Thursday, October 20, 2016

Magical Negroes everywhere you look

My wife and I recently watched the movie The Way Way Back.  It was a great coming-of-age story set amid the modern reality of divorced and dating parents.  It struggles a bit with the logistics of trying to imbue a 1970s feel to something set in 2013.  For instance, the protagonist at one point is listening to REO Speedwagon (?) on his iPhone.  But people in the movie aren't constantly fidgeting with electronics, which is decidedly not 2013.  And when the kid disappears for hours on end, his mother is worried and doesn't know where he is, instead of just calling him on his cellphone or checking his most recent Facebook status update.  I don't fault the movie for this though.  Lots of recent art and other cultural production strives for a throwback aesthetic in a modern setting, and it's hard to do.

The one really weak point of the movie for me was its monolithic whiteness.  I don't know much about the Cape Cod area, but I imagine you'd be hard-pressed to find many places in the Northeast today that are full of just white people.  I mean, have none of the people of color in Massachussetts heard about this water park?  Even this though I'd be willing to forgive, if it really is the case that the film is set in an area of the country that happens to be pretty white.

But then the Magical Negroes arrived, and that disappointed me.  I'll get into this term later, but in short it describes a literary trope whereby the only black characters in a work are thinly developed, and exist only to further the self-discovery of white protagonists, or otherwise move the plot along without existing as complex human beings in their own right.  In The Way Way Back, the Magical Negroes are a group of black young adults who are causing a scene in the park.  Of course black young adults can't just enjoy the waterpark like everyone else.  They have to make a ruckus.  Specifically, they are listening to loud music on a boombox and breakdancing.  Yeah, that's like the major leisure activity for black youth in 2013.  Anyway, in the end the Magical Negroes help the young protagonist to loosen up and break out of his shell, and then they disappear.

So I was left with a funny feeling.  Here was a movie that skillfully explored a lot of very relevant human themes like adolescence, relationships with your parents and their romantic partners, self-confidence, etc.  It rendered these issues in what I felt was a realistic way.  But on the other hand, it was set in an all-white 21st century that I don't think actually exists, and the few black folks in the film have little to do with any of the complex human beings I've ever met in my life.  It's as if there were a really insightful novel set in Nigeria that makes frequent reference to the snows and the autumn forest color there.  Or a film about the Victorian English aristocracy that had them all speaking English with California surfer accents.  Its inaccuracy would totally detract from whatever artistic merits it has.

I think people of color experience this a lot.  Much of the canon of US literature and cinema, despite its many merits, doesn't have any place for people of color, or if it does, characters of color are shallow, token figures whose depiction differs drastically from the real populations they're supposed to represent.  So as a black or brown reader in the US, how am I supposed to take this odd juxtaposition of a work that in so many ways accurately reflects and meaningfully comments on the reality around me, but that is at the same time totally off-base and irrelevant when it comes to depicting my little idiosyncratic slice within that reality?  Does it ring true for me, or totally hollow?  I think the answer is both, and that is part of the bizarre, schizophrenic experience of living as a minority culture within a society whose people, including your group, are otherwise homogenous in many respects.

My wife can watch a movie set in the US or Nigeria or Russia and enjoy the insights it offers on the human condition, while not worrying that it doesn't exactly represent her reality.  Why would a film set in the US or Russia reflect the reality of a Colombian?  She can appreciate it without expecting to be exactly represented in it.  But if a Colombian movie totally differed from her experience, it would strike her as odd.  If almost every Colombian movie ever made essentially ignored or sidelined her specific lived experience, that would start to seem really weird.  For a black or brown or red or yellow person from the US, the total omission of their experience is a lot like this latter scenario.  If they feel American, if they are American, then why aren't they represented in so much of the cultural production of the US?

Similar questions have arisen recently for me with my kids.  They watch this show called Dinosaur Train, which is pretty amazing.  It engages them with relatable characters that talk about being scared to go to sleep at night, or how adopted siblings may look different from each other but they are still part of the same loving family.  And it's all couched in very accurate, very informative paleontology, plus the thrill of riding a train.  You can tell a whole team of scientists and early child learning specialists worked together on this.

But at the same time, the show also presents a world that is largely bereft of ethnic diversity.  The characters speak in a variety of US dialects, but none sounds black.  At the end of every episode, a real-life paleontologist talks with real-life kids about the dinosaur or scientific principle discussed in that episode.  But most of the kids are white.  I've pointed this out to my kids, and so now they yell happily to me whenever there's a black or Latino kid in the group.  It's like an Easter Egg hunt for the diverse breadth of humanity.

I wonder if the show might have received comments about this, because in the later episodes I've noted more children of color in the live-action sections.  The main dinosaur family in the show also went on a world tour, where they encountered people who spoke English with all sorts of foreign accents. I think this is all for the better.  I'm not interested in some sort of quota system just to have certain numbers of people of a given race for the sake of some nominal equality.  But I do want the artistic and other depictions of the world that my kids are exposed to, to more or less reflect the actual world they live in.  This includes having them see kids that look somewhat like them, as well as kids that don't.

One last reflection on this.  My kids have a few toys from the Switch-n-Go Dinosaur line.  These are dinosaurs that transform into vehicles.  And they talk and make sounds.  Each one has its own voice and attitude, but they all tell facts about their respective species.  All, that is, except for MC Roar, the Giganotosaurus.  He is supposed to be a rapper, so much of what he says is in verse.  But little of it is meaningful information about his species, or therapods or carnivores in general.  Mainly he says what I guess white toy designers think black rappers say.  Things like "All the dino lovers in the house say Roar", "Represent", "Keep it real", and "Yo".  He sounds like a catch-phrase spewing idiot instead of a complex, intelligent being with thoughts in complete sentences.  Plus the voice sounds like it's done by a white dude talking "black".  The least they could have done if they wanted a black character in the toy lineup is to hire one black voice actor.  It's like black folks can't even get work anymore to enact their corresponding stereotypical tropes!

To close, I'm linking to authors that have much more to say on the Magical Negro trope than I do.  Here is a satirical guide to teach you how to become a Magical Negro (I love this quote "I still don’t understand why Morpheus wouldn’t just do all the stuff in the Matrix that Neo was struggling to learn").  And here is a very intelligent analysis of a dilemma I've just barely touched on above--how can black readers appreciate the literary merits of great writing while at the same time feeling it totally fails to represent them accurately or respectfully?  Specifically the author is a librarian and author himself, and a great admirer of Stephen King, who nevertheless realizes that King has a "Magial Negro problem", writing very few and very shallow (and occasionally aggressively offensive) black characters.

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