Richard Brookhiser popularized the term "numinous negro" in a National Review article in 2001. Brookhiser and other commentators describe the "numinous negro" as a black person who is treated as "spiritually elevated" and saintly by white people. He or she is de-Africanized, feminized and made "safe." The character is portrayed as a selfless, uncomplaining servant who exists for the purpose of helping the white character and promoting racial harmony. He asks for nothing in return from the main, white protagonist.
He or she is a safe way for both liberal and conservative white Americans to demonstrate they are not racist. Liberals glossed over Martin Luther King Jr.'s faults and sainted him - literally, intwo liberal denominations.
Brookhiser argues that conservatives also hagiographize King and other particular blacks for the same purpose.
"Remember the joke: Who is the black man at a Heritage/AEI/Manhattan Institute pow-wow? Answer: The speaker. By touching our Numinous Negroes, we show the world, and ourselves, that there is no racism in us."
The "numinous negro" offers white Americans a chance to assuage guilt over the country's legacy of slavery and discrimination.
"But in the White Hollywood film industry, commercial productions have continually portrayed the Black/White relation as healed or healing. After all, White guilt for past crimes (slavery, Jim Crow, Civil Rights) only complicates the long-standing promise for a better day and more equality. White hierarchy still wishes to absolve itself at the same time it doesn't want to admit any continuing problem."
It is a noble figure who suffers but offers forgiveness to whites instead of anger. Brookhiser points to Michael Clarke Duncan's character in The Green Mile and Morgan Freeman's character in The Shawshank Redemption as examples in Hollywood.
"When we see a Negro in movies or television, we not only know he is "Numinous... we can judge the other (white) characters by how they treat him."
Likewise, the white audience member can judge himself or herself in the same way. If the spectator recognizes the virtue of a "numinous negro," he or she proves to himself or herself that he or she is a good person and not a racist.
Freeman achieved his most recent Oscar nomination for his role as Nelson Mandela in Invictus. Mandela the man was a far cry from Hoke in Driving Miss Daisy. He fought for Civil Rights in South Africa and spent nearly three decades in prison for his role in the African National Congress's often violent fight against apartheid.
However, Invictus chooses to portray only a small portion of Mandela's life and creates him as a character which exhibits many of the stereotypes of the "numinous negro." There have been many biographies of Mandela proposed through the years, but this neutered version was the only one that could get made in Hollywood.
Like the haigiographies of King that Brookhiser notes, Invictus portrays Mandela as an unqualified saint. Freeman's Mandela may wear South African colors, but the film's emphasis is on the European poems he reads and the white rugby team he roots for. Little of Mandela's Africanness exists in the film, and at times he seems to shirk concern for black African poverty in favor of helping white Africans have a rugby victory.
The film portrays white South African racists as powerless. Just as Driving Miss Daisy perpetuated the myth that American racism is dead, Invictus perpetuated the myth that South African racism is. Freeman's Mandela exists solely to forgive white people, assuage their guilt, promote reconciliation and ask for nothing in return. In Invictus, we never see Mandela fight for black rights, only for white love.
Although this was a huge part of the real Mandela's legacy, the myopic focus on the "numinous negro" portions of his life turns the Mandela character in Invictus into the stereotype. The film says nothing about ongoing racism, but, just as with Driving Miss Daisy, does allow white audience members to congratulate themselves on the supposed death of racism and feel good that they, like Matt Damon, are not racist.