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Just Say No Thanks to #ThanksAlabama and ‘Magical Negro’ Narratives


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The day after Thanksgiving, my family saw the wretchedly bad movie-in-search-of-a-plot Roman J. Israel, Esq.

In the film, Denzel Washington plays a lawyer savant whose supercomputer brain allows him to recite obscure bits of legal code on demand. But his 1960s ideals and maroon business suits are supremely out of date, and his severe inability to fit in socially puts him at odds with those who want to help him survive.

Roman J. Israel the character is what filmmaker Spike Lee once called a cinematic “magical Negro,” a Black person who arrives on the scene from out of nowhere and has some inexplicable knowledge, wisdom, or a superpower. But most importantly, this trope—invented by white artists and seen in work such as The Legend of Bagger Vance or The Green Mile—requires this Black person be willing to do anything, including die, to transform white people.

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