Racializing Redemption, Reproducing Racism: The Odyssey of Magical Negroes and White Saviors



Recent research on the intersection of race and media describes a trend of progressive, even antiracist, narratives that showcase close inter-racial friendships and camaraderie on the silver screen. Films in which one character saves or helps another from some unholy or disastrous plight are common in films like The Green Mile (1999), Bruce Almighty (2003), Amistad (1997) and The Blind Side (2009). While these films present a stark change from the patently racist and on-screen segregationist history of Hollywood cinema, these films often trade on racist meanings and expectations. Many of these films are what critics call “Magical Negro” or “White Savior” films – cinema in which implicit and explicit racial stereotypes are employed to structure the inter-racial interactions where one character labors to redeem another. In comparing these two genres, this article provides an overview for how both cinematic forms reproduce racist messages by naturalizing the supposed cerebral rationality, work ethic, and paternalistic morality of select White characters while normalizing Black characters as primordially connected with nature, spiritually connected to the carnal, and possessive of exotic and magical powers. Together, these films subversively reaffirm the social order and relations of racial domination by reproducing centuries’ old understandings of racial difference.