Thursday, December 5, 2013

for you, miss?

Davies (1995), who I referenced repeatedly yesterday, tells us that Groundhog Day “ignor[es] considerations of race and gender politics” (p. 215). I’ve dealt several times with gender-related issues in the film. It’s finally time to confront issues of race as the film presents them to us. Davies also tells us, incorrectly, “The only non-white in the film (and, apparently, in the whole of Punxsutawney), is the stereotypical black barman who serves in the town’s premier hotel” (p. 226-7). To prove him wrong, have a look at the following (in no particular order but the order I just found them in my images folder—and the barman who I like to call “God” is marked with a red 3 (in case you can’t tell he’s behind a bar)):

Davies suggests that “problems with white masculinity are resolved” in Groundhog Day “in reference to a patriarchal and racially pure notion of the past” (p. 227). While even I have recently called the film Capraesque, I’m not sure that bit about “the past” is fair, nor do I believe the racial purity is deliberate. The film is set in (relatively) rural Pennsylvania and was filmed in (relatively) rural Illinois, where the extras were presumably primarily white. Nonetheless, there may be something to the fact that the only three non-white characters with lines (#s 3, 10 and 11 in the screencaps above) have no real personality except in active support of Phil’s story.

(Just to cut my own argument down at the knees, I feel I must point out that most, if not all, of the white characters in Groundhog Day also have no personality beyond that necessary to further Phil’s story as well.)

In reverse order, the first of those characters is a random guy (#10) at Gobbler’s Knob who tells Phil after his Chekhov speech, “Nice speech, Phil. Very nice.” For a while I mistook him for the extra I call “black camera man” (#7). I called him that when I labeled a bunch of extras a couple weeks ago. But, I see now, looking at the screencaps again that he is wearing a different outfit. He never looks at the camera or I would have known he wasn’t the same guy--#7 has this convenient way of being in slightly different spots at Gobbler’s Knob so as to be in the background of shots from different angles on different days and on one day even glances directly at the camera (which bugs me like that one dancing couple bugs me). Anyway, he exists solely to tell Phil his speech was good, which is actually weird, considering he’s an extra we don’t see otherwise—actually I just noticed him in the background right before Rita tells Phil he looks terrible…

And, he is a camera man (or photographer, anyway) just like #7. But, my point is, that line could have easily gone to one of the rest of the recurring backgrounders standing around enamored by Phil’s final report.

The second of these characters is the nurse. She gets the most lines out of all the non-white characters. The hospital exchange:

Nurse: Excuse me, sir. Are you the one who brought the old man in?
Phil: How is he?
Nurse: He just passed away.
Phil: What did he die of?
Nurse: He was just old. It was just his time.
Phil: I want to see his chart. Excuse me.
Nurse: Sir! You can't come in here. This is a restricted area.
Phil: Where's the chart?
Nurse: Sometimes people just die.
Phil: Not today.

She’s there for the third of Phil’s four sights. She’s there right before Phil realizes (again) he can’t control everything.

(Sidenote: I’ve been trying to figure out the name on her nametag but even on the blu-ray I can’t quite make it out.)

The first of those characters is the barman (#3). He is seen in three scenes (though his “date night” scene repeats). He shakes his head at Phil’s request for “one more of these with some booze in it, please” but he says nothing. On “date night” we see him twice, and he gets to say “for you, miss?” … three times. Then, we see him again when he shakes his head at Larry’s attempt to get Nancy into his van.

Now, I don’t want to jump to arbitrary conclusions or bring up modern tropes that might not fit *coughmagicnegrocough* so I will instead suggest that it’s not particularly meaningful that these characters are present at these important moments, or that the mortician is also a person of color (though he has no lines).

At other meaningful moments—when Phil has his epiphany in Gus’ car, for instance, there are only white people present. It isn’t fair to simply pick scenes that fit the potential argument here and only describe them…

But, that hasn’t stopped me before. So then, the question: are any of these characters examples of the Magic Negro? TV Tropes tells us that the Magic Negro exists for a singular reason:

…to show the world that minority characters are not bad people, one will step forward to help a ‘normal’ person, with their pure heart and folksy wisdom. They are usually black and/or poor, but may come from another oppressed minority. They step (often clad in a clean, white suit) into the life of the much more privileged (and, in particular, almost always white) central character and, in some way, enrich that central character's life.

Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu, at Strange Horizons lists “the Five Points of the Magical Negro” in his piece, “Stephen King's Super-Duper Magical Negroes”:

  1. He or she is a person of color, typically black, often Native American, in a story about predominantly white characters.
  2. He or she seems to have nothing better to do than help the white protagonist, who is often a stranger to the Magical Negro at first.
  3. He or she disappears, dies, or sacrifices something of great value after or while helping the white protagonist.
  4. He or she is uneducated, mentally handicapped, at a low position in life, or all of the above.
  5. He or she is wise, patient, and spiritually in touch. Closer to the earth, one might say. He or she often literally has magical powers.

Okorafor-Mbachu explains the obvious—“The archetype of the Magical Negro is an issue of race” then explains the real issue:

It is the subordination of a minority figure masked as the empowerment of one. The Magical Negro has great power and wisdom, yet he or she only uses it to help the white main character; he or she is not threatening because he or she only seeks to help, never hurt. The white main character's well-being comes before the Magical Negro's because the main character is of more value, more importance.

On the one hand, I buy this description. On the other hand, so many characters in so many films—not just Groundhog Day--exist simply to support the main protagonists that it seems wrong to suggest something special about one just because he happens to be black. I’m not saying that certain characters do not fit this trope; obviously, some do. Okorafor-Mbachu says that John Coffey in The Green Mile is a Magic Negro, by the way. But, I would argue that Coffey’s blackness is only important inasmuch as it makes him an automatic outsider given the setting of 1932 Louisiana. He also suggests that Dick Hallorann in The Shining is a Magic Negro, but then wouldn’t we have to call Danny Torrance a Magic Whiteboy?

Okorafor-Mbachu tells us:

King's Magical Negroes most often fit the stereotype of a person of color with mystical powers. According to general racial pigeonholes, people of color, especially blacks, are more primitive than whites. And because they are more primitive, they are more in tune with their primitive powers, the magic of the earth and spirits.

But, this simplistic sampling of black characters neglects the many white people with mystical powers in King’s oeuvre…

But, I was talking about Groundhog Day. None of these three characters--the barman, the nurse, or the photographer--necessarily enriches Phil’s life, but each is present at a key moment in Phil’s journey. The Barman is there at three points along the way, including date night, which leads into the nadir of Phil’s time loop experience. The nurse is there when is Phil is about to hit the second nadir of his journey (the third act twist, if you’ve been paying attention). And, the photographer is there to exclaim how great Phil’s big speech was when plenty of other characters were around to say as much.

This may make them Magic Negros, if we feel like letting them be. And, the presence of the Magic Negro would imply what Spike Lee calls “recycling the noble savage and the happy slave." Then again, he agrees that John Coffey is a Magic Negro when he is clearly a Christ-Figure who just happens to be black. So, he’s not to be trusted on this issue. Okorafor-Mbachu suggests:

These days, however, I don't think the Magical Negro's existence is so conscious. I hypothesize that the Magical Negro in film continues to live because a lot of the less savory beliefs about race are still in the American public's psyche. And because so much of art these days is commercial, the great machine needs to “give ‘em what they know.”

Can we read into the barman or the nurse or the photographer as Magic Negros? Sure we can (if we ignore the fact that not one of them makes any particular sacrifice for Phil). But, should we?

I’d say the answer is “no” but like the Bechdel Test, it’s still worth taking the time to discuss.

Today’s reason to repeat a day forever: to start a new Magic Bald Man trope.

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