Wednesday, July 26, 2006

To be Black and Magic (Pirates of the Carribean: Part II)

So in Pirates of the Carribean II, there's a character named Tia Dalma. She's a black vodou witch who lives in the middle of a jungle swamp, collecting strange artifacts and bartering for occult curiousities. Her sole purpose in the story seems to be to give prophecies to the all-white cast of pirates, so they can get on with the freakin' plot already. Seriously, she's great... after the big catastrophe, the whole pirate crew can all go chill at her crib without even asking.

(side note: she has dredlocks, black teeth, and wild red eyes... how the hell did they still manage to make her sexy?)

Anyway, do you feel like you've seen this character before?

That's right, Tia Dalma is a perfect example of a film archetype. She's 100% bona fide Magical Negro, along with such classics as Bagger Vance, Cash (The Family Man), Candelaria (The Punisher), God (Bruce Almighty), and... you know... however many others. If you're not familiar with the term Magical Negro, here's what we mean:

Magical Negro is an archetype, a common character mold that's been put to use in literature since the 1700's and in movies since movies were produced. It's generally discussed in critical commentary on race in story narrative, and the point is that this is a role, given to black characters by white writers and producers, that superficially empowers the black personality while still keeping it subservient to the white protagonists. So it's a subversive way to keep racist typecasting in "enlightened" filmmaking. The Magical Negro is based on the following characteristics:

1) It's a black character (especially one whose personality is based on "being black") in a predominantly white movie... like Tia Dalma in Pirates of the Carribean II.

(1a) The character is usually at a lower class or economic status than the other characters. This is part of the "black thing," and it's also related to the idea of the character "overcoming social oppression."

2) The character has a spiritual nature, possibly including supernatural powers, that he or she uses to further the white protagonist's progress through the plot. This may include unexplained medical abilities (Candeliria), supernatural abilities (Morgan Freeman as God), or inexplicable prophetic powers (Tia Dalma, the Oracle, etc).

3) This spiritual insight, or these powers, are used to help the white protagonist overcome problems, recognize his/her own faults, or move along in the plot.

There are some other common characteristics... the black character is often called upon to make a sacrifice because he/she helped the white protagonist. The spiritual powers are often related to the character being "closer to the Earth" or something like that. Some characters are on the outskirts of this archetype... Whoopi Goldberg's character in Ghost is a questionable example, because she fulfills the requirements, but she's more fully characterized and seems to have her own instincts and motivations. So like any category, it's a useful landmark, but it gets fuzzy at the edges.

Tia Dalma, on the other hand, is spot-on. She fulfills all the core requirements, and if you really consider her role as a character, there's almost nothing there except a thin plot device. Candeliria, Cash, the Oracle, Bagger Vance, and other such characters further prove the point. So I'm not going to argue whether or not this archetype exists... personally, I'm pretty convinced. Rather, I'm going to try to bring it into perspective, so the criticism can find some balance.

Personally, I think the critical discussion, which sees this archetype as a racist throwback, tends to forget two important facts. Here they are:

1) Archetypes serve a purpose.

Like it or not, a filmmaker, especially one doing two-hour-long popular movies, only has so much screen time to devote to characterization. I'm kind of glad I don't know the full story about Jack and Tia's sordid background, which would have thrown a wrench into a well-paced movie. For every character with dialouge, the writers have to start with something recognizable... usually a pre-established role... and build on it to create a believable character. Long before a character counts as "interesting," that character has to count as "intelligible," and flat but digestible characters have to come from somewhere.

That "somewhere" is usually an archetype, and archetypes usually default include ethnic identities. Just as the "prophet of the Earth" is usually black, the "pompous rich asshole" is usually white, because it's easy to digest.

It's a little sad that we have to think in over-simple terms now and again. It's sad that we do so much of our thinking through loose association (black = "closer to the Earth"? Pretty regressive). However, we all pull our preconceptions from somewhere, and lack of creativity shouldn't be confused with racism. At least archetypes go down without a fuss, and we should praise the filmmakers who deconstruct those archetypes, instead of condemning the ones who rely on them now and then.

2) Criticism in terms of archetype can blind critics to true storytelling.

There's a problem when critics are looking too hard for a concept. I can accept that Tia Dalma is a perfect example of a magical negro, and I'm happy to use her as an example of black typecasting. But a few articles (Black Commentator, Audrey Colombe) use Morpheus of The Matrix as an example of a Magical Negro.

Seriously, WHAT?

Morpheus is one of the best-defined characters in popular film. He's not distinguished either by blackness (he's a very politically strong, behaviorally neutrel character) nor by an excess of inexplicable magic (he just happens to be very good at the things every other character is capable of doing). Based on his approaches and attitudes, and on his centrality to the power dynamic in the movie, Morpheus's blackness seems almost incidental, contributing to the general racial neutrality of the Wachowskis' vision. At the same time, his strengths... faith and certainty in the face of an adversary, the ability to inspire his colleagues... reference some of the most important black personalities in civil rights history, like Malcolm X and Huey P. Newton. In Morpheus, there's a refreshing black-white power dialectic that does great service to the strength of his characterization.

PEOPLE... if you're going to identify a Matrix character as a Magical Negro, why don't you take a look at The Oracle? She's neck-in-neck with Tia Dalma as the perfect example of the archetype, a generally useless character who occasionally pops in to tell the characters what to do next... lower-class than the other Matrix citizens, earthy, and she has to make sacrifices to do her service to the white(-ish) main cast.

This is the danger of getting stuck thinking about archetypes. The critics who called Morpheus a Magical Negro were manipulating that category around his blackness, rather than genuinely evaluating its appropriateness in this case.

So ultimately, what we need is some perspective on archetypes in film. If we're going to critique a filmmaker's use of pre-written roles, we need to account for that filmmaker's narrative needs, and for his/her attempt to deconstruct those roles. An awesome movie is made even awesomer if we don't oversimplify its narrative nuances in the interest of criticism.