Beyond The Magic Negro


Castle Rock’s Henry Deaver represents a major change

I began reading Stephen King, at the age of 10. On a whim, I picked up his novel, IT during a library trip—that was how I got my hands on most of the work my parents wouldn’t have approved. The story was rich, dark, surprising, and inescapable. In those days, I hadn’t yet discovered the work of Samuel R. Delany or Octavia Butler, so I was glad that one of the characters, Mike Hanlon was black like me. Still, while King peppered his work with black characters, I was certain that none of his stories would ever concern themselves with a black lead.

Castle Rock, the new television series set in King’s imaginary locale of Castle Rock, Maine has done the next best thing. Instead of presenting us a Stephen King novel or short story, it weaves together everything that’s gone before and places a (mostly) fully-realized protagonist at its center. I was cautiously excited to learn about the new television show from Hulu, but it wasn’t until I learned that André Holland’s character, Henry Deaver, would be the series lead that my excitement kicked into high gear. I loved Holland’s work in the exquisite Moonlight, and I enjoyed seeing him pop up again in Ava DuVernay’s A Wrinkle in Time. I’d been waiting to see him in in a role that would properly showcase his talent and range. More than that, I was excited by the idea of Holland playing a major role in a drama based on the work of an author so prone to employing the Magical Negro trope.

Popular SF author Nnedi Okorafor defines the term:

  1. He or she is a person of color, typically black, often Native American, in a story about predominantly white characters.
  2. He or she seems to have nothing better to do than help the white protagonist, who is often a stranger to the Magical Negro at first.
  3. He or she disappears, dies, or sacrifices something of great value after or while helping the white protagonist.
  4. He or she is uneducated, mentally handicapped, at a low position in life, or all of the above.
  5. He or she is wise, patient, and spiritually in touch. Closer to the earth, one might say. He or she often literally has magical powers.

Most of my early King favorites involve a Magic Negro—The Stand, The Shining, The Talisman, while novels like The Tommyknockers and It employ black characters who are isolated from their blackness and serve either as cannon fodder or only to assist the white cast in defeating the supernatural threat.

Castle Rock is not without its flaws. While Henry Deaver is certainly black and clearly understands what it is to live in America as a black man, his encounters with other black people are both brief and rare. It’s not until episode 5, entitled “Harvest” that we first see Henry encounter another black person. Henry is a criminal lawyer specializing in Death Row cases. He has returned to Castle Rock in spite of his dark, painful—and hidden—memories of his past to represent a mysterious “Kid” who has been held secretly and illegally in Shawshank prison. (Yes, that Shawshank, of Redemption fame.) This nameless character is portrayed by Bill Skaarsgard, who played Pennywise in the recent film adaptation of IT.

Here, Dr. Vargas, a black woman, examines the nameless Boy to determine his mental capacity. Henry gives her no nod, handles the entire episode like a minor transaction, and moves on. This lack of warmth is not an oversight. Henry is emotionally closed-off from the world around him—especially now that he’s returned to his hometown. Adopted and raised by white parents—Sissy Spacek’s, Ruth Deaver and the increasingly sinister and abusive, Reverend Matthew Deaver played mostly in flashback by Adam Rothenberg. Henry has few memories of his life before a mysterious disappearance at age eleven that ended with his adoptive father dead and Henry blamed for the death.

Up to this point in the show, the only character resembling any sort of love interest for Henry is Molly Strand (Melanie Lynsky) his former next-door neighbor who has matured into a pill-addicted telepathic real-estate agent whose psychic affliction sometimes leads her to do terrible things. As a girl, Molly harbored a deep fascination with Henry, but now that they are both in their late thirties, Henry has a soft spot for Molly, but doesn’t trust her and can’t bring himself to believe her abstract and confusing explanations of her condition. The way Castle Rock handles their scenes together leads me to suspect that while the two will have a compelling relationship over the course of the series, that there will be no simple romance between them. And, honestly, that’s a relief.

In Episode six, we meet Henry’s son Wendell, played by Chosen Jacobs—another actor from the recent IT. Wendell serves as proof that in the past, Henry had at least one black woman in his life. Henry lives in Houston while Wendell lives in Boston, and it’s clear that Wendell resents Henry’s absence. The show hands us another major clue when Wendell asks Henry how old he was when the Deavers adopted him. “I was five,” Henry says. Wendell asks if Henry is at all curious about his real parents. “[The Deavers] are my real parents,” Henry responds. This isn’t just a rationalization or a deflection. The statement takes on a great deal of negative weight, making the audience painfully aware that Henry has access to very little of his own history—which might just be the blackest thing about him.

Perhaps Henry is cut off from his own blackness, not because of an oversight in the writer’s room. After all, he is cut off from himself—from the memories of his life before and during his extended disappearance when he was a boy. Henry remembers nothing before the age of 11.

The most important black character on the show other than Henry and his son Wendell, is a maniacal (cultist? Scientist?) named Odin (CJ Jones from Baby Driver) who reveres Henry’s adoptive father and is bent on continuing Reverend Deaver’s mad quest to hear and interpret the “Voice of God.” Having deafened himself to hear more clearly, Odin plans to do the same to his protégé, Willie (Rory Culkin) and forces Henry into a makeshift sensory deprivation chamber where the persistent ringing in Henry’s ears becomes a cacophony coupled with a flood of traumatic memories. By the end of Episode 7, “The Queen,” Henry is still in the chamber, and we have yet to learn what, if anything, he has discovered from his experience.

Over the course of its first seven episodes, Castle Rock asks far more questions than it answers. Just how insane and abusive was Reverend Deaver? Is Henry responsible for his father’s death? Who and what is “the Kid,” the mysterious unnamed prisoner, the former warden of Shawshank kept locked away, ageless, for decades and why do terrible things happen in his presence? With the three more episodes that close out season 1, Castle Rock promises to answer some, but not all, of these questions. Anchoring the proceedings with such a commanding and carefully modulated performance from an accomplished black actor ensures that I, at least, am willing to wait for those answers a little longer and take pleasure in the revelation.