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Poitier Portraying Another Magic Negro: She's Blind, So Race Don't Matter

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Thursday, Nov 19, 2009

See A Patch of Blue (1965), staring Sidney Poitier who by that time was already a seasoned actor. Recall that Poitier only two years earlier, he was the first Black actor to win an academy award for his role in (white) Lilies in the Field, where he played a Magic Negro for sure. One interesting sub plot in that film, which seems to underscore it’s play on race, Poitier is the only ‘American’ in the film, save for the stingy white man. It’s one of those message films. Got the message?


Yet, we gotta love A Patch of Blue. Poitier plays another Magic Negro who appears from out of nowhere just when the white protagonist is in distress (see the first five minutes of Imitation of Life, or just watch The Pelican Brief or The Legend of Baggar Vance to see more Magic Negroes). Of course, the blind girl drops her precious beads, and he’s more than willing to help her. This is where the trouble starts: the two ‘inadvertently’ touch, and this is a prelude to the ‘dangerous’ intimacy they will share. Then outs her: In the plot of the film, the magic Negro character that Poitier portrays is the first to actually acknowledge her blindness, and to not do so in the negative way in which we are introduced to her, through her angry folks at home.


We watch as the two outsiders briefly lament about how differently they see the world around them, including flashbacks of the girl describing what might have been her last vision. She describes her disfigurement as if becoming a nigger. Of course, they play around the race line, and show that she can ‘see’ difference, yet race is invisible to her despite how tall or short they are and how differently they talk. Race, this scene seems to say, is so simple that even a blind person doesn’t trip over it the way able-bodied people do.


Next the negro performs this stock character’s most distinctive magic feat: In true Magic Negro style, Poitier turns moral leader and in the process of just a short, casual conversation, he is the first person to ever reveal to the white outcaste that she’s not nearly as ugly and incapable as the world seems to tell her. He plants the seed of pride. Magic Negros are chock full of pride.


The Magic Negro character, which later morphed into the black-best-friend, is beyond reproach, totally unlike any and all ‘other’ negroes, and especially mulattos. And, equally true to form, he won’t challenge the natural, if not unjust, order of things; his raison d’être is to demonstrate that magical negro moral fortitude, despite the negro’s ‘natural’ disadvantages. In these films’ the negro’s subordinate status is portrayed as natural because racism is usually never challenged, and the white-best-friend is always color blind in stark contrast to the uncool whites. This common fantasy helps distance reality from reason by showing that social inequality is not really all that bad because negroes apparently come out unscathed; magic Negroes have none of the rage more commonly associated with mainstream stereotypes of blacks. Moreover, the characters are always dedicated, happy even, to teaching the benevolent white characters on how we persevere.


There are few clearer examples of this fantasy than the Magic Negro in the Green Mile. Despite having the power to heal and even give life, the Magic Negro accepts his death penalty and in a coup of plots, the big, black, Magic Negro absolves his white-best-friends- the benevolent prison guards, distinct from the bumbling racist sissy they demonized and threw out just to make sure we knew which whites were good.


Like I have pointed out in an earlier critique of the Green Mile, consider the closing scenes of Imitation of Life, where the white-best-friend learns after years of service that her Magic Negro maid/nanny/best-friend has a life outside her whitopian, suburban home, and has maintained ties to other Black people for years. At the maid’s funeral, we see her tragic mulatto daughter vowing never to deny her mother again, as Mahalia draws out a moving hymn in the background. The scene actually shows how the Magic Negro character got over- how she persevered. One wonders where was the Magic Negro’s soul in the Green Mile, for in spite of his circumstances relative to the white-best-friend who is shown to almost succumb to all that pressure, the Magic Negro always chooses life. Watch to see if 1965’s A Patch of Blue deviates from this formula.

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The Magic Scene from A Patch of Blue
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