True First is about real people. Real men and women of African descent who did something amazing. They may have been profoundly spiritual, physically gifted or ahead of their time, but none was actually in possession of ethereal or supernatural powers. The miracles they performed were born of hard work, ambition and a determination to succeed, often in the face of formidable challenges. Whether battling white privilege, slavery, racism or poverty, they are the heroic leaders who prevailed in the face of adversity.
So, what is it with the Magical Negro?
The term was first coined by Director Spike Lee in 2001, a response to Hollywood’s perpetual reincarnation of black characters whose job it is to help the white protagonist. Think of Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost (1990), the psychic who enables Demi Moore to reconnect with a dead Patrick Swayze. What about the character of John Coffey in the Green Mile (1999), the mentally challenged black man with the power to make a white prison guard live forever. Then there’s Bubba in Forrest Gump (1994), Red in the Shawshank Redemption (1994) and Gus in Passengers (2016). It’s a seemingly endless procession of numinous black characters with special insights and the Zen-like power to make everything OK for the white guy.
The Magical Negro, however, is only the latest incarnation of the happy slave. Mammy from Gone with the Wind is still selflessly serving her master, only this time it’s with sage advice that’s going to make him a better person. The Magical Negro dispenses home truth and mystical wisdom but invariably sacrifices his or her freedom, sanity or life to help the white lead (who was often a complete stranger until well into the movie).
It’s trite to say that Hollywood likes to make things up, but enough already. We don’t want any more portrayals of black assistants who exist only to give a deeper meaning to the white character’s sense of self.
It may be, however, that Hollywood is simply reproducing the historical fiction that has always given black accomplishments a supporting role. Ernest Everett Just wasn’t a lab assistant. Mathew Henson wasn’t simply carrying the luggage when Robert Peary reached the north pole. Wendell Scott wasn’t some white NASCAR driver’s mechanic.
By returning our “firsts” to their rightful place on the historical stage, we’re doing our part to banish the Magical Negro. There’s no question that the legends of True First enriched the lives of others, furthered our collective progress and pushed the limits of human achievement. But in so doing, they were not diminished.
We don’t need any more fictional black champions who are fabulously larger than life and twice as noble. We have enough real ones of our own.