Movies

Is Three Thousand Years of Longing a “Magical Negro” Movie?

George Miller’s follow-up to Mad Max: Fury Road follows Idris Elba as he grants Tilda Swinton’s wishes.

A very large Idris Elba in a bath robe and elf ears bends over with his hands pressed together to talk to a bespectacled Tilda Swinton, also in a bath robe
Idris Elba and Tilda Swinton in Three Thousand Years of Longing. Elise Lockwood for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc.

“This wishing is a hazardous business,” says Alithea Binnie (Tilda Swinton) to the genie (Idris Elba) who has just materialized before her eyes in a posh Istanbul hotel room. Alithea, a British literary scholar specializing in narratology and the history of folk and fairy tales, may think she knows from wishing, but the genie (known only as “Djinn,” from the Arabic word for beings of his kind) has a much harder-won understanding of the power and danger inherent in daring to ask for your heart’s desire. He has spent much of his millennia-long life—and as he mournfully informs Alithea, djinns never sleep—confined in various magic bottles, sometimes spending centuries at the bottom of the sea or beneath a paving stone in a royal palace.

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For all those years, Djinn’s only wish has been for some mortal to find him and make three wishes of their own, thereby freeing him from eons of confinement. The movie’s action, such as it is, consists of him telling his life story Scheherazade-style, in nested narratives that leap among centuries and geographical settings. Like one of Scheherazade’s tales in The Thousand and One Nights, the movie takes place mostly over the course of a single evening—at least up until an unneeded and confusing last act that is the weakest stretch of this lushly shot, often smartly written, but ultimately less-than-satisfying exploration of the familiar folk trope of the “monkey’s paw.” Every wish, according to that ancient narrative archetype, contains its own curse; to gain what you most want is always also to face the unforeseen negative consequences of having wanted it so badly in the first place.

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Though the film’s visual design is sensuous and enveloping, with John Seale’s nimble camera darting through swirling clouds of colored dust that whisk the genie in and out of his various manifestations through history, Three Thousand Years of Longing keeps the viewer at an odd (and, I think, not intended) emotional distance. This may have to do with the fact that, though their characters spend the entire film in conversation, Swinton and Elba share relatively little time on screen. His extended anecdotes about the wayward concubines and thwarted female geniuses who have been his lovers and/or bottle-owners in the past do nothing to advance the present-day story, so the scenes when we return to the two in white hotel bathrobes, exchanging tales over a plate of (admittedly delicious-looking) Turkish snacks, feel jarring and, after an hour-plus of in-suite yarn-spinning, a bit static. Some critics have noted that Swinton and Elba lack romantic chemistry, or even seem to be acting in two different movies. But to me their divergent styles, hers cerebral and remote, his warm and emotionally engaged, seemed of a piece with their characters’ opposing views about the proper role of desire in everyday life. The moments when they debate these ideas—free will vs. fate, being content with your lot vs. dreaming of something more—are among the movie’s best scenes.

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A bigger problem with Three Thousand Years of Longing, and one I may not be equipped to explore fully as a white female critic, is the exoticization of the genie character as played by Elba. Is he a “Magical Negro,” in the term Spike Lee popularized to describe movies like The Green Mile and The Legend of Bagger Vance: a fantasy of the racial other as an idealized, self-sacrificing savior to the troubled white heroine? In certain scenes, especially when the genie manifests as a giant who cradles the child-sized Alithea in his arms, this critique seems painfully valid. But the script itself, adapted by Miller and his daughter Augusta Gore from a short story by A.S. Byatt, sometimes questions the power dynamic between the two, albeit not in explicitly racial terms. Djinn makes no secret of his resentment at being subject to the desires of the various women who have come into possession of his bottle over the centuries. (As he notes dolefully to its latest owner, he has always been unable to resist trying to please troubled women.) Djinn’s willingness to put his own wellbeing and even his life in jeopardy so that the tightly wound Alithea can at last experience love and connection might be seen as a kind of metaphysical slavery: He must forever minimize his joy so that she can maximize hers. Especially in the movie’s awkward last act, this dynamic often makes for moments that are meant to be tender and romantic but come off as simply cruel. Casting a Black British actor in a role that would seem more suited to someone of Arab or Middle Eastern descent, and having him speak in an invented R-rolling accent of indeterminate origin, are choices that work to undercut whatever gesture toward representation Miller was trying to make by writing his central couple as a Black man and a white woman.

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To go on to enumerate a movie’s redeeming features after making a critique of that kind recalls the old joke whose punchline goes, “Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?” But for the most part, Three Thousand Years of Longing reads not as an unintended allegory of contemporary race relations but as a thoughtful, melancholy, and sometimes mordantly funny celebration of the time-and-space-collapsing power of storytelling. It’s a testament to his own time-spanning powers that the Australian master Miller is setting out at age 77 to explore a genre so far removed from the action-centric sci-fi he revolutionized with his decades-spanning Mad Max series (culminating in the late-life triumph Mad Max: Fury Road, whose 2015 success freed him to make this follow-up). As if in deliberate counterpoint to the grungy dystopia of the Mad Max universe, Three Thousand Years plays out in the utopic realm of romantic fantasy. If the bittersweet ending leaves the viewer in a state of emotional suspension—are we meant, at last, to root for this seemingly doomed couple or not?—maybe that’s just Miller’s way of saying he’s not yet done asking big, open-ended questions. Stick around for the next movie.

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