Samuel L. Jackson’s 5 Anti-Magic Negro Roles
Samuel L. Jackson may get some flack for playing the angry black man too often, but maybe it’s because he’s served that stereotype that he’s been able to avoid another: that of the magic negro. The term refers to black characters who have supernatural or saintly wisdom to bestow on “normal” white characters, and tend to exist for the sole purpose of enriching the life of a Caucasian male before disappearing back into the ether. While this kind of portrayal of blacks is technically positive, it reinforces the idea of the white perspective as the default perspective, and perpetuates the portrayal of African-Americans as “others.” Trading the savagery and stupidity traditionally given to black characters for the otherworldly poise and enlightenment of the magic negro, unfortunately, still keeps blacks a safe distance from “us,” the white audience. Samuel L. Jackson, however, is here to save the day with roles that subvert the magic negro in a variety of ways.
Spoilers to follow.
1. Elijah Price – Unbreakable (2000)
In this sci-fi drama, Samuel L. Jackson plays Elijah Price, a man who helps Bruce Willis’s David Dunn discover his potential as a superhero. At the story’s start, David is lonely, lost and almost completely unable to determine his true purpose as man meant to save others. Elijah, a curator with a fixation on classic comic books, enters David’s life with mysterious expertise about David’s connection to superheroes. As the film progresses, Elijah pushes David to fight crime and embrace his innate super-strength, all the while dealing with a condition of his own that renders his bones brittle and susceptible to constant fracturing. In the last five minutes of the film, Elijah shares with David that their opposite physical conditions confirms their opposite purposes, revealing Elijah to be an evil mastermind that has killed hundreds (if not thousands) of people. Our trust in the guru-goodness of the Jackson’s character vanishes instantly, and the magic negro cliche is turned inside-out to reveal a person far more grounded in reality.
2. Gerald Olin – 1408 (2007)
In 1408, Samuel L. Jackson plays a hotel manager who warns Mike Enslin not to enter the titular room, for fear of seeing Mike destroyed by whatever evil has killed the 50-plus previous occupants of it. At first, Jackson’s Gerald Enslin seems to have less of an otherworldly wisdom at his disposal than common sense: the room has resulted in a series of mysterious suicides, and Mike shouldn’t be let into it because of them. But later on, Gerald shows up in a mystical fashion after the room becomes Mike’s nightmarish prison. And although he has all the technical makings of the magic negro–appearing from nowhere, perplexingly wiser about our white protagonist’s predicament than the protagonist himself–he doesn’t offer the usual help. In fact, instead of giving Mike even the tiniest bit of advice, Gerald seems more interested in punishing than guiding. He not only doesn’t assist Mike, but seems to take some satisfaction in his suffering before disappearing abruptly. Although the paranormal properties of the room make it difficult to confirm whether what Mike saw of Gerald was real, one of the movie’s final scenes hints at Gerald’s concrete connection to the room, and all but confirms that Gerald’s appearance in 1408–and the twist on the magic negro he exhibited there–actually happened.
3. Richie – Meeting Evil (2011)
Luke Wilson plays a down-on-his-luck doormat, John, whose life takes a turn when a mysterious stranger named Richie, played by Jackson, shows up in his life. Richie offers John a new perspective and a newly realized confidence after his strangely sudden appearance. The catch, unfortunately, is that Richie is a serial killer and is tempting John toward evil. He pushes John toward cheating on his wife, encourages John to take vengeance on a man who wronged him, and eventually threatens John’s family. Again, the usual magic negro role is subverted when Jackson’s character is revealed to be someone much closer to human than the angelic figures the “magic” archetype would allow.
4. Jules Winnfield – Pulp Fiction (1994)
Samuel L. Jackson’s famous role as Jules Winnfield is probably his most entertaining anti-Magic Negro role to date. After miraculously surviving a life-or-death moment, Jules discovers God and becomes seemingly enlightened beyond measure. So much so that when he’s held at gunpoint by a couple of white thieves, he effortlessly takes control of the situation armed with a powerful excerpt from the Bible and a spiritually awakened purpose. Jules’ poise not only humbles, but arguably saves the lives of the thieves he would have killed on any other day. However, the fact that Jules became a kind of sage sets him apart from the magic negro, who usually begins the film and ends it as “magical.” The magic negro, unlike Jules, rarely ever develops as a character, but is only there to help other characters develop. In any case, even after Jules reaches a point of enlightenment, he’s still prone to yelling, cursing, and violence if necessary.
5. Nick Fury – The Avengers, Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Thor, The Incredible Hulk, Captain America (various)
In Marvel’s interconnected batch of movies–particularly Iron Man 2 and Captain America–Samuel L. Jackson plays a mysterious man with an unimaginable amount of knowledge who drops into the lives of white protagonists and offers them a higher purpose. However, as Iron Man 2 showed, and as The Avengers probably will, Jackson’s Nick Fury doesn’t exactly “care” about these men as much as he needs them for his own purposes. Although his intentions are good, his methods aren’t exactly saintly, as he even goes so far to imprison or insult the heroes he works with in order to get his point across. The Avengers also promises a Nick Fury who commands respect without necessarily being “otherworldly,” responding to the pressures of saving the world with the fear, desperation, dread and use of violence you might expect of any human being, despite the character’s remarkable poise.
Photos courtesy of IMDB.
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