Dick Hallorann and the Tragical Negro

Dick Hallorann, played by Scatman Crothers in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. (Image from Warner Bros. Films)

“He reminds me of my grandfather.”

I do a podcast with a couple of friends of mine, Miles Kelly and Tawny Ochoa. We were discussing Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 movie, The Shining—based on the Stephen King novel of the same name—and diving into what we love about the movie, while also discussing some of the ways it perpetuates at least one deeply problematic storytelling trope. That quote above came out of Miles’ mouth and I can’t stop thinking about it.

He does doesn’t he?

Yeah… and that’s a bit of a problem

Let’s talk about the magical negro. The magical negro—described in brilliant detail by storytellers like Spike Lee, Nnedi Okorafor and many other—essentially paints black (and in many cases indigenous) characters as kindly, supportive, subservient figures only existing in service of the white lead characters in the story. These characters sometimes have magical or technological gifts, are often not fully formed with their own story arcs. They’re decidedly not human and communicate an ever-present otherness.

This can show up in many ways.

James Baskett portrayed Uncle Remus in Disney’s 1946 film Song of the South (Image from Disney)

An often referenced example would be Bagger Vance, Will Smith’s character in The Legend of Bagger Vance, a 2000 movie not a lot of people saw that is mainly remembered for being such a glaring example of the magical negro trope. There are many far more popular characters that fit the mold. Uncle Remus—a character created by a white journalist named Joel Chandler Harris and featured in Disney’s Song of the South—is a big one: a kindly old plantation worker whose existence is in service to the little white children in their journey.

In some ways Whoopi Goldberg’s Oda Mae Brown in Ghost fits the mold as well, actually allowing the white protagonist to use her magical black body to achieve his ends. Then there’s the non-magical magical negroes, like Bubba in Forrest Gump, played by Mykelti Williamson. Bubba is simple, kindly and flat, imparting his own brand of magical guidance to Forrest before he is killed, all in the service of Gump’s story.

Then there’s Dick Hallorann.

He’s the kindly old cook played by Scatman Crothers in The Shining. A pause on this specific character is important because I believe he adds an incredibly painful layer to the magical negro trope. In fact, Dick could be an example of a tragical negro. He is magical and kind and serves Danny Torrence’s story by revealing the shining and giving Danny someone to shine with, but then he is murdered brutally in the service of another white lead characters story, Jack Torrence. In that case Hallorann’s death officially signifies the husband and father’s dark turn into a irredeemable murderer.

On our podcast I, somewhat jokingly, asked who will cry for Dick Hallorran? If you center on his character, he is treated horribly in this story. No one mourns for him and all he was trying to do was help. This is particularly challenging when considering that this black man was the only onscreen kill in the entire movie. It’s troubling and as a black man, I can’t help but see that. It’s a mixture of the black guy in a horror movie trope (you know the one)and the magical negro one.

At the same time, I have to consider this with nuance.

Hallorann, particularly through Crothers’ portrayal of the character, feels real and tangible. He feels fatherly in a way Jack Torrence does not. This feels intentional. He’s the father Danny needs, rather than the one he has. This transcends race or overused story conventions, in my opinion. It’s part of what makes The Shining such a deeply unsettling movie. It makes the film re-watchable and maybe even more interesting upon rewatch because knowing that Hallorann is trekking toward his death adds to the foreboding that the movie already accomplishes so well.

The heroes don’t win in this world. Not really.

Hallorann’s death is necessary to the story. It’s also worth noting that in King’s novel Hallorann is not killed. It’s also worth noting that in Kubrick’s original vision for the movie, Hallorann was not black (Kubrick wanted Slim Pickens to play the role). See how that complicates the very simple picture of this storytelling choice? Hallorann went from a black character who doesn’t die to almost being a white character who does die, but when Crothers was cast (to Kubrick’s dismay) he became a magical black character who does die.

Movie making is a tricky beast.

Here’s the truth. We got what we got. The Shining remains one of my all time favorite movies. It also contains one of the most tragic characters and one of the most troubling instances of the magical negro trope. It’s hard to watch.

But maybe that’s needed. Maybe that gives us one more reason to use this movie to talk about filmmaking.

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Chris Paicely

Chris Paicely

Storyteller. Believer. Partner. Father. Son. Digital Creator. Marketing Strategist for the Surge Institute. Founder of StoryPaced Media.