The Missed “Magical Negro” Trope in “The Queen’s Gambit”

Two young women sit next to each other while dressed for tennis. One is a Black girl with an afro and dark skin, and the other is pale with red hair.

Moses Ingram as Jolene, left, and Anya Taylor-Joy as Beth Harmon in The Queen’s Gambit (Photo Credit: Netflix)

Netflix’s recent series The Queen’s Gambit has been almost universally embraced by critics, who have described it as a “glossy feminist romp” about “overcoming addiction and childhood trauma” in the male-dominated world of chess. Media outlets have homed in on the accuracy of the show’s portrayal of adoption, of competitive chess, of the Cold War–era animus between the United States and Russia, and of life as a child prodigy. Notably, however, almost none have highlighted the show’s use of the “Magical Negro” trope. At the center of The Queen’s Gambit is Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy), a lonely, precocious girl left in a Kentucky orphanage after the death of her mother.

The Methuen Home prides itself on its orderly, well-mannered girls, and keeps them regimented and subdued with tranquilizers. The withdrawn 9-year-old discovers chess via Mr. Shaibel (Bill Camp), Methuen’s gruff janitor, and though her early mastery of the game quickly becomes clear, it also becomes entangled with the sedative pills in a dual addiction: Waiting until bedtime to take the daily pill, Beth is able to visualize a chess board on the orphanage ceiling, working on her moves and making sense of strategy. Beth is eventually adopted by Mrs. Alma (Marielle Heller), an alcoholic housewife with an absent husband; in her care, Beth reconnects with her love—more accurately an obsession—chess, skipping school to enter local competitions where she unequivocally dominates. Unfortunately, she is also reintroduced to sedatives, skimming from her adoptive mother’s prescription and causing her addiction to escalate as her chess career soars.

While Beth is, of course, the series’ protagonist, her experience at Methuen is guided by Jolene (Moses Ingram) a fellow orphan and the show’s only Black character. We first encounter the brash Jolene as she’s being punished for calling one of the orphanage employees a “cocksucker;” from then on, her only role in the series is as Beth’s only apparent friend, serving and protecting the shy new orphan. Jolene is the one who instructs Beth to save her tranquilizers until nighttime. After watching Beth devour the pills, Jolene is also the one who warns about developing an addiction. It’s clear that Beth isn’t the first young white girl Jolene has taken under her wing and then watched depart from the orphanage. But even as both women move out of childhood and appear to lose contact for at least a decade, Jolene is still tasked with providing unreciprocated support to Beth.

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She intervenes as Beth spirals further into a self-destructive addiction and she helps Beth navigate through her grief when Mr. Shiebel passes. Jolene even goes as far as to use money from her own law-school fund to pay Beth’s way to a chess tournament in Russia after Beth loses the support of the trip’s sponsors. Disappointingly, Jolene serves no role outside of her duties to Beth. Rather, her character—who is also stereotypically loud and uncouth in comparison to a more demure Beth—is reduced to a “Magical Negro.” The show alludes to the racism she faces as a dark-skinned Black girl in Kentucky—she is resigned to the fact that she will never be adopted from Metheun, for example, because she’s “too Black”—but otherwise barely develops the character, briefly referencing her experiences and quickly dismissed them to make room for Beth’s storyline.

Jolene’s role feels even flimsier given the entirely white cast of The Queen’s Gambit. Had the character been one of Beth’s chess competitors—had she even been more completely situated as the friend who best knows Beth—the show could have explored Jolene’s inner world and avoided stereotyping. Instead, Jolene takes on the role of convenient guardian angel, summoned only when Beth is in desperate need. The character’s disposability becomes even more apparent given that she only appears briefly in two episodes of the seven-part series, despite the supposed importance of her and Beth’s friendship (Jolene even goes so far as to call them family). The show’s creators seem to at least have some inkling as to how Jolene’s presence will be interpreted by viewers.

When Jolene commits to funding Beth’s chess tournament in Russia, Beth calls Jolene her “guardian angel,” a label that Jolene rebuffs, suggesting that the writers understand that Jolene, were she a fully fleshed-out character rather than a trope, would be frustrated by this tokenization. Jolene even emphasizes that she is “not here to save” Beth. But whatever added nuance the writers were attempting to add to their relationship is undermined by Jolene’s actual role and actions as a whole. While it is frustrating to see Black characters still reduced to stereotypes in what has been the supposed golden age for Black roles and representation in television, it’s not all that surprising. Shows like The Queen’s Gambit prove that Black people are still traditionally viewed as sidekicks and stereotypes for white audiences. 

Shows like The Queen’s Gambit prove that Black people are still traditionally viewed as sidekicks and stereotypes for white audiences

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For decades, Black people, particularly Black women, have been reduced to racist tropes, used for the betterment of white protagonists. From classic movies like Clueless (1995) to mainstream television shows such as Sleepy Hollow and The Vampire Diaries, Black women are given little screen time and used as stepping stones for white character development and plot advancement, rarely offered the space for their own meaningful storylines. What makes this sadly normal misstep more disappointing in this case is the lack of critique from entertainment critics. A review in the New York Times describes the show as “smart, smooth and snappy throughout” while making absolutely no mention of Jolene’s role in the show or Ingram’s performance. The Guardian’s review makes no mention of Jolene at all. Even critiques that do note the lazy characterization do so as an afterthought, as if it’s a minor issue in comparison to the show’s “brilliance.”

VICE’s review acknowledges that The Queen’s Gambit “veers dangerously into ‘guardian angel and ‘[M]agical [N]egro’ trope territory” but ultimately concludes that the show is worthy of the praise it receives given the show’s impressive costuming and that “taking a cerebral game like chess and making it so riveting is a feat.” And BuzzFeed goes so far as to refute the idea that Jolene serves as Beth’s Magical Negro, suggesting that the writing avoids the stereotype because the character has “the ability to set boundaries and a satisfying character arc and agency.” How did so many reviewers miss such a major issue in the series? The lack of critical awareness could be due to the fact that almost all the reviewers (with the exception of BuzzFeed’s) appear to be white people who don’t have either the range or the commitment to catch racial stereotypes.

However, it also speaks to a larger symptom of television culture: Racialized depictions like the one in The Queen’s Gambit are glossed over because so many TV writers still default to them—and because viewers remain comfortable devouring them unquestioningly. Even in a time of increasingly diverse television, creators and critics alike still fail to question how a show can be all “good” if it lazily and irresponsibly uses characters of color. The Queen’s Gambit is a captivating show on the unique, underreported subculture of chess that deploys a hackneyed, racist trope in depicting its sole Black character. These two facts can both be true, and ignoring or sidelining necessary critiques of pervasive racial dynamics is inaccurate and disrespectful to Black women both real and fictional.

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by Gloria Oladipo
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Gloria Oladipo is a Black woman freelance writer; she is also a rising junior at Cornell University. She enjoys writing about all topics, including mental health, race, gender, politics, and pop culture. For more of her writing, follow her Twitter, @gaoladipo and her Contently.