As decades of his Black characters show, one tone-deaf tweet is the least of his problems
Update 6/7/22: Level has a new home. You can read this article and other new articles by visiting LEVELMAN.com.
In light of the blindingly White slate of Academy Award nominations released this week, #OscarsSoWhite has made a bit of a comeback. I struggled with this hashtag the first time it came knocking in 2015, mostly because people wanted to expend a lot of energy in changing an industry that had expressed virtually no interest in achieving genuine diversity, let alone equity. In any event, world-famous author and Oscar voter Stephen King weighed in on the matter on Twitter.
And because Stephen King — one of the richest, bestselling media institutions in the world — has blithely waded into these waters, he is spending the next several days being dragged across the whole of the internet. He is, of course, wrong for several reasons and on multiple levels. He ignores implicit bias, explicit racism, and institutional indifference to rectifying either. In short, he meant well, but it doesn’t change the fact that he wholly misses the point. That said, picking apart his tweets as if they have shed some damning light on the intersection of Stephen King and race matters is pretty low-hanging fruit.
As part of my work, I give a lecture on Stephen King entitled “Stephen King’s Magical Negroes.” In it, I break down the use of the troubling trope throughout his career — a Black or other person of color character whose only purpose is essentially to prop up White characters to a fault, and yes, sometimes with magic — and then update it annually to see how things are progressing. I am a stockbroker of King’s Magical Negroes, noting when their presence and impact might be up one year and down the next. If you only ever watched The Green Mile you’d have a decent-enough grasp on the problem here, considering John Coffey is not only King’s most famous Magical Negro, but perhaps the greatest Magical Negro of all time, right down to the religious hat-tip of his initials.
The most important thing I discovered after years of deep-diving into King’s body of work is that his Magical Negro problem isn’t really a Magical Negro problem. It’s a Negro problem.
To do this lecture I have to read pretty much everything King has written, and watch any movie or TV series based on a King property. It used to be an easy gig, but in recent years King has experienced something of a media renaissance, apparently holding a fire sale on the licensing of his properties. King publishes on average more than a book per year — and in the last three years alone I had to add three TV series and nine movies to the pile.
And yet, the most important thing I discovered after years of deep-diving into King’s body of work is that his Magical Negro problem isn’t really a Magical Negro problem. It’s a Negro problem.
King writes almost all of his Black characters, magical or otherwise, in problematic ways. When they are not magical they are horrendous stereotypes: dope fiends and brutes (The Stand), jive-talking thugs (End of Watch), and worse (the short story “Dedication”). More, King’s characters never happen to be Black; he intentionally makes it clear that they are Black from the outset, usually with jaw-droppingly offensive descriptions: Mother Abigail in The Stand is “coal-black” and further described as looking like an “old black Everglades alligator.” The Black junta of The Stand are also Black, “huge,” nude (save for a loincloth, so sexualized to boot) and actively murdering White people with intent. The chief villain in The Running Man is a game show producer named Dan Killian who is “minstrel show” Black. The Green Mile’s John Coffey is hit with a litany of racist descriptors, including “monkey,” “big mutt,” and “big boy.” Some of these are character embellishments, insults provided through the mouths of virulently racist characters — aka the Tarantino Defense. But some of them come from the universal narrator of a given story.
Nor is it a dynamic King has grown out of over time. More recent novels such as Duma Key (2008) describe a Black character as “a very black black man” and then proceeds to describe his features as naturally grotesque as a matter of course, not story. The meritocracy King trumpets in that tweet isn’t even a standard he himself adheres to. These characters may have merits, but we have to pass through the screen of their Blackness first.
The Bill Hodges trilogy of books — Mr. Mercedes (2014), Finders Keepers (2015), and End of Watch (2016) — is a recent collection (and a three-seasons-deep TV series) that drops the racial ball well into the Obama era, when you would think that a proud and self-professed liberal of King’s intelligence might have long moved on. And yet, a recurring character in the series is Jerome Robinson (which, come on), a teenager who helps retired detective Bill Hodges around the house, and who isn’t magical at all, save that he helps the protagonist with his computer at such a level as to seem magical. King blows this character early on in the first book by making him write a note to Hodges in an Amos and Andy dialect. You know, for levity. It is an eye-rolling characterization that no actual 17-year-old Black child would likely be aware of, an example of King’s Romantic nostalgia smashing headlong into his ignorance of Black culture in general.
To make matters worse within the same series, the final book of the trilogy has a laughable, pages-long description of a Black neighborhood (conveniently located on Martin Luther King Boulevard) clearly informed by watching episodes of black-ish and Eddie Murphy movies. I’d quote some of it here but I don’t want to spoil it for you; suffice it to say that King’s idea of what passes for a Black neighborhood would be terrifying if it weren’t so downright hilarious.
Not only is King’s Black character problem an issue, but the people handling his work in other media, in an attempt to diversify the King universe, have managed to exacerbate the original problem. In trying to be more inclusive in the King-based films and series that they make, filmmakers are creating Magical Negroes where none existed. The Dark Tower (2017) cast Idris Elba in the role of the novels’ White main character Roland, creating a Magical Negro where there wasn’t one. The 2019 film adaptation of Doctor Sleep, a sequel to The Shining, not only brings back King’s first-ever Magical Negro, Dick Hallorann, but creates a new Magical Negro by casting Black actress Kyliegh Curran to play the powerfully psychic Abra Stone. The 2019 remake of Pet Sematary recasts the apparition Victor Pascow with Black actor Obssa Ahmed, creating yet another Magical Negro.
The first season of the Hulu series Castle Rock, which mashes together various King characters and locations in a sort of meta-opera, opts to lead the show with a brand new Magical Negro in the character of Henry Deaver, played by Andre Holland. Just this week, the first two episodes of the HBO miniseries The Outsider have launched and we are introduced to Holly Gibney, a character that appears throughout the Bill Hodges trilogy and in the Mr. Mercedes TV series as a White woman, but here is played by the not-at-all-White Cynthia Erivo. And here I must point out that, in a moment of pure synchronicity, Erivo is the only Black actor to be nominated for an Oscar this year. The good news for King fans is that he can’t be blamed for any of these Magical Negroes. These are Hollywood’s stepchildren.
Somewhere in the last decade or so, Stephen King got woke.
To be clear, it is an awakening that comes with heavy qualifiers. As the years pass, King becomes more socially and politically aware. He is vehemently anti-Trump. His most notable instance of this was a 2016 post about Freddie Gray after the Baltimore police who killed Gray were acquitted. “Gee,” he tweeted, “looks like NOBODY killed Freddie Gray. Guess he just died of being black. Funny how that happens in this country.” Blunt, but effective. Everyone loved him that day.
This personal change creeps into his 2017 novel Sleeping Beauties as well, starting from the first page, which he uses to dedicate the book to the memory of Sandra Bland, the Black Texas woman inappropriately arrested and who died in her prison cell three days later. There are a couple of plot twists that lend themselves to this issue that I don’t want to spoil for you here, should you ever deign to attempt the 700-page not-great novel.
It is this new awareness that King exhibits that both (in his mind) allows him to wade into discussions largely shielded by a privilege even most White people will never experience, while at the same time absolving himself of any wrongdoing because he thinks he’s at least ahead of the political curve. And for a senior citizen out of Maine, maybe he is. Either way, once you become aware of the extent of the problem of the interpretation of Black characters in King’s work, the realization invites a more important question to the table. The question isn’t whether or not Stephen King has prejudices or bias or benefits from White supremacy, or if he has racist thoughts. Even if he weren’t a 72-year-old unspeakably rich White man who has spent the bulk of his life in a state whose Black population has never broken 5% — Maine is literally the Whitest state in the country — those things would be true for all White people. The better question is whether or not Stephen King is a bigot.
For the record, my answer is no. If I believed that, this entire essay would be very different. Yet, this is the King we’re dealing with now, the King who wants to have some skin in the political game, who realizes that he has cultural blind spots, who has God money but wants to Zeus his way through the experience of the Common Man and raise a little dust. The problem is that he doesn’t have any Black friends to tell him how enormous his blind spots are; and getting dragged by Black Twitter, while occasionally helpful in instances like this, is not a substitute for substantive learning and critical thinking. And in this case, that may be the scariest thing of all.