Cinethetic Racism: White Redemption and Black Stereotypes in "Magical Negro" Films

Matthew W. Hughey
Social Problems
Vol. 56, No. 3 (August 2009), pp. 543-577
DOI: 10.1525/sp.2009.56.3.543
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Page Count: 35
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Recent research on African American media representations describes a trend of progressive, antiracist film production. Specifically, "magical negro" films (cinema highlighting lower-class, uneducated, and magical black characters who transform disheveled, uncultured, or broken white characters into competent people) have garnered both popular and critical acclaim. I build upon such evidence as a cause for both celebration and alarm. I first examine how notions of historical racism in cinema inform our comprehension of racial representations today. These understandings create an interpretive environment whereby magical black characters are relationally constructed as both positive and progressive. I then advance a production of culture approach that examines 26 films that resonate with mainstream audiences' understanding of race relations and racialized fantasies. I find that these films constitute "cinethetic racism"—a synthesis of overt manifestations of racial cooperation and egalitarianism with latent expressions of white normativity and antiblack stereotypes. "Magical negro" films thus function to marginalize black agency, empower normalized and hegemonic forms of whiteness, and glorify powerful black characters in so long as they are placed in racially subservient positions. The narratives of these films thereby subversively reaffirm the racial status quo and relations of domination by echoing the changing and mystified forms of contemporary racism rather than serving as evidence of racial progress or a decline in the significance of race.

Keywords: African American, cinema, media representation, racism, whiteness

Author Information

Matthew W. Hughey
Mississippi State University