Review: ‘The American Society Of Magical Negroes’

Justice Smith Attempts To Keep White People Comfortable In Racial Satire Too Afraid Of Making White People Uncomfortable

*NOTE: This review was originally part of our Sundance Film Festival coverage.*

Oh boy, did I want The American Society of Magical Negroes to be a stand-out film here at Sundance. Did I ever. This comes from someone who has seen his share of movies debut in Park City that attempted to satirize, to a largely white audience, tough issues of race. The success rate is spotty at best, but with writer/director Kobi Libii’s fantastical comedy, the strikeout is ugly as he takes a terrifically clever idea, a secret cabal of magical Black folks whose goal it is to keep white people’s lives easier, and do absolutely nothing with it. Combined with an irritating lead performance and a finale so far afield from the central theme that it should’ve worn track shoes, this movie ends up a stand-out for all of the wrong reasons.

Justice Smith, who is having a dreadful Sundance if you’ve been tracking the response to his other movie here, plays the only role he seems equipped to; that of a shy, timid, awkward dude fearful of confrontation. As Aren, we are introduced to him as he drops a barrage of “excuse me’s” and “pardon me’s” as he wades through a sea of art collectors at a gallery show. Aren’s piece, a pathetic rainbow yarn sculpture that he can’t even muster up the courage to explain, is passed over by every white potential buyer. Confused as part of the wait staff, then booted from the gallery for his lack of selling power, Aren’s mawkish demeanor nearly gets him killed at an ATM when a drunk white woman hands him her purse, then accuses him of being a thief. Fortunately, Roger (David Alan Grier) comes to his defense, magically placing the purse back in the woman’s hands, then offering her raging boyfriend a nice BBQ spot up the street for them to go and eat at.

It’s Roger who sees potential in Aren, and recruits him to join the titular organization. While Roger begins detailing the group’s purpose, which is to use their magical powers to curb white fragility and anger so that Black people aren’t murdered by them, it’s clear to see that Libii probably had this as his starting point for the film and never developed anything decent to spring out of that. This is a movie constantly in search of a story to support Libii’s one cool idea, which is to lampoon magical negro movies such as The Legend of Bagger Vance (starring Will Smith) and The Green Mile (with Michael Clarke Duncan), and others such as Driving Miss Daisy. While doing so, Libii shows that he also understands how problematic such an organization can be. They must always be in service to the needs of their unaware white client, and that means hiding the Black parts of themselves that white people find uncomfortable. They are gifted with the ability to see a “white tears meter” and when it fills past the breaking point, who knows what kind of violent could erupt.

But Libii’s initial premise can only go so far. It probably should’ve been a nice sketch idea on The Daily Show or something, because there isn’t enough to support a feature-length movie. And so the story becomes a rom-com, a rather bland one at that. Aren is tasked with helping out Jason (Drew Tarver), an entitled artist at a global tech company who has grown angry and frustrated for reasons unknown. It’s Aren’s job to figure out what he wants, and to make sure Jason gets it. But Jason is a prick, and unaware of how bigoted he is. Not only is he racist, but misogynist as well, treating his “work wife” Lizzy (An-Li Bogan, a real charmer) like she’s undeserving of credit for the equal work she does. He doesn’t treat Aren much better; more like the hired help than a colleague.

Oh, and there’s another problem. Jason wants to ask Lizzy out on a date, but Aren is already falling in love with her. But to use one’s powers in a self-serving manner and not to help the White client is to threaten all of the Society’s powers. Dilemma! Help Jason be happy, or go where your heart leads.

Aren’s dilemma becomes the real story in The American Society of Magical Negroes, not actual insight into race relations. I would’ve settled for more riffs on the absurdity of the magical negro archetype, and how it has evolved over the years. We see it in bits and pieces, wonderfully opulent flashbacks to past members of the Society. But we don’t get a real sense of the group, the scope of what they do, and how they began. It seems that Libii really wanted to make a movie about an awkward mixed-race guy navigating a volatile racial climate at work (where the company’s facial recognition software doesn’t recognize Black faces) while also trying to find love. And so he shoehorned it into this other idea he had spoofing the magical negro trope, and the two don’t make sense being in the same orbit.

It’s also impossible to miss how incredibly safe this movie is. Libii couldn’t have made a more tame version of this story if he tried…oh wait, he did try, and succeeded in doing so.  The American Society of Magical Negroes isn’t scathing or edgy at all. Ironically, it’s designed so that white audiences can feel comfortable buying a ticket for it. Late in the film, Aren comes out of nowhere, driven by his need for love, and speaks out in defense of his own existence. It is a powerful, impassioned speech backed up by nothing, and so it rings hollow. After the world premiere screening I attended, a woman stood up and said that it brought her to tears and I’m glad it had such an impact on her even if it made me wonder if she was secretly a producer on the film.

The American Society of Magical Negroes opens on March 15th.


The American Society of Magical Negroes
Travis Hopson has been reviewing movies before he even knew there was such a thing. Having grown up on a combination of bad '80s movies, pro wrestling, comic books, and hip-hop, Travis is uniquely positioned to geek out on just about everything under the sun. A vampire who walks during the day and refuses to sleep, Travis is the co-creator and lead writer for Punch Drunk Critics. He is also a contributor to Good Morning Washington, WBAL Morning News, and WETA Around Town. In the five minutes a day he's not working, Travis is also a voice actor, podcaster, and Twitch gamer. Travis is a voting member of the Critics Choice Association (CCA), Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), and Late Night programmer for the Lakefront Film Festival.
review-the-american-society-of-magical-negroes*NOTE: This review was originally part of our Sundance Film Festival coverage.* Oh boy, did I want The American Society of Magical Negroes to be a stand-out film here at Sundance. Did I ever. This comes from someone who has seen his share of movies debut in...