March 19, 2007

Another Silly Obama Meme

The early primary race is often called the silly season, but it seems that the campaign of Barack Obama inspires silliness in a league of his own, on both Left and Right. We've already heard carping about Obama's "authenticity" as an African-American on one hand, and breathless speculation as to whether Obama visited a mosque at age eight on the other. Now, to add to the circus of irrelevancy, David Ehrenstein scolds people for supporting Obama out of a desire to find the Magic Negro:

AS EVERY CARBON-BASED life form on this planet surely knows, Barack Obama, the junior Democratic senator from Illinois, is running for president. Since making his announcement, there has been no end of commentary about him in all quarters — musing over his charisma and the prospect he offers of being the first African American to be elected to the White House.

But it's clear that Obama also is running for an equally important unelected office, in the province of the popular imagination — the "Magic Negro."

The Magic Negro is a figure of postmodern folk culture, coined by snarky 20th century sociologists, to explain a cultural figure who emerged in the wake of Brown vs. Board of Education. "He has no past, he simply appears one day to help the white protagonist," reads the description on Wikipedia.

He's there to assuage white "guilt" (i.e., the minimal discomfort they feel) over the role of slavery and racial segregation in American history, while replacing stereotypes of a dangerous, highly sexualized black man with a benign figure for whom interracial sexual congress holds no interest.

As might be expected, this figure is chiefly cinematic — embodied by such noted performers as Sidney Poitier, Morgan Freeman, Scatman Crothers, Michael Clarke Duncan, Will Smith and, most recently, Don Cheadle. And that's not to mention a certain basketball player whose very nickname is "Magic."

Oh, good Lord. Is Ehrenstein really arguing that white people who support Obama are racists? Yes, he is. He goes into a long dissertation to explain that the white mainstream likes to find non-threatening black men to idolize in order to cover for their latent fear of black sexuality, and uses a number of films in which to prove his hypothesis. Ehrenstein notes the roles of film pioneer Sidney Poitier as an example, although he manages to miss In The Heat Of The Night and A Patch Of Blue, two films off the top of my head where Poitier is anything but non-threatening.

If Hollywood can be faulted for anything in its engagement of race, it's the opposite problem. It can't seem to tell a story about race relations without making a white person its focus. Take the films Ghosts of Mississippi and MIssissippi Burning, for example. Both recount true crimes during the civil-rights movement. Both involve murders of civil-rights activists. Who provides the focus of the movie? In Ghosts, it's Alec Baldwin playing DA Bobby DeLaughter, and in Burning, it's Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe playing FBI agents.

Both are good films, and Burning is especially excellent, but both films make it much more about the interior lives of white people than of the black people victimized by Jim Crow and racial hatred. Ghosts does that worse than Burning, where the filmmakers had a much better real-life protagonist on which to focus: Myrlie Evers, who fought for 27 years to bring her husband's murderer to justice. Evers later served as leader of the NAACP and is quite an inspirational figure -- but the writers and producers chose to focus on DeLaughter instead.

The films roles about which Ehrenstein complains were filled by African-Americans not because of some need for the Magic Negro, but because black actors can now get cast in non-racial roles. Morgan Freeman's roles in most of the films about which Ehrenstein complains could have been filled with white actors, but Freeman draws people to the box office. He has market power because of his talent and his work -- and that's not a basis for complaint.

I'm no fan of Obama, but my dislike isn't personal but political. I don't like his hard-liberal approach to issues. Otherwise, he seems like a personable man, but that's it. I doubt than many of the people who do like him feel a need for a Magic Negro in their lives, and the suggestion that people would find a potential President a benign, powerless figure seems ludicrous on its face.


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» “Magical Negroes” and “un”reality from Polimom Says
Today’s LA Times carries an op-ed by David Ehrenstein that continues the “Obama’s not real” meme — this time, with a film industry twist: But it’s clear that Obama also is running for an equally important unelected o... [Read More]

» Obama: "Magic Negro" from Strange Women Lying in Ponds
So says David Ehrenstein, who I remember reading back in the days of the old Fray on Slate. He was kind of nutty, then, and obviously he hasn't changed, much. Ehrenstein's article concludes:Like a comic-book superhero, Obama is there to [Read More]

» Obama, the Magic Negro from Tinkerty Tonk
There's Sidney and Scatman and Morgan and Johnson, Will Smith and Duncan And Cheadle, not Sharpton But do you recall The most magical Negro of all? [Read More]

» Bill's Nibbles // Open Post -- 2007.03.19 from Bill's Bites
Please feel free to use this post for comments and trackbacks not related to other posts on the site. If you leave a trackback your post must include a link to this one and, as always, comments claiming the sun [Read More]

» Bill's Nibbles // Open Post -- 2007.03.18 from Old War Dogs
Please feel free to use this post for comments and trackbacks not related to other posts on the site. If you leave a trackback your post has to include a link to this one and, as always, comments claiming the [Read More]

» Like a comic-book superhero from Obama Media
The Obama the ‘Magic Negro’ LA Times piece by David Ehrenstein has created quite a bit of buzz– so much so that a couple of friends forwarded it to me. I’ve avoided the “how Black is he” meme and don’t want to... [Read More]

Comments (25)

Posted by ddh [TypeKey Profile Page] | March 19, 2007 6:42 AM

If supporting Obama makes you a racist and opposing Obama makes you a racist, then Obama is like global warming. After all, we have all heard how severely cold winter weather is a result of global warming.

Posted by SWLiP [TypeKey Profile Page] | March 19, 2007 7:47 AM

I guess that Ehrenstein would be pleased if whites embraced a more "challenging" black figure, like an Al Sharpton. But Sharpton is an example of what one might call the "Magic Bufoon."

Posted by rbj [TypeKey Profile Page] | March 19, 2007 7:48 AM

"AS EVERY CARBON-BASED life form on this planet surely knows, Barack Obama, the junior Democratic senator from Illinois, is running for president."

What a terrible lead sentence. 1) My dog is, as far as I can tell, carbon-based, but he doesn't know anything about our political structure or even about America, much less who's running for president -- he's much more concerned about squirrels. 2) even limiting "carbon based" to humans, I'm sure there are lots of people around this world more concerned about having enough food to get through the day, rather than who's running for president of the US.

Posted by CayuteKitt [TypeKey Profile Page] | March 19, 2007 8:58 AM

This is the part of Ehrenstein's theory to which I took exception:

"He's there to assuage white "guilt" (i.e., the minimal discomfort they feel) over the role of slavery and racial segregation in American history..."

Although I'm part of the Baby Boomer generation that experienced/witnessed first hand desegregation and, its resulting cultural changes to many segments of our society, I have a -real- problem with this so-called "white guilt" that all of us whites are supposed to be carrying.

I was born and raised in Camden, New Jersey, until recently the murder capital of the country. Of mixed white origins, I grew up with Blacks and Puerto Ricans as well as other poor whites such as Italians, the Polish and the Irish.

Funny, but during those childhood/teenage years I never once experienced nor saw racial discrimination being exercised. The only prejudices I encountered were those of class origins; i.e. us poor white trash from literally the wrong side of the tracks, being marginalized by the well-to-do folks who could afford a real detached home (versus an apartment or row home). Plus, in later years of my youth, I fought against prejudices against women going into the work force.

Never was it role modeled to me to feel animosity towards any other "race"...not by my parents, not by my teachers, and certainly not by my community elders.

So forgive me if I fail to understand why I should have even any latent feelings of guilt over something like slavery that happened so long ago in our nation's history. Other than that history should be valued for the -lessons- it holds for all nations and societies and cultures, for me: history happened to other folks, long long ago.

Anyone trying to burden my already burdened life with such baggage is going to be running on a circular treadmill.

Racial prejudice is a non-issue for so many Americans these days that I think the "elites" like Ehrenstein feel compelled to try to keep it alive if only to exercise control over the populace which they in the Liberal MSM perceive to be too stooooopid to have any appropriate (by their definition) cognitive awareness of such issues.

Posted by AMR [TypeKey Profile Page] | March 19, 2007 9:57 AM

I could care less about Mr. Obama’s race, religion, height or waist size. I do care about his ability to lead our nation and defend it against our enemies. Secondary is his political stands relative to domestic issues. If our country actually becomes attacked again, a President’s social agenda will be meaningless.

Perceptions, unfortunately, are now much more important. Mr. Obama, as was Mr. Kennedy, is a likeable, personable individual and one who inspires people but Mr. Obama hasn’t had his mantel tested. America has already experienced, in President Kennedy, the dangers of having a President who inspired but was young and had limited political and international experience. President Kennedy was indeed a war hero, but because of his fate we forget about his failures in our highest office. When he and America were challenged in Cuba, those who noticed, saw the cause; the Bay of Pigs, the failure to challenge the building of the Berlin Wall and Mr. Khrushchev’s sizing up of him during their one-on-one meeting. These failures cumulatively persuaded the Soviets to place nuclear tipped missiles in Cuba and place us close to entering into a nuclear war. I would prefer not to experience that type of situation again; this time it could easily be with Iran or their surrogates, who are much less rational adversaries.

Our present enemies already believe that we are weak willed and have stated that they are waiting for President Bush to leave office so that they can get a more conciliatory office holder. I, for my part, will refuse to give them what they desire.

Posted by Ric Locke [TypeKey Profile Page] | March 19, 2007 11:29 AM

Bah. Forget Ehrenstein. He would like to be Andrew Sullivan, but lacks the wit, the intelligence, and the knowledge of history and current events to compete. If a question can't be discussed in terms of a deep knowledge of movie-industry trivia and/or the assumption that everyone is really queer but doesn't want to admit it, Ehrenstein is as out of his depth as a fly fisherman in the main current of the Mississippi.


Posted by RBMN [TypeKey Profile Page] | March 19, 2007 11:51 AM

I don't know if Obama is the "magic negro," but I know damn well sure that Hillary Clinton is NOT the "magic woman."

Posted by Adjoran [TypeKey Profile Page] | March 19, 2007 11:52 AM

I am undecided on this.

One of two must be the case: either a serious black candidate would not suffer such frivolities in the pages of a major newspaper; OR, a serious newspaper would never publish such frivolous coverage of a black candidate.

Or, maybe, BOTH.

Posted by Only_One_Cannoli [TypeKey Profile Page] | March 19, 2007 1:07 PM

CayuteKitt wrote: Racial prejudice is a non-issue for so many Americans these days that I think the "elites" like Ehrenstein feel compelled to try to keep it alive

Exactly. Ehrenstein's comment isn't much different from Harry Belafonte's rants about Condoleeza Rice - African-Americans have to be angry in order to be authentic and, more importantly, in order for the civil rights movement to continue its march for new entitlements.

Ehrenstein probably didn't like what Morgan Freeman had to say here:

[Freeman] says he finds Black History Month “ridiculous.”

“You're going to relegate my history to a month?” asks Freeman. “I don't want a Black History Month. Black history is American history,” he says, noting that there are no white or Jewish history months.

How can we get rid of racism?

“Stop talking about it. I'm going to stop calling you a white man,” Freeman says to Wallace. “And I'm going to ask you to stop calling me a black man.

Posted by baldilocks [TypeKey Profile Page] | March 19, 2007 1:46 PM

If Hollywood can be faulted for anything in its engagement of race, it's the opposite problem. It can't seem to tell a story about race relations without making a white person its focus.

Spot on.

Posted by Only_One_Cannoli [TypeKey Profile Page] | March 19, 2007 2:09 PM

I finally read the full text via drudge (cq link requires a login). This is one stupid article.

If you're white and you don't need a Magic Negro in your life then you're enlightened like the author's hero Andy Warhol. If you're white and you're considering voting for Obama ... white guilt. Neener, neener.

Of course if you're white and you're not voting for Obama then maybe it's because you're a big racist - but I don't know, the author didn't address that one. Like we need more schlocky writers at the L.A Times.

Posted by SwabJockey05 [TypeKey Profile Page] | March 19, 2007 2:15 PM

Good post CE!!

rbj: Lighten up.

Posted by Neo [TypeKey Profile Page] | March 19, 2007 3:41 PM

I love to laugh when I read about these counter-intuitive reasoning.

By Ehrenstein yard stick, Hiliary is a/the front runner based on that fact that many of her supporters really don't like women and want to find a women who, once they make her lose in a big way, they can stick in the face of radical feminists like a used tampon.

.. maybe Ehrenstein is on to something.

Posted by Neo [TypeKey Profile Page] | March 19, 2007 3:46 PM

Ehrenstein does make one of the best arguments to date supporting an end to affirmative action.

Posted by Hiawatha Bray [TypeKey Profile Page] | March 19, 2007 4:13 PM

Thank you, thank you, thank you for nailing something that's driven me nuts for years. Like many another black filmgoer, I'm so sick of what I call "movies about black people starring...white people!" It drives me crazy!

You left out one of my favorite examples--Glory, the movie about black people fighting in the Union Army during the Civil War. The stories of these ex-slaves and free blacks is so innately dramatic and heroic that it needs no embellishment, and certainly not some white guy to make the story accessible to white audiences. I think far better than that of my white fellow citizens, and believe they'd have embraced the movie if it had focused exclusively on its black characters.

But nooooo...! Who's the star of the movie? Not Morgan Freeman; not Denzel Washington, who won his first Oscar for it.'s Matthew Broderick, as white a white man as ever lived...:-)

Nothing against him, you understand. I just thought that this should have been a movie about black people.

Same thing with The Last King of Scotland. Forest Whitaker's performance is superb. But the movie is about some sniveling, corrupt white guy. Sheesh! I felt like throwing things at the screen whenever he turned up. Where's Idi? Where are his mostly black victims and his mostly black evil henchmen? Who cares about that white guy? Get him offa there!

One reason I thoroughly enjoyed Dreamgirls was that it was a movie about black people, starring black people. What a concept! Will Hollywood ever learn? Anyway, thanks for at least trying to teach them!

Posted by Only_One_Cannoli [TypeKey Profile Page] | March 19, 2007 4:35 PM

As a pasty American I'm hoping Ehrenstein can write an insightful follow-up article about the Magic Negro's pale counterpart - MAGIC WHITEY.

MAGIC WHITEY is the benevolent caucasian - usually middle class (one exception being Andy Griffith in A Face In The Crowd) - who goes out of his way to help a minority. Unlike the Magic Negro both black and white Americans can look forward to MAGIC WHITEY's return without fretting over some implied flaw in our character.

Some MAGIC WHITEY examples to help David Ehrenstein get started:

Bill Clinton - "first black president"
Michelle Pfeiffer - "Dangerous Minds"
Conrad Bain - "Different Strokes"
Ken Howard - "The White Shadow"
Gregory Peck - "To Kill a Mockingbird"

Posted by SWLiP [TypeKey Profile Page] | March 19, 2007 6:48 PM


I think that you're being unfair to "Glory," which was based on a true story and was directed by a black director (well, he's as black as Obama, anyway), Ed Zwick. Drama is essentially about change, and in order for drama to be interesting, the change must occur in its main characters. That's why many dramas about race relations have traditionally focused on the white characters - because they are the ones most in need of change when faced by a particular set of circumstances.

But that raises an interesting question about "Glory" -- based on who was changed by the story, whose story would you say that "Glory" was?

Posted by docjim505 [TypeKey Profile Page] | March 19, 2007 8:58 PM

He's there to assuage white "guilt" (i.e., the minimal discomfort they feel) over the role of slavery and racial segregation in American history, while replacing stereotypes of a dangerous, highly sexualized black man with a benign figure for whom interracial sexual congress holds no interest.

Hey! It's Mammy!

Ehrenstein isn't describing a post-Brown black character: he's describing blacks as they frequently appeared in movies during the '30s and '40s: the benign Mammy, Rochester, or Burbank.

The paradoxical way in which blacks have been portrayed in the movies (benign and non-threatening, or else bestial criminals) itself harkens back to how many ante bellum white Southerners viewed their "servants": Mammy and Nat Turner were the two faces of the Negro in Southern minds. Those two faces have been updated a bit, but they still exist as a cinematic stereotype of black people today: the wise, trusty black man of the sort often portrayed by Morgan Freeman, or else the deadly criminals of "New Jack City". I suppose we can add a third category: the buffoonish minstrel-show clown ("Whazzup???").

Obama doesn't fit into any of these categories, and so liberals (who can't comprehend the world without stereotyping people by race, class, gender, etc, etc) don't quite know what to make of him. Light-skinned, doesn't speak in either a ghetto patois or a Southern drawl, African father, white mother, not a race-baiting con artist like Sharpton or Jackson or a bitter burnout like Maxine Waters or Julian Bond who won't allow themselves to realize that this isn't 1963 anymore.

I think that Obama is - ironically - a prisoner of the stereotypes. Granted, all politicians have to wear different faces for different audiences, but his attempts to try to convince black voters that he REALLY is black seem ridiculous.

I think he should take a leaf from Morgan Freeman's book (thanks, Cannoli: stop trying to be a black man and concentrate on simply trying to be a man, then let us judge you on that basis.

Posted by richard mcenroe [TypeKey Profile Page] | March 19, 2007 11:02 PM


Is that like "clean" and "well-spoken."

Posted by Max Lybbert [TypeKey Profile Page] | March 19, 2007 11:04 PM

It's not directly related to the original post, but Mississippi Burning is notoriously inaccurate. Hoover's FBI refused to send agents to investigate the crime until after the local black community had it solved. There was no good-cop, bad cop game. It was all a bunch of foot-dragging by the authorities.

So yes, Americans are fine with black actors and sport stars, and even Presidents.

And Hollywood still can't accept that the feds aren't always the solution to any problem; not even the biggest problems.

Posted by unclesmrgol [TypeKey Profile Page] | March 20, 2007 1:25 AM

Hiawatha Bray,

Maybe you should wikipedia Robert_Gould_Shaw. Read the article. Then tell me why Shaw should not have been honored in this movie. How could the commanding officer of the 54th be relegated to minor status when he was responsible for recruiting and training the unit, and ultimately died leading (from the front) the unit into battle in one of the standard (and stupid) closed formation assaults so common during that war? As Benjamin Brawley wrote in his elegiac poem to Shaw titled "My Hero", Into the smoke and flame he went, for God's great cause to die -- a youth of heaven's element, the flower of chivalry Please rag about other movies, but Shaw deserves the place of honor in "Glory"; the survivors of the 54th raised thousands of dollars for his memorial, because they revered the man.

And, by the way, it was a movie about black people. Why would Washington and Tony-winner Freeman, accomplished actors commanding huge salaries, want to play the parts they did in this movie? Each of them had previously turned down parts they felt were inadequate.

I'd say you're on with Scotland; a bit off with Dreamgirls, which "whitewashes" how Florance Ballard, founder of the Supremes and their original lead, was treated by Motown, which had decided that Ross' bright tones would sell better to whites (be a better "crossover") than Ballard's "gospel" ones. There was never a reunion between Ballard and Ross, and Ballard died embittered and penniless.

Personally, after reading the comics the past couple of weeks, I've concluded that Obama really is Opus the penguin -- but with only 2% Whiteness when measured by Obama himself, but a massive 98% Whiteness mark when measured on the Sharpton Scale.

Posted by unclesmrgol [TypeKey Profile Page] | March 20, 2007 1:41 AM

Oops, blew it. Morgan Freeman was not a Tony winner, but only a nominee (he lost to Lester Rawlins [RIP]).

Posted by Jim Rockford [TypeKey Profile Page] | March 20, 2007 2:39 AM

The Magic Negro does indeed exist in films. Bagger Vance, Green Mile, etc.

But the writer is wrong about why the Magic Negro exists. It's not about white guilt (hardly anyone over 55 had anything to do with segregation anyway). It's about STATUS. Status among people in Hollywood, NPR, the Media, and other places where showing an "enlightened" attitude is important to social and career success.

It's all about Status. That's why Obama does so well among the very upper class liberals who depend on status (why else buy Volvos and Priuses etc) to show a "social enlightenment" and thus get the hottest girl, the better job at the LAT or NPR or Dreamworks or Google etc.

Non yuppie white people are not concerned with status because showing social enlightenment doesn't help them as cube dwellers, carpenters, plumbers, etc. They are measure by getting the job done. Obama must appeal to these voters (general election voters) on personality and policies.

Both of which should fill Dems with foreboding. Obama was quite open with his Black Separatism in his autobiography, writes of his unease with white people and his choosing an "angry black" identity, his concern with "acting black" etc.

Unlike Jews, Italians, and Irish, African-Americans have largely decided NOT to assimiliate and lose cultural and racial identity. This is why thuggery is embraced in poor black communities (keeps out gentrification and inter-marriage and upward mobility aka moving out) and why social controls "black enough" and "acting white" accusations against upwardly mobile Blacks exist.

How many Irish Americans make the accusation "acting English" or "not Irish enough?" Because Irish, Italians, and Jews traded in their racial and cultural separateness for assimiliation. Obama is no different than Bryant Gumbel, or Will Smith ("9/11 didn't affect me. It was for white America."), cross-over black celebrities who have to prove how "hard" they are to maintain their acceptance by fellow Blacks. Interestingly, Ice-T (former "Cop Killa" NWA member now, well playing a cop on Law and Order SVU) doesn't face that pressure, nor does gangsta rapper and Bush supporter Fifty Cent.

Any competent Republican will have a field day with Obama's own words in his autobiography, full of angry black separatism (at his exclusive, minority white Hawaiian prep school paid for by his wealthy white grandparets). Or his membership in the anti-White and Black Separatist Chicago area church.

As for Obama's Muslim heritage, the LAT reports Obama was going to Mosques on Friday and identified in school records as a Muslim as late as 9 or 10 years old. Though Obama's attendance was described as pro-forma. While to Christians that is nothing, if Obama really did so, for Muslims that is enough to render him apostate and thus the religious duty of every Muslim to kill him. If Obama really is a Christian then short of dropping tons of bacon on the Kabaa during Haj from helicopters there is nothing more provocative America could do than electing a Muslim apostate President.

Muslims are not merely colorful Episcopalians. anyone who leaves Islam is apostate and MUST be killed by the faithful wherever they can be found. There is no wiggle room on this issue.

But hey, aside from his dislike of Whites, his Black Separatism, his possibly Muslim apostasy, there's nothing keeping Obama from the Presidency.

Posted by Hiawatha Bray [TypeKey Profile Page] | March 20, 2007 10:16 AM

I'm not knocking Shaw; I just didn't want to see a movie about him. The stories of those black soldiers was what I wanted to see, and every time Shaw appeared I started checking my watch.

Posted by unclesmrgol [TypeKey Profile Page] | March 20, 2007 2:52 PM


I'm sorry "glory" didn't work for you. I cry every time at the end when the regiment marches off toward Wagner and the doomed frontal assault. All those guys know they are going to die, but they are going anyway. The camera pans their faces, shows their intensity... And watching the Southerners mishandling their bodies afterward... What makes the acting so good at that point is that the leads actually had to put up with quite a bit of manhandling during that scene, and they manage not to show the pain.

There is no part of that movie when I look at my watch -- "not even when the black soldiers appeared" (if the quoted words sound racist, compare them to your post).