Darryin Cunningham

Darryin Cunningham has been writing scripts, fiction stories, and poetry, and more recently non-fiction. He loves lyricism, words, and painting images with them. He is currently working on his first full-length play, “House of Bensons.” He strives to create art that people can feel and converse about. Art that reflects reality in the deepest, and sometimes unimaginable ways. He hopes that people find his work enjoyable, whether you agree with his words or not, he hopes you will talk about it, and share it with others.

The Fantastical Magical Negro

I began writing fantasy and fictional stories. I always possessed an obsession for the fantastical. Something about the creativeness and uniqueness of the stories and the bizarreness of the characters. I dreamt of living in a world like the ones on TV. Fantasy and fiction isn’t real, maybe that escapism is what drew me in? It was far more interesting than real life as a kid. I wanted to see Hogwarts and Middle Earth and even Peter Parker’s New York City. These things inspired me. I wrote alternate realities, fan fictions, you name it. 95% of the characters I created were intended to be white, or at least look white. What I didn’t realize, was that I was recreating things that had already been done, with people that don’t represent me. Characters like Legolas, from Lord of The Rings, or Gandalf from The Hobbit are awesome characters, but they are both white. I understand that these were books originally, however, the problem isn’t that they are white in the books, it’s that almost no shade of brown is represented. Every fantasy world could use more than 3 people of color(POC), who never interact with each other. Will Smith in Bright, or Jason Momoa as Aquaman, are great examples of narratives that do represent me. These movies prove that it’s possible to build those kinds of worlds. Not only are they in the film, they are the stars of those films.We create original works based on art that inspires us. We do it all the time. But I was painting these pictures to look like the kind of people I saw frequently in fantastical works. When I look back at those stories I realized…they don’t represent me. My culture, my skin color, my style, was missing from pieces that I wrote. That was something I hadn’t valued at the time. It took quite a while for me to realize why.

ACT I, Da Beginning. 

I see no reason to beat around any bushes. I’ll just say it from jump street (look it up). Growing up, I wanted to be white. I wanted that long straight hair and lighter skin. I wanted my lips to be smaller and my eyes to be green or blue. It wasn’t that all white people looked this way, but many of the people I encountered on screen did. We still have that same problem today. Avengers Endgame is another great example. As much as I loved it, the star-studded cast was undeniably white. Robert Downey Jr, Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, Chris Pratt, Tom Holland, Mark Ruffalo, Jeremy Renner, and Paul Rudd. Just to name a few. I wanted to look like those people. If I couldn’t be white, I could at least learn how to “act white.” Of course, there isn’t an actual way to do this, but as a young person, I tried to do what I saw them do and talk like I heard them talk. It wasn’t about learning the culture of a white individual, it was about being The Hulk or Spider-man. Or one of those cool ass elves in Lord of The Rings. This is exactly why representation is so important. Growing up, I didn’t have many super heros or fantasy characters who looked or talked like me. This made it very hard for me to relate to them. I thought that if I wasn’t white, I couldn’t be those characters for Halloween. I couldn’t write stories where black people could have super powers or pointy ears. The only logical fix was to try and be white. I didn’t know what it meant to be black, I didn’t even know that there was more history attached to it outside of my skin color. I had a lot to learn about culture back then. It is something you become gradually more aware of over time. 

As time went on, I worked my way through third, fourth and fifth grade. I heard things that constantly reaffirmed my self-proclaimed ideology.

“What are you gonna be for Halloween this year Buddy?” Nick asked, his voice was filled with joy. Nick was a good friend of mine growing up. I moved around a lot, but he was one of those genuinely nice people you don’t forget. 

“I don’t know yet, probably Spiderman!” I said. 

“Oh sweet! Wait…you can’t be Spiderman.” 

“Why not?.” 

“You aren’t white silly.” 

Sometimes I wonder how I would’ve responded if it were me today. Miles Morales didn’t exist yet and I wasn’t the most witty person so I might’ve said something along the lines of: “I’ll be whoever the fuck I wanna be. All that shit is made up anyways.” I’m sure I would have added a little more onto the end to spice it up a little, but that’s me now…so instead I said, 

“Oh crap! You’re right! Oh well, I guess I’ll find another costume.” I heard this multiple times growing up and always ended up as a ninja or found some random scary mask my mom and I had picked out. “No superhero costumes for me.” 

ACT II, Da Story of The Magical Negro. 

The magical negro. Many people have heard of this trope. It was first coined by Oscar-winning director Spike Lee, back in 2001. The magical negro is a supporting stock (Who is obviously black or not white) character who comes to aid the white protagonist in a film and/or tv show. Spike popularized this term while he was touring college campuses, in which he said he was dismayed at Hollywood’s decision to continue employing this premise; he noted that the films, The Green Mile and The Legend of Bagger Vance used the “super-duper magical

Negro”. This trope was created by white people, and the magical negro was often disabled by social constraints in some way or discriminated against. They have some form of magical power but no real purpose or character arc outside of the character they are helping. A great example is, “The Green Mile, in which Michael Clarke Duncan, a gentle giant wrongly convicted of rape and murder, uses literal magical powers to heal warden Tom Hanks, cure his impotence, and save his cancer-stricken wife. Typical of magical black men, Duncan has no past, no family, and no significant desires of his own; Christ-like (in an undeniably deliberate way; his characters’ initials are even “JC”), he placidly goes on to lay down his life in the electric chair rather than troubling his white jailors with the problem of clearing his name and freeing him. Now that’s a friend.” This article hit the nail on the head. This, oftentimes, was Hollywood’s answer for the lack of diversity complaint they get fairly often. Not only did this frustrate me as I grew more invested in art, it also changed the way I viewed art, especially TV and film. How many times had I been the magical negro? Or even worse, how many times had I just never existed in these fantasy worlds? 

During my second year at PLU I was cast in my first mainstage show, in which I played a chef to the one and only Salieri. He was a musician, and the whole show was about him crying over how Mozart was so much better than him. Me and another actor, Steve Yang (who is Asian) played his servants essentially, and neither of our characters spoke. The show was three hours long and we never spoke. Our one purpose was to serve him. It didn’t say in the script to have people of color play these roles, that’s just how we ended up cast. If you think that’s bad here’s the kicker, my original costume for the show, were these awkwardly brown pants, with a ripped up shirt and a dusty dull green vest that had buttons missing. As I looked in the mirror a rage grew within me. The overwhelming disappointment caused my body to shake and the sounds of all my cast mates laughing, saying I looked like a slave. 

“Damn bro, you look like 12 years of slave” 

I laughed it off of course, but that feeling and memory never went away. Jeff, my director, immediately made the connection as he looked at the outfits and saw the problem. He had the costume designer change her concept and she gave me a whole new look. My parents came to the show and left, with disappointment in their hearts. This is why representation is so important to me. Since that day, when I looked in my mother’s eyes and saw her lack of excitement, I told myself I would never be anyone’s magical negro ever again. 

How many times do stories of people of color get told? Not very often. Harry Potter was the popular sensation growing up. Everyone read it and watched the movies and Rowling took over the world. Tolkien was another big name in fantasy. I couldn’t seem to get past the fact that it was overwhelmingly white. A few characters here and there were used to break up some of that whiteness. 99.53% of the dialogue was spoken by white characters over the course of the Harry Potter films. There is an actual post by Dylan Marron, where he did a ‘Every Single Word Project’, showing that Harry Potter ran for a total of 1,207 minutes. Out of that, 5 minutes and 40 seconds are occupied by POC’s and some of that is off screen. That’s whopping .047%. Granted this isn’t including the books, however, I doubt it’ll make a significant difference. It’s based in the UK, and I understand that the population is mostly white people, but Hogwarts isn’t real and neither are wizards. For it to be a world that for the most part has no racism, it also has very little people of color. The idea of the magical negro is that they can reverse this narrative of POC’s not being represented in fantasy/Sci-Fi by adding in a character who may seem important. At the first few eye-bats, we think this character is going to do something amazing. But they usually find a neat, dressed up way to make them serve the white protagonist. The magical negro isn’t a fix or solution, it is a way to keep the same general ideas and bias, while trying to satisfy those who long for more diversity. It’s just a box Hollywood looks to check off. That ain’t gonna cut it fam. I’m a magical negro, but my purpose ain’t to serve white folks, it never was. 

ACT III, Da Argument 

A conversation between me and a friend of mine, 2018. 

“Bro, I see black people on TV all the time. Every show on Netflix has at least one or two.” He claimed proudly. 

“You do realize, you just said one or two right? As if that’s an ass ton of people. For every ONE or TWO black folks there are about 7 or 8 white folks. That’s what I’m getting at.” I responded. “Look at Harry Potter for example. How many black or even just non-white wizards did you see? And how many were important for more than 2 scenes? Most of the time their sole purpose is to help out a main character who is usually white.” 

“I guess so. I never really thought about it that way. That’s only one movie though. We have plenty of movies and Tv shows to combat what you are saying.” 

“Actually it’s not. Lord of The Rings and Game of Thrones are other good examples. Think of it this way.” I took a deep breath before continuing on. His swooshy hair and bright blue eyes locked onto me with an intense focus, and a hint of worry. “You are white. And even though it isn’t your fault, some white people are so used to seeing themselves represented they don’t even think about other races not being represented. Seeing a majority of white people on screen is something we have all grown used to. But it bothers me in a way that it doesn’t bother you.” 

“I think I get what you are saying. I feel like I would notice an overwhelming amount of white people on screen. Like… if it was really how you are saying I feel like I would’ve noticed by now.” 

“Not if you had seen white people as a normality on screen since birth. You are used to it because you have always been represented. Think about little things like, a commercial for computers or toothpaste. When you close your eyes and imagine this commercial that you may have or haven’t seen, what do you see? In my mind’s eye, I see a white person. It’s as simple as that.” 

“Damn…Never thought of it that way. Hmmm, I get where you’re coming from, I think. That’s a interesting way to view the world.” 

It wasn’t just my view of it. It was the way I experienced the world.

ACT IV, Ya betta Represent! 

Representation is very important to me. The more I started to act on stage and in front of the camera, the more I started to think of myself as a representation of a black body. The more I started to write these stories, the more I started to think of myself, as a black fiction writer. When I was 12 years old, I remember seeing this traveling theatre group of talented artists. They were actors and singers and performers. 4 out of the 7 members were African American. That experience meant everything to me. I didn’t know it at the time, but I wanted to give other young black and brown kids that same magical feeling. Flash forward to today, and I’m doing just that. The world ain’t perfect. These fantasy and sci-fi worlds we are creating, aren’t perfect. Harry Potter isn’t perfect. The Order isn’t perfect. But we are doing much better than we were before. I watched a youtube video a while back, and this intelligent, content creator was speaking about diversity in fiction. Her name is Fracina Simone. I learned a tough lesson from her; “We have to start lifting each other up. We can’t continue to be angry when people don’t produce the content we are searching for. Instead, let us uplift those who are out there producing the content we desire and let’s not tear down those who choose to not include us.” I learned to be that light, and that I have to write those stories Hollywood refuses to tell. Be that black body that kids can look up to. Now, these young kids can still wish to be Spiderman, like I did growing up. The difference is they also have a Black Panther to choose from. A Fantastical, Magical Negro. Yes, I coined my own term. The fantastical magical negro. Not to be confused with the magical negro. These are characters who give people of color substance and importance. Characters like T’Challa and Killmonger. Or Chris Washington in Get out. Or Darryin B. Cunningham. For every piece of art I create, I will do my best to be a fantastical, magical negro.