Magical Negro: From The Green Mile to Get Out: Black, Disability & Hollywood
The Magical Negro is a trope created by white people; the character is typically but not always "in some way outwardly or inwardly disabled, either by discrimination, disability or social constraint", often a janitor or prisoner.The character often has no past but simply appears one day to help the white protagonist. Now we have Black movie makers doing horror movies like the recent, Get Out by Jordan Peele (which I love) and back in 2001 Spike Lee had this to say about The Magic Negro he said the he was dismayed at Hollywood's decision to continue using the premise; he noted that the films The Green Mile and The Legend of Bagger Vance used the "super-duper magical Negro”. In which I agree and to take it one step futher as a Black disabled artist/activist why in many movies (all kinds) when there is a Black disbled character he or she is in the role of evil like Unbreakable or drug dealer like Training Day or homeless like Cavenman’s Valentine? It is interesting the usage of disability in Get Out. I leave with review of The Green Mile that I wrote when the movie came out in for Poor Magazine and connetion of disability in the movie Get Out
I grew up reading Stephen King and was a big fan, but after high school I put down Mr. King until the recent story; The Green Mile. What attracted me to The Green Mile, the movie, was King’s character, John Coffey; a Black giant with some type of developmental disability. As a researcher and writer on disabled people of color I was very interested in the representation of John Coffey. The main issue of John Coffey was his size and the reason why he was at the Green Mile, a prison in Louisiana waiting for his execution. John Coffey was found in the woods with two White girls in his big arms with their skulls crushed. Throughout the movie you find out John Coffey has a power to heal people from their illness. The basis of the movie is that John Coffey is on death row for the murders of the two girls. But in reality John Coffey was trying to heal the girls, only Paul Edgecombe, a guard in The Green Mile and the rest of the guards know about John Coffey powers but can't stop the excution.
The story of John Coffey is what really happened to people withdevelopmental disability especially African Americans in the 1930's. Many disabled scholars and historians have established that people with mental disabilities were viewed as deviants and criminals. Poor, and people with mental health disabilities back then especially down south were out in the the streets trying to make a living cause with Jim Crow they didn’t have access too schools, jobs or any other institutions, so they were link to or seen as waste and someone to be shunned away or locked up. One hot issue was the problem of caring for America's mental retarded population (what they called feeble-minded). According to Steven Noll, author of Feeble-Minded in Our Midst: Institution for the Mentally Retarded in the South, 1900-1940, “the South learned from the North about institutionalizing the mentally disabled but did not look at the striking racial and economic separation in the South that altered the way institutions were established.”
In the words of Mr. Noll, “as the southern color line solidified in the first two decades of the twentienth century, white southerners ignored the needs and concerns of their black brethren. In a region where spending for social services was low to begin with, money for the care of black feeble-minded individuals simply was not available. Feeble-minded black people involved in antisocial or criminal behavior were often adjudicated through the criminal justice system.”
Many people might call The Green Mile a racist stereotype, but if you put the pieces together i.e. the time, and place of the movie and put a Black giant with some type of developmental disability you’ll see that you're not far off from the life of Black developmental disabled in the south back then. Other people thought his speech was stereotypical, but if John Coffey did have a developmental disability in reality he would not have access to a formal education. My God it was 1932 down South!
I was shocked that John Coffey was the only Black character in the movie. This is not realistic, and because of this it was hard to see the full representation of African Americans in the 30's, and to see if his mental disability played a big part of his character. The hidden theme that I received from The Green Mile was mind-blowing! If you concentrate on John Coffey's character alone, you'll realize that Stephen King has put a Black giant with a developmental disability in the shoes of an angel with powers to heal, a person sent from God in 1932. This blows the notion of the usual image of an angel or an agent from God. Nobody would believe that a Black giant with a developmental disability was an agent of good, as Paul found out years later in a nursing home telling the story for the first time to a friend.
It is interesting that it took a White non disabled famous author to bring to light how a Black giant with mental disablity, an agent from god was viewed and treated back then. And the notion that the White man is the savior yeah and no cause at the end it was the Gaint who healed people but on the other side the gaint's life was in the White prison guard.
Now that the movie, Get Out is out and people are again talking about the concept and reality of White movie makers using the Magical Negro practice in Hollywood, I wonder if we use a race and disability lens for both movies, The Green Mile & Get Out what do we get that shapes reality. It is interesting that in Get Out, there is a White blind character that is on the side of capturing Black people. Can we take off our Millennium's glasses to watch The Green Mile again with a critical race & disability in that time period lens to come up like Get Out that it is more than a horror movie but a socal critic but then in tthe South? Is that to far a stretch?
So much to think about!.
Leroy Moore Jr.