the most progressive directors and producers find themselves slammed up against the walls of a business that has decided that very few black males are “bankable” leads.

    And if you can’t cast them in the leads… there’s a whole minefield of issues to navigate. If you want to cast a significant black performer in THE MATRIX, and casting the lead as black is not an option — what character becomes black? The Judas like betrayer? The insidious functionary who is a tool of the system? Or the wise, commanding leader? In a story that consciously employs broadly sketched stereotypes — or archetypes, your choice — to make its complex premise more easily comprehensible, does it become loaded to cast any character as black? Is it ultimately easier to just say, screw it, let’s cast everyone as white unless there’s a narrative reason they absolutely have to be black… because we don’t want to be accused of aiding and abetting racial stereotypes?

    All too often “colorblind” casting in Hollywood means historically, in practice, everybody’s white. Back in the ’90s I had a writing instructor who had worked extensively in television. He advised us that, if we wanted to see a diverse, multiracial cast we needed to specify that in the script. If we wanted African American, Asian American, Hispanic actors & actresses to get their shot and a piece of the residuals, we damn well needed to put their skin color or heritage right on the page. Some of us balked at that: isn’t that racist in its own way? But he knew from experience that most casting directors would go white unless the script specified race. White was the default. I’m not sure if that’s still true now; but I’m pretty sure it was in the ’80s and ’90s when this guy was making his bones.

    There’s a danger in propagating racist stereotypes; but there’s also a danger in being hyper-sensitive to perceived racism. It results in laughably silly ideas like the goofy multiracial gangs that roamed the streets in comics and TV of the 1980s. After all, gangs were a social problem that could not be ignored; yet enforcing racial stereotypes was a no-no. The result — a concept that had nothing to do with the reality of the world in which gangs tend to be extensions of family and neighborhood, where race tends to be a defining factor. But can you really say anything meaningful about a social problem when you’ve presented it in a ridiculously unrealistic manner?

    Another example: In the 1990s, there was resistance and resentment in some academic quarters to the casting of black men in second-in-command roles in various police, military and other kinds of dramas. It was read as an attempt to keep the black man in his place — to define him in an ‘Uncle Tom’ capacity. It didn’t matter that these roles could easily have been cast ‘white’ without comment from hardly anyone; it didn’t even matter that the 2nd in command positions reflected a reality about glass ceilings in many institutions.

    This is why I find it deeply frustrating that in the Morpheus / Obi-Wan flip thought experiment, Obi-Wan suddenly is a magical negro and Morpheus suddenly isn’t. To me, this seems patently absurd. The magical negro, to me, becomes most problematic when his/her race is an essential part of the equation, healing or offsetting the whiteness in some unearned manner. (AMERICAN HISTORY X strikes me as a particularly repulsive example, since it’s ostensibly about racism and yet falls prey to this hoary cliche. Similarly, BAGGER VANCE just doesn’t work without the character’s “blackness” signifying his outsiderly otherness. You can’t just flip Alec Guinness into one of these parts: magical negritude is an essential part of the whole raison d’etre for ‘Lamont’ and ‘Bagger,’ which is simply not true of Morpheus or Obi-Wan.)

    As Adam Aaron notes above, in the MATRIX sequels, Morpheus and the Oracle are developed in directions that sands the edges off the stereotypes or makes us question our assumptions about their characters. The more they become rounded and complex, the less they become stereotypes. But genre storytelling often depends on quick-read FUNCTIONARY stereotypes to get the story moving. The story tends to be more about the situation, the action, the concept than the inner lives and social histories of the character. Often, these modes of storytelling use shorthand — the General, the Princess, the Warrior, the Rebel-Leader, the Judas, the Villain. And these stock types are seen as neutral UNTIL we cast one of them as black. Suddenly, the character’s identity becomes freighted with loaded racial meaning that requires a very rare quality of subtle writing and, more importantly, TIME — time that the strictures of the medium may not permit — to fully defuse.

    (Arguably, I’ve drifted pretty far afield from the “issue” at hand, and some of the realities of TV & film don’t apply to the world of comics. But the “magical negro” term originates in media critiques, and these are places where I see problems with its application and assumptions.)

  38. Marc Says:

    DA, I think we’re in pretty broad agreement, although it may not always look that way. For example, I agree about the problems of “colorblind” casting–one more reason not to pretend it’s even possible, let alone ideal. When I say cast everybody as the heroes, I don’t mean to treat all leads as racially interchangeable, I mean writing leads (and supporting parts, and antagonist parts) for everybody. The Wire would be one of the best examples, at least in terms of black and white roles–plenty of parts for everybody but you couldn’t just swap the actors for, say, Carver and Prez or Herc and Officer Walker or Bodie and Nick Sobotka as those characters are written for particular backgrounds.

    I think your account of how stock types become freighted with racial meaning is pretty accurate. And because the racial casting does affect the way we read these characters, I have to spar with you a little about your frustration over the Obi-Wan/Morpheus matter. These movies may not be set in contemporary America (fudging a little on The Matrix here), but that no more exempts them from America’s cutural history and its racial legacies than the Oracle’s questionable ontological status exempts her. (Incidentally, when is the Oracle developed in any direction that sands the edges off the stereotypes?)

    Race may not be part of the raison d’etre for Morpheus or Obi-Wan–I disagree a little with that, since Hollywood likes to trade on blackness for instant cool and instant gravitas and Morpheus draws upon both–and, for that matter, the movies like to play the multiculturality of the Zion rebels against the homogeneity of the white Agents–okay, actually, blackness is a pretty big part of Morpheus, though I think the character could survive its excision (not unchanged). But back to my first take, even if race is wholly ancillary to these characters, there’s already a decades-long tradition of casting blacks in these roles and using them to stimulate white spiritual development. It’s difficult to read any such character outside that tradition once they’re cast as black (hence my argument for the Obi-Wan/Morpheus flip–although I now think you could make Obi-Wan a magical negro a lot more easily than you could make Morpheus a kindly old British guy). An exotic setting or a few genre conventions won’t do it; these self-sacrificing mentors contribute to the tradition whether they live in Georgia or (hypothetically) Tatooine.

    One more area where I have to disagree pretty sharply:

    “If we wanted African American, Asian American, Hispanic actors & actresses to get their shot and a piece of the residuals, we damn well needed to put their skin color or heritage right on the page. Some of us balked at that: isn’t that racist in its own way?”

    I don’t know where you personally came down on this, or where you come down on it now, but my answer is a resounding no.

    Racist to write characters to be particular races? I took a few shots at Europeans earlier in this exchange, but now it’s time to admit that this particular misconception has found ample purchase on my side of the Atlantic as well.

    Admitting the existence of race and racial difference is not a form of racism. This is “colorblindness” at its worst–pretending that the only way to overcome racism is to ignore race completely. Which, as you note in your example, just perpetuated the institutional racism.

    This still leaves the dilemma of writing and casting minority parts. You’re right, most of the major roles in The Matrix (Neo and Trinity notably excepted) would come across as cliched if not downright skeevy if cast with black actors. Maybe the problem is the Wachowskis’ reliance on cliche in general, an aesthetic problem long before it becomes a racial one.

    Usually, these discussions about race in popular culture become most heated–and this one has been uncannily civil and productive (nice job, Mindless Ones!)–on this very point, the difficulty of finding a stock part that doesn’t look like a racial stereotype with the wrong casting. Typically that’s offered as evidence that people who criticize representations of race are being “hyper-sensitive.” I wonder if it’s actually evidence of a much more serious problem:

    It’s not fair!

    We don’t have the social parity that would allow us to cast black mentors or criminals without wondering if it’s racist to do so. We don’t even have the artistic parity that would allow us to do it without reinforcing stereotypes. We don’t have the institutional parity that could address that.

    So we resent that we can’t just enjoy our cliche-ridden movies or comics in peace. We resent that we can’t create other movies or comics just like them without some damn hyper-sensitive PC liberal saying we’re racist, or the works we enjoy are racist, or the works we enjoy trade in racial stereotypes… even that is too terrible to contemplate.

    It’s not fair!

    No, it’s not. But it’s only a symptom of a much deeper unfairness.

    Or, to bring this back on topic (I did fly off for a moment there), I don’t read “then who CAN be black?” as a counterargument against the fairness of criticizing the magical negro–I read it as compelling evidence that the whole game is rigged in a way we usually would rather not think about when we open up a Batman comic.

  39. Adam Aaron Says:

    The above comments made reconsider my position on Morpheus and the Oracle (well, mostly the Oracle). It was really perceptive how Marc saw that the characters capitalized or were developed in response to older black stereotypes or capitalizing on the cultural cache of black characters and actors.

    I was curious about anyone’s take on the artistic development of these stereotypes as a response to past stereotypes or the evolving semiotics of blackness in science-fiction and fantasy (feel free to link instead of writing a long post)?

    The other question remains is Grant (or anybody else in mainstream comics) trying to deconstruct stereotypes by using them, trying to create developed black characters and failing, or just being lazy and/or racist by trading in the in the old store of cliches?

    (An aside, but did anyone else watching the matrix for the first time think that it would turn out that Morpheus was actually the One?)

  40. Marc Says:

    Sort of. I hoped it would Trinity, who pulls off the most amazing stunt in the movie (the dive out the copter) and brings Neo back from the dead. She earns it, if being the One is the sort of thing that can be earned (but it’s not).

    That movie would have been greatly improved if either she or Morpheus had turned out to be the One, or if there were no One at all.

  41. DA Says:

    Marc:

    This has been a fascinating and revelatory discussion… a couple of quick points:

    In the classroom discussion I mentioned, at issue were characters where race was not an issue — including smaller, functionally defined roles where the character just needed to be a “cop”, a “nurse,” a “soldier,” etc. Our instructor was explaining the need to specify race based on an incident where he saw the filmed version of a script he wrote where it should have been obvious that the secondary/ternary/background players should be of mixed races. (I think the setting was an inner city hospital.) After a discussion with the deeply clueless casting director (“B-but the script didn’t specify that anyone was black!”), he realized why TV was so predominantly white in situations where it didn’t need to be. His students had grown up in an era where non-discriminatory hiring was supposed to be a goal, and so it felt “wrong” to specify races when it should just be “the best person for the job.” Ultimately, there was a sense of idealism going on that was not far removed from your own idealistic, but (IMHO) ultimately unrealistic perception of how to remedy the longstanding problems with casting. We (like you) were more addressing how things SHOULD be rather than how they are. Functionally defined stereotype characters aren’t going to go away magically; the opportunities are rare — and the talent is even rarer — to create richly nuanced, diverse characters, ala THE WIRE. At the end of the day, there need to be meaty and diverse roles for characters of diverse races so actors & actresses with unique charisma and that undefinable star quality can get the screen time necessary to prove themselves and ultimately break the borders and start to become leading men and women. And again: some of the leading roles that Will Smith, Samuel Jackson and Denzel Washington have taken in recent years were NOT originally written for black men. It wasn’t urgent to cast a black man – it was urgent to find a bankable star who worked in the role. And Denzel, Smith, and (to some extent) Jackson have gotten to a place where people ask, “Hey, could this character be black? Could he be Denzel/Will/Sam?” (And re: roles I’m almost sure weren’t written race-specific: I Am Legend; Training Day (I believe this was written originally for a young Hispanic rookie and a veteran white cop); and Snakes on a Plane.)

    When Laurence Fishburne played Morpheus, it may not have been the most progressive role in the world; but it arguably enhanced his profile and revitalized his career, giving him opportunities that ultimately enabled him to not only star in but to produce passion projects like AKEELAH & THE BEE and THE FIVE FINGERS, which deal more directly with issues of race.

    But of course, in America, racial politics always collapse into the duality of black and white — ignoring the subtler and more sinister limitations hindering other races and ethnicities. Only recently, has it dawned on me how differently Asian Americans get treated. It’s frequently assumed they’re not from America, or that the Asian heritage outweighs the “American” part. I have a friend, raised in South Carolina, with no discernible foreign accent, who constantly gets asked “where are you from / where’s your family from” within the first three minutes of meeting someone new… a question that doesn’t get asked of any white, black or even Hispanic person in Southern California unless they have a noticeable accent. And the crazy thing is, there have been Chinese families in California since long before my French & German ancestors emigrated to America. But of course, in the movies, Asian Americans are always tied to their heritage. And, inevitably, know kung-fu.

  42. Marc Says:

    DA, I’m still not quite clear on why you’re lumping me in with your “colorblind” classmates. I’m not suggesting that any stereotypes will go away magically; just because a few shows like The Wire have found viable strategies for getting around black stereotypes doesn’t mean duplicating them will be easy. If anything, I think it points out how difficult the task is–but at least there’s some kind of signpost pointing the way out.

    “At the end of the day, there need to be meaty and diverse roles for characters of diverse races”

    This is all I’m saying. It’s the only way I can think of representing race that doesn’t devolve into some form of tokenism or cliche.

    And as for the perfect being the enemy of the good, if Morpheus is the good–and he may well be–we need to do a hell of a lot better.

    There is one thing we all seem to agree on: American History X sucked.

  43. DA Says:

    DA: Not lumping you in with the “colorblind”… except to say that when idealism trumps reality, the perfect defeats the good. And, for at least right now, roles like Morpheus are pretty clearly “the good.” Sure, we can aspire to do better. But right now in Hollywood, black men have it better than many other ethnicities… at least they have a handful of stars on the map who can and will be cast regardless of race.

    Not that long ago, I was involved with a studio project specifically written for a Hispanic male lead. Except it had to be rewritten to remove specific references to the guy being Hispanic — because, according to the studio, there wasn’t even one bankable young Hispanic actor who could open a movie. (And before anyone says “Antonio Banderas,” he’s (a) too old and (b) Spanish. Which peeves actual Hispanic male actors to no end that Antonio’s the go-to guy for “Mexican” leads.)

    To me, this was mind-blowing: in an age when Hispanic audiences are forming a growing slice of the target demos, Hollywood hasn’t made it a freakin’ priority to find and cultivate Hispanic male stars.

  44. adam aaron Says:

    Marc, while I still agree with the central point of one of your above posts. I did want to point out that I feel that one of you analogies breaks down.

    The differences between the aliens in Star Wars and the Matrix/Batman god/higher being disguised as a minority are great–though, as you point out: they are both problematic because of their staleness and/or the racial issues they play into.

    In my mind the Star Wars aliens are much more offensive since they contribute attribute cultural difference as racial ones and in effect turn human beings (since all the speaking species have at least human intelligence I don’t mind) into grotesque caricatures and cultural stereotypes.

    On the flip, the magic negro as a higher being in disguise is less offensive (but more troubling for its implications) and is perhaps more complex and interesting. A higher intelligence taking the form of minority opens up the more interesting discussion (first of all it begs the question of “why?”…of which there are several explanations, some are explored in above posts by me and others). Is the racial distinction purposeful? Does it have a point in the larger story?

    For me the moral problems arise not in the stereotype itself but what it connotes about history, life, and existence. The idea that other peoples suffering illuminating my own life’s joy and wonder is especially troubling (even if true in a psychological or developmental sense: that the awareness of pain in others (i.e. empathy) dead and alive contributes to my growth and wisdom) when attributed to the overarching cosmic reality or divine plan (i.e. what I said about everything being in the “right” place).

    It seems really sick to me. Not that I learn and develop some form the nasty stuff in the world, but that it in anyway is reflective of anything other in the cosmology other than human culture, physiology, and its mental and physical limits. This is not because I totally deny the possibility of a divinity, but because I think it is dangerous for people to contribute too much of the condition of the human culture and the actions they take upon the physical reality to anything other than human action.

    So this is what troubles me most about Jackson (or any of the Morrison’s cosmic contact characters or stories like the Filth), the idea of the “big” plan. I think that the racist stereotype reflects back to this issue, but the stereotype itself is relatively minor compared to the larger dehumanizing pattern of these fictions.

    The difference is clear to me, one is as obvious as a whack on the head; the other is lamentable and lame, but emblematic of an existential crisis before the gaze of the abyss.


    With that said, I think the one thread that fills me with glimmers of hope for Morrison and his heroes is, ironically, the self-referential aspects on the text. Looking at these stories and magicks as away of penetrating and understanding the psychological and culture “biospheres” and making some sense out of them is something remarkable. It is where morrison’s biggest strength and emotional power lies.

    My hope is that when Morrison opens up that big black magick tomb of his (“Pop Magick”) to the rest of the world that he will then give us access to something more potent and honest than the dubious power of glyphs and wanks. I think he is on the verge of something in his current writing (I have seem glimmers of it in most of his work) and I hope he has the insight, vocabulary, and skill to express it.

  45. DA Says:

    Yo, everybody who jumped in here — but particularly Duncan, Marc & Adam Aaron — thanks for reviving a long moribund thread and sharing your insights… this has been a fascinating discussion.

  46. Marc Says:

    My final thought, DA–I don’t see how defending characters as circumscribed by stereotype as Morpheus (let alone Honor Jackson, where you started out) has anything to do with aspiring to do better. Quite the contrary, it seems to argue for accepting the status quo.

    And I don’t think pointing out and criticizing these stereotypes is a case of idealism trumping reality–quite the opposite, actually.

  47. Ink-Stained Wretch Says:

    …um, Marc, I was kinda done with this when you made it clear that (in your opinion) flopping Fishburne for Alec Guinness means Morpheus is suddenly not a “magical negro” and Obi-Wan suddenly is. (On that tip, casting Harold Perrineau as Mercutio in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet suddenly makes THAT character meet quite a few of the “magical negro” standards.) That means that the fault lies not in our intentions, but in our stars: that the complexity of race relations in society can often trump the best intentions of the behind-the-scenes talent to approach matters in a racially sensitive manner or in an enlightened attempt at “colorblindness” (i.e., “the best person for the job” when the role doesn’t specify racial background). The only solutions I’ve seen offered are:

    (a) Make more heroes black! That’s the best way to remove the stigma from the secondary parts that often end up having racial implications simply because we’ve cast a black person whose role is defined by the white hero.

    (b) Write things with the rich world-view of THE WIRE, where characters’ ethnicities are essential components of their characterization, and the range of morality and dramatic potential is never delimited by racial stereotypes.

    (c) Avoid stereotypes of ANY kind, racial or not. After all, stereotypes/archetypes/whatever are an “aesthetic problem” long before they become a “racial one”. And all of the classic character “types” become freighted with racial meaning the second we cast a black person in the role. (See a; though this whole answer is actually kind of a subset of b.)

    These “solutions” to me seem plainly unrealistic and idealistic…

    (a) Sure, but… there are only a handful of black actors that the entertainment business agrees can open a movie. And that’s not going to change overnight.

    (b) THE WIRE is a rare beast for a whole bunch of reasons… partly because THE TALENT it takes to pull it off being very, very rare.

    (c) Plot-driven storytelling isn’t going to go away overnight, and plot-driven tales tend to DEPEND on “types” to get the act moving. And let us clarify: the term “stereotypes” does not always imply “racial stereotypes”. (And re: the idea that defending the use of types is just a defense of lazy “comic book, B movie” storytelling: Sometimes using types is a very CONSCIOUS and aesthetically justifiable choice. For example: in THE MATRIX, the big ideas were the stars, and to give them the necessary room, the Wachowskis kept the characterization simple. For example: In the allegorical works of talents as diverse as Bertolt Brecht and Spike Lee, “types” are used to build arguments about society. For example: In works such as the tales of Borges or “The Lady or The Tiger,” types are used to create a surreal, timeless quality. )

    If you are seriously arguing that Obi-Wan becomes a “magical negro” character with a mere casting choice, I think there’s a fundamental problem with the definition of the term. Can I see how Honor Jackson is problematic in this sense? Hell, yeah. His ‘blackness’ is a key and essential part of the character’s identity, and it’s being used in a very specific context in a contemporary urban milieu. ‘Bagger Vance,’ ‘Driving Miss Daisy,’ ‘American History X’ — I can see how the handling of the black characters in these can lead to very revelatory discussions. But the key aspects of the presentation of Morpheus is more about his ominous gravitas; his blackness is not essential. (I can more easily imagine, say, Gary Oldman as a “replacement Morpheus” than, say, Will Smith: the character is more about a level of intensity and dangerous commitment than it is about “blackness.”) The term suggests meanings that go beyond “magical” plus “negro” automatically equalling “magical negro.”

  48. Marc Says:

    I thought I was done with this as well, ISW, but let me ask you this: if Obi-Wan Kenobi were black, which traits of the magical negro would he not fit? Which of those five qualities Duncan lists would exempt him from the stereotype?

    Well, obviously Obi-Wan isn’t uneducated or mentally handicapped–although he seems to have picked up a reputation on Tatooine as a crazy old hermit, giving him the low status and partially qualifying him on that count.

    Every other trait is a perfect fit. He would, if played by a black actor (I’m trying to think of a suitable 1977 casting choice and all I can think of is Dick Gregory!), be the only black character in Episode IV. His mission is to help the white protagonist rescue the white female lead. He’s so concerned with Luke’s spiritual development, he even helps further it after his own death. And he obviously qualifies on the wisdom, magic, and self-sacrifice.

    So why wouldn’t the character be a magical negro if he were black?

    Because he’s not operating in contemporary America? That’s special pleading (and the Jar Jar Binks, Watto, and Trade Federation analogy I made earlier becomes especially apt). Because he becomes a protagonist in the earlier trilogy? True, for those movies, but that wouldn’t change his origins.

    You and DA seem to be scandalized at my suggestion that racial casting affects the meaning of these characters, but it does affect the meaning of these characters, because it adds another element to them. It changes how they’re read both in light of race relations and in light of the other works of art that perpetuate the stereotypes. The magical negro wouldn’t be a stereotype if it only cropped up once or twice; it’s the persistence of the type, and the general shortage of better options, that makes any individual instance problematic. If blacks were never cast as self-sacrificing spiritual mentors–or if they were cast in all types of roles across the board–then it wouldn’t matter if Morpheus or Obi-Wan fit the bill because it wouldn’t be a racial type in the first place.

    But it is. These characters don’t exist in some Platonic, race-neutral void, however much some of us might wish they did. (And to that point, casting Perrineau as Mercutio might well make that character a magical negro, if Mercutio were a better fit for the type to begin with–I don’t think he is for a host of reasons, but changing the race has an effect no matter when the play was originally written or set.)

    While you try to bury this point behind a cute cross-Shakespearean quote, it’s still a valid one: “the complexity of race relations in society can often trump the best intentions of the behind-the-scenes talent to approach matters in a racially sensitive manner or in an enlightened attempt at ‘colorblindness.’”

    Well… yes, it can and usually does. It doesn’t help that so many attempts at racial ‘sensitivity’ go horribly wrong–i.e., “positive stereotypes”–or that the sham of colorblindness resolves nothing.

    I wonder how much of the exasperation over the Morpheus and Obi-Wan problem stems from my position that the casting is not color-blind however much we might wish it to be? However much it might even be intended to be? Whichever of those characters is black, they cannot help but fit into the tradition of all the other magical negroes out there (and fit it perfectly!), no matter what the directors’ intent.

    I have to say, I read your comments as one long round of it’s not fair! And no, it’s not… but that’s the territory.

  49. Marc Says:

    One other note about my “solutions.” First of all, I think it’s a bit odd that I’m being taken to task for having failed, in my comments on this thread, to singlehandedly solve the dilemma of representing race without falling into stereotype. That strikes me as a very convenient and always fallacious way of dismissing criticism… okay, how would YOU do it? But I volunteered the better options, so I opened myself up to that one.

    You also misread the options I volunteered. I’m not just saying “make more heroes black!” (although that certainly gets around the problem of the magical negro)–I’m saying write all kinds of parts for all races. If there were a greater variety of minority parts, the existing sidekick/mentor roles would be much less problematic because they’d be part of a wider, richer field of offerings.

    And yes, that will be extremely difficult–which doesn’t make it “unrealistic” or “idealistic.” (Always encouraging to see that word tossed around as an insult, by the way.) Just difficult. That’s no reason to dismiss better options in favor of a status quo that produces patronizing stereotypes like the magical negro.

    In fact, it’s that kind of all-or-nothing insistence–if we can’t find perfect solutions with no effort we’ll just have to settle for what we’ve got–that strikes me as the real case of making the perfect the enemy of the good.

  50. Ink-Stained Wretch Says:

    (Marc — ISW = DA. Sorry about the confusion, sometimes my computer is automatically logging me in with my handle that I use primarily on another blog, sometimes it isn’t. So you’re only fighting/discussing with one of us.)

    Marc, I totally get the troubling/patronizing attitudes implied by the “magical negro” concept. My essential issue is that there’s something wrong with the definition of “magical negro” if we’re ticking off a list and end up identifying characters were “blackness” is not a key component of the character’s identity. In other words: great, a given character fits the items on the list (or can be made to fit, with a little hammering; give me a hammer and I’ll make Mercutio fit). To me, something like Bagger Vance is HUGELY troubling, and something like Honor Jackson warrants a close investigation of the author’s intents and motives. However, something like Morpheus is a somewhat different case. The whole Obi-Wan thing was to explore something that is pretty clear to me…. Blackness is not essential to the role of the role, any more than “whiteness” is essential to Obi-Wan; race is a secondary or ternary or ever further removed delimiter/definition of the character. The simple fact is: we could recast with a white guy and we wouldn’t HAVE to change a line of dialogue and it would probably STILL WORK — assuming we cast a white guy who brings a certain spooky gravitas and intensity to the game.

    And re: the perfect becoming the enemy of the good — your crack about Dick Gregory being the only castable “star” for Obi-Wan in 1977? EXACTLY. Things are better than they were. And black men actually have more varied representations in media than people of many racial/ethnic backgrounds. Hollywood suits are so eager to cast Will Smith, they casually cast him in roles originally written for “white” guys — or roles written for a generic, Heinleinian “capable man” where race is not a primary marker of character.

    (Asian Americans and people of Middle Eastern descent are in the position Dick Gregory and his cohort were in 1977: they typically aren’t getting cast unless the role somehow directly and specifically relates to their race/ethnicity. Circling back around, again, to THE MATRIX movies — the only major Asian character (the Keymaster, or whoever) fits a whole bunch of Asian stereotypes and, of course, knows Kung-Fu. To me, it’s obvious how his “Asian-ness” is crucial to the character’s whole conception and construction in a way that Morpheus’s “blackness” (or Obi-Wan’s “whiteness”) is not.)

    And “it’s not fair?” No, it’s not fair. It’s not fair to the people of ethnicities that are being under-represented or falsely represented. It’s not fair to the writer or artists who must navigate a minefield of interpretation, regardless of their intentions. It’s not fair to create an inescapable semantic trap that implies that a writer/artist is a racist through the application of term that’s definition fails a simple test — i.e., is the character’s primary purpose more “magical” or “negro?” Is “blackness” an essential attribute? It’s not fair define a problem in a way where no solution is practically applicable.

    Please, attack Honor Jackson’s depiction. His depiction is clearly dependent upon the iconography of the “magic negro.” Please, eviscerate Bagger Vance. But by the time you’re going after characters like Morpheus, “the magical negro” term becomes essentially meaningless — and the real problem is that “blackness” is still such a loaded concept that ANY depiction of “blackness” risks being perceived as racist.

    My frustration with the unrealistic idealism in the way you’re approaching this stems from

  51. Marc Says:

    Not sure where that was heading, but given that you led off with a rather insulting line I’ve tried to address a couple times already maybe that’s for the best. I think we are probably in much more agreement on about 99% of this than you want to admit.

    Although you still haven’t explained why Black Dick Gregory Obi-Wan wouldn’t be a magical negro. Your test of whether blackness is “essential to the role” is pretty nebulous, allowing us to condemn or exempt pretty much any character as we see fit. What (except our own preferences) determines whether blackness is “essential” to a role, if we’re also pretending the casting is flexible? Why couldn’t that medium in Ghost have been white? Why couldn’t Honor Jackson? What is “essentially” black about them–other than the magical negro conventions that get passed off as a kind of false essentialism? And how aren’t those conventions perpetuated if a black actor gets cast in an identical role?

    I view this whole discussion about Morpheus and Obi-Wan as a (now very longwinded) sideline, but it seems to me that if you’re going to propose thought experiments in which race–the first and most important element of the magic negro–is interchangeable, then you can’t be too surprised if the term starts dragging in roles that weren’t written to be black.

    I also want to clear up one MAJOR place where we seem to be talking past each other when you say, “It’s not fair to create an inescapable semantic trap that implies that a writer/artist is a racist…”

    First of all, I agree with you that the pervasive stereotypes of popular culture are not fair to writers and artists, either–the real problem, as you say, is indeed the fact that blackness is always a loaded concept–although they’re hardly hit the worst.

    But I have, from literally the first comment in this thread (and a few over at the Savage Critics), been saying repeatedly that I am NOT trying to imply that Grant Morrison or the Wachowskis or anyone else is racist. I don’t see any racist intent behind most manifestations of the magical negro, and in fact I’m not too concerned with identifying the authors’ intent, period. I could not have been clearer on this, and it’s deeply frustrating to see the same incendiary argument brought up time and time again. I don’t know how much that misconception accounts for this exchange, but I wanted to clear that up.

  52. Zom Says:

    Yeah, let’s leave that particular topic alone, shall we?

  53. DA Says:

    Sorry, Z… I just wanted to pop back up here, finally, to say to Marc that I think we absolutely are in agreement on 99% of things. The reasons I’ve dragged this on to such lengths are (a) despite caveats, “magical negro” feels like an accusation of unthinking racism to me — though I totally get that’s not how you intended it; and (b) finding practical solutions to these issues of representation are important to me as someone who works in media, so I’m trying to chase answers by pursuing this. Sorry if it got a little heated there or if, in frustration, I was misrepresenting your arguments. Thanks for the discussion, it has been illuminating.

  54. Marc Says:

    Likewise, DA.

  55. Bots'wana Beast Says:

    Absolutely, it’s really been better than I could have conceived and I’m grateful to everyone who contributed on a thorny issue.

    Merci beaucoup indeed.

  56. Jonathan Nolan Says:

    OF COURSE the magic negro trope is racist. It’s innately dehumanising. Implicit in any such myth of the other as psychopomp or magic friend is that WITHOUT their special status they’d be just another human zero from the underclass.

    The message of the magic negro is NOT that all negroes are magical ie special, or any other such PC load of crap, it’s that untermenschen like negroes need to be magical to compete with the dominant culture.

    And I use the term untermenschen quite deliberately. Like environmentalism, PC had its roots in Nazism and it shows clearly every day that its pernicous force is loose in Western civilisation.

    By accentuating skin color Morrison and all the other ham-fisted current comic writers accentuate and detract from a character’s humanity.

  57. Zom Says:

    It’s a fucking shame, Jonathan, I was with you until that god awful crap about PC and environmentalism came into the mix. PC is a deeply unhelpful, almost meaningless term, often (although not always, PC has other equally absurd uses too) employed by the political right to marginalize and OTHER particular modes of debate. Similarly, invoking nazism when discussing environmentalism could, if one were so inclined – which I am – also be seen as OTHERING.

    If you think you’ve come to a blog where we’re happy to share in opinions like the ones you’ve just expressed then you are sorely mistaken. You’ll find plenty of places on the internet where people will be happy to complain about the pernicious forces of PC or teh enviro-nazis, but this really ain’t one of ‘em.

    Sorry about that.

  58. Bots'wana Beast Says:

    Having gained some context by looking at your atrocious blog, JN, I’m inclined to think i) there is something terribly wrong with you and it will never be right and ii) actually, that second paragraph is the most revolting thing I’ve had the misfortune to see on our website.

    Don’t post here again.

  59. Kieran Says:

    I’m kind of hesitant to post this, partly because the threads ressurection occured under such unpleasant terms but mostly because I’m wary of supporting the downplaying of the magical negro concept.

    However, and I admit my memory of the film is hazy, but I think that so much of the Obi Wan character is contradictory to the spirit of the archetype that changing his race would not be sufficient make him fit it.

    Firstly because, as an arrogant ascetic dealing with smugglers and farmers he’s consistently on the wrong side of the emotion spirituality vs. sophistication and technology dichotomy. Secondly because his death is an example of “passing on the torch”, between equals across generations; its narrative justification isn’t to shuffle a bit character off stage but to force Luke to replace him. This close link between them is made explicit by using him as a lead in the sequels. Therefore, a hypothetical black Obiwan would have neither of the qualities that make the Magical Negro archetype so terrible, being neither subservient nor in any sense Other.

    And conversely, I suspect a white actor with Morpheus’s role would have seemed bizzare to most audiences, his fawning over Neo is decidedly unnatural considering he is meant to be his mentor, it only makes sense if you assume the audience is familiar with the trope.

    I make this point because there is a worrying attitude, one this thread has flirted with a little, that there are so many racial subtexts associated with supposedly stock archetypes that we have to either accept insulting portrayals or deny, for instance, black people from acting as mentors.

    I think I’ve demonstrated that this is rarely true: the magical negro is a totally different, much more marginalised character than the wise-old-mentor, who is after all essentially a father figure. The fact that they are often assumed to be race-switches of the same basic archetype just shows how deeply ingrained the underlying racial stereotypes which inform the concept are.

    Honor really is quite an unnatural character, and I can’t imagine him “working” if he were white- the closest I think you could get would be a Constantine/Dennis Waterman type who’d be much less earnest and require more fleshing out.

  60. Mindless Ones » Blog Archive » Criminology Says:

    [...] Lincoln back, even although he’s a voodoo pimp and probably can only ever be written as a fairly dubious bit of cultural ventriloquism. I mostly like the name, with all it connotates. I think I hate Hatman, who is apparently a new [...]

  61. Mindless Ones » Blog Archive » Three Fools - Part 3: Morrison’s Joker Says:

    [...] be remiss if I didn’t stop here and point out that, as with the Honor Jackson character in Batman #678 and his unfortunate debt to the magical negro, Morrison is treading on thin ice. Like Moore with [...]

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