I showed my History of Race and Ethnicity in US Cinema class Six Degrees of Separation towards the end of this semester. I saw this film when it first came out, or very soon after, as a teenager. I understood it on a deep and visceral level, as it accounted the story of a fraudulently affluent young black man who found his way into the worlds of wealth white New Yorker's by pretending to be the son of Sidney Poitier. More than that, he affected the tone, gestures, poise and intellect of a black person who lived as both insider and outsider to worlds of privilege. I identified strongly with this message, and with the central character, but found myself strangely angry with the film. It seemed that while Will Smith's character, Paul, had extraordinary power over the white characters who took him in, he was ultimately just a tool of the narrative. I remember having a similar anger when I read my first post-modern novel Thomas Pynchon's V., around the same time. The title character is a mysterious dark-skinned woman/entity who means so much to so many people; an exotic foil fulfilling all necessary sexual and intellectual needs for the distraught white characters who so deeply crave connection to the visceral, to creation, to the "real." I remember reading it in my prep school dorm room (yes, I'm that girl), loving the eloquence and complexity of the prose so much that I couldn't put it down at 3am, but periodically throwing the book across the room as my only possible reaction to my frustration with its profound symbolic exploitation of dark-skinned figures. In Six Degrees, Paul is a charismatic, young, gay black man, who predictably disappears and is presumed dead by the final act of the film, which leads to an (unnamed, it's an art film after all) epiphany on the part of the central character, Ouisa, played by Stockard Channing. Paul, like so many black characters before and after him, is the catalyst and vessel of change and learning for the white characters around him, rather than someone who is able to achieve viable change for or within himself. They chase him, learn from him, take comfort in and learn lessons from his dark and mysterious wisdom...
He is the epitome of the Magical Negro.
Now, arguably, John Guare is making some level of commentary on this very phenomena within the film (and in the play on which the screenplay is based), by attributing Paul's sublime manipulative powers to his ability to recognize the white guilt of his wealthy white targets. It is not an accident that he chooses Sidney Poitier to impersonate. As Ouisa points out, Paul's father isn't just any movie star, he is Sidney Poitier, "Barrier breaker of the '50s and '60s." He is the son of Sidney Poitier, a man with such poise, such grace, and such quiet rage. He is always in control, until someone pushes him just a little too far. He is always well dressed, well spoken, tough, stoic, intense, searing, and always ALWAYS so incredibly dignified.
Soon enough, my dear 5 readers, I'm going to embark on a project of watching every single Sidney Poitier film I can get my hands on, chronologically, from Now Way Out 1950 to The Jackel 1997. I've had a quiet obsession with Mr. Poitier for quite a while, so I figure now it is time to make it a bit louder.
Sidney Poitier originates so many things, and I can do nothing but marvel at his star image. From a distance, I've imagined him to be something of the original Magical Negro (or at least of the Civil Rights Era), as he fulfills so many extraordinary needs for his audience and white co-stars, but does so with this constant sense of quiet frustration. Interestingly enough, his Oscar Winning performance for Lillies of the Field came out in the same year as Pynchon's V., 1963, when my parents were teenagers struggling to become the kind of intellectually well heeled black folk who could send their daughter to prep school on scholarship 30 years later so that she could have the profound opportunity to throw a Thomas Pynchon book across the room.
Naturally, this makes me want to look closer at Mr. Poitier.
I worry constantly (not just in this project, in everything I invent) about creating my own Magical Negros. I need mythic figures to carry meaning for me just like everyone else. I've imbued sexless drifters with magical wisdom to central characters. Granted, the first and last time I did this overtly, it was in the form of a giant purple hippopotamus named George, and thankfully no-one ever saw that play. I'm trying to look closely at this phenomena, but I sometimes fear that I'll just become more clever in ability to exploit. As I chase down Sidney Poitier, I will try not to cast him as the placeholder in my need for emotional or spiritual wish fulfillment. Our Sidney is more than just a placeholder.
This weekend I finally saw the film, Children of Men. This dystopian action/road movie stars Clive Owen as a sort of "everyman" named Theo who gets dragged into a quest to protect and transport a young woman named Kee to safety in 2019 Britain. The particular apocalypse that's slowly bubbling around the characters has been brought about by global infertility (of unknown origins) that has caused mass chaos and civil unrest. Britain has one of the only functioning governments, and refugees are flooding borders constantly seeking safe haven, only to be placed in jails and atrociously violent refugee camps. Kee, a refugee from an unamed part of Africa, turns out to be pregnant, and her unborn child represents incredible power, hope and possibility for the future. The ensuing story is deftly told, and one can't help but notice that virtuosity of director Alfonso Cuarón's use of long-takes in complex action sequences. He is a very very clever exploiter.
For you see, one can't help but notice that Kee is an extraordinary example of the Magical Negro. She's literally carrying everyone's hopes and dreams in her belly. She thankfully doesn't die or disappear at the end of the film, and she does manage to have some personal will distinct from the needs of those around her. She doesn't impart too much magical wisdom, though that role is generally given to the males of the Magical Negro species. Men impart and occasionally heal or protect. Women are vessels, and often unknown carriers of their magic.
But I digress. The point I'm making here is that Kee isn't a particularly egregious example of the Magical Negro. She's no Michael Clark Duncan in The Green Mile, or Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost or Morgan Freeman in almost every role he's had in the last 20 years (other than his Black Detectives, 'cus that's a whole different story.) The Green Mile actually had me laughing through most of the film, despite the fact that it's largely a melodrama, because Michael Clark Duncan's John Coffey is such a Magical Negro that he has the power to literally remove the suffering from a white man's penis with his beautiful black bare hands. He teaches them all such wonderful things about themselves. And he saves a little white girl if memory serves.
And then he dies.
Luckily for me, Sidney Poitier is neither dead nor actually Magical, though I have as much chance of meeting him as I have of curing all of my weird middle class black kid anxieties just by watching his movies.