The Netflix show The Queen’s Gambit is a midcentury set piece, a quiet story about Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy), an orphan who grows up to be a lonely yet ambitious female chess grandmaster and a young woman who’s also battling a serious substance abuse problem. Harmon was taught the game by Mr. Shaibel (Bill Camp), the janitor of the orphanage where she grows up. The two form an unlikely kinship, as both are outsiders and obsessives. Together, they will change each other’s lives. And yet, because he’s white, no one has accused him of being magical.
Much has been written about the extraordinary narrative brilliance of The Queen’s Gambit, as well as the show’s visual sumptuousness, fashionable style and effortless cool. But despite all the praise, there’s also been an ongoing critique of the character of Jolene (Moses Ingram), who some have cited as yet another example in the long line of the “Magical Negro” archetype. Writing for First Post, Prahlad Srihari observes, “Despite her insistence that she’s not Beth’s guardian angel or savior, Jolene however turns out to be exactly that. Playing by the rules of the age-old Magical Negro-White Salvation dynamic, she becomes the bad bishop whose agency is restricted by the show’s own writers.”
For me, though, it’s the exact opposite — Jolene represents the death of the Magical Negro as a lazy trope.
If you’re unfamiliar, the Magical Negro is the cinematic equivalent of “I have a Black friend” and tied up in America’s racial caste history. It’s based on the appeal of characters like Uncle Remus, and the fantasy of the Happy Slave who just really wants to see their “massa” prosper, which gave life to the stereotype of simple-minded, closer-to-earth Black people, the sort of naturally wise folk who aren’t bothered by all the complexities and formalities of the white world. They’re humble, noble savages who can impart great, soulful lessons to a white person who has lost their way.
The term Magical Negro was first popularized by Spike Lee back in 2001, while he was doing speaking engagements at college campuses across the country. He had noticed a bunch of recent film releases — What Dreams May Come, The Legend of Bagger Vance and The Green Mile chief among them — that featured what he termed a “magical, mystical Negro.”
I’d add a few more to his list — namely, Morgan Freeman in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves; Scatman Crothers in The Shining; Mykelti Williamson in Forrest Gump; Carl Weathers in Happy Gilmore; Laurence Fishburne in The Matrix; and Freeman (again) in the Christopher Nolan Batman movies. All of them are Magical AF for three very distinct reasons:
- They strive to serve a white hero and help them become their best, truest, bravest self.
- While they’re uncommonly gifted with spiritual, mystical, quasi-god-like powers to inspire, heal or repair white people, for some odd reason, they choose not to help themselves and their people with these powers.
- They often disappear when their job of saving a white person is done, never sharing in the victory or the glory.
None of this, however, applies to Jolene and The Queen’s Gambit. For starters, if the Beth Harmon character had a best friend who was a white girl — a friend who was also an orphan and acted in all the same ways as Jolene — she’d be seen as a secondary character, too. That’s just the rudimentary nature of American storytelling, and how all non-main characters operate in service of the main character, whose story and emotional tale it is. The only way a character isn’t working in service of the main character is if they’re the chief antagonist.
Moreover, Jolene may offer money to help out her orphan-sister, but she doesn’t do it because Beth’s white, and thus, more important than Jolene. She offers her money because she cares. If anything, Jolene has complete agency — she’s in the process of becoming a lawyer — and it’s her sense of agency that puts her in the position to help Beth. Jolene has her own fully-formed, nuanced inner world as well. For instance, when ever-cool chessmaster Beth gives Jolene some sisterly shit about working at a law firm and dating a rich white man, and asks Jolene what her fellow Black radicals would think, Jolene dismisses it by saying, “Fuck ‘em, if they can’t take a joke.”
That line alone disqualifies her for membership in the Magical Negro Club.
Better yet, in the series finale, Jolene flat-out denies she’s a Magical Negro (the first time I can ever remember a Black character saying that). “You’re like my guardian angel,” Beth tells Jolene. Without missing a beat, Jolene tells her, “Fuck you!” before making it perfectly clear she’s anything but. “For a time, I was all you had. And for a time, you was all I had. We weren’t orphans — not as long as we had each other. You understand what I’m saying? I’m not your guardian angel. I’m not here to save you. I can barely save me. I’m here because you need me to be here. That’s what family does. It’s what we are. Some day, I might need you. It’s doubtful. But you never know. But if I do, you’ll come, won’t you?”
That speech could serve as the eulogy for the Magical Negro. Here we have two equals, two people who chose each other as family, when all others rejected them, and in the moment when they need each other, they know they’ll be there for one another. Although Beth doesn’t respond, we know her answer — of course, she’ll be there for Jolene. Their love reminds us that we all need each other, and that we can’t do it alone. There’s nothing magical about that.