With Humor, Kobi Libii Gives His Characters a Different Superpower

by The Technical Blogs


In “The American Society of Magical Negroes,” the writer-director Kobi Libii’s debut feature film opening March 15, a mysterious group of Black people possess superpowers. But unlike Black Panther or Miles Morales’s Spider-Man, this group doesn’t fight criminals or take on villains.

Instead, the members of this society wield their powers only for a very specific purpose: soothing the anxieties of white people.

Endowed with the ability to perceive white people’s frustrations — represented by a floating dial that measures “white tears” — the members spend their days making lost purses reappear, transforming bland outfits into hip ones and doing whatever else white people require to be happy.

This conceit satirizes the cultural trope of the Magical Negro, in which Black characters in a plot exist solely to aid the white protagonists. By incarnating this trope in the form of a secret society set in present-day America, the film critiques the ways in which Black people continue to be forced into deference toward white people.

“I was sat down quite explicitly by older Black people in my life and told how to act around the police, that I needed to be polite there and that’s what I needed to do to stay alive,” Libii said in an interview.

“And I personally believe I overlearned that lesson,” he added.

The film’s lead character, Aren (Justice Smith), is a struggling Black artist who has a habit of apologizing profusely to white people. This catches the attention of Roger (David Alan Grier), an older member of the magical society, who recruits him to join.

The film ultimately rejects the notion that Black people should accommodate white Americans, and it offers a coherent explanation for why many Black Americans have historically felt the need to do so — particularly the threat of race-related violence.

This is a delicate balance to maintain, and the movie, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in Jan., has received sharp notices from around the internet, including a mixed response from critics out of Sundance, and comments from disgruntled viewers of the trailer.

In a video interview, Libii discussed the discourse that his film has generated and the ways in which this project drew on his personal experiences. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.

What do you make of all the criticism that this film has received so far, even before its theatrical release?

There have been a number of vibrant reactions. There’s the controversy in the white conservative community. I don’t think it’s particularly interesting to talk about that because I find it a bit disingenuous, and that strain of controversy is that any frank acknowledgment of racism is seen as racism itself.

What I think is genuinely interesting is the reaction of the Black community. There is a specific thing that a lot of audiences are used to from films that have Black people with superpowers. And that’s of Black people using magic, using superpowers to be greater than the systemic racism. So we’re talking about Wakanda, I can also trace it back to the Blaxploitation movement.

And so I think there was a real expectation from a lot of people, but especially the Black community, that when they hear the title and see the teaser trailer, that I will be part of that tradition. But this film is literally the opposite. It is a satire in which I’ve created a world where Black people are using magic powers to aid and abet systemic racism by supporting white people, by capitulating to this particular role. And obviously, just to be extraordinarily clear, that is not my point of view. That’s not a good thing. My protagonist rejects that worldview.

Some film critics felt like the satire in this film didn’t go far enough, wasn’t sharp enough, that in some ways it was justifying the idea that Black people should accommodate white people.

I think part of what you see in this reaction is my own refusal to damn this worldview, and it’s important to track that distinction. I did whole drafts of the film where I made the magical society true villains, and I said, ‘Get thee away from me’ to this integrationist, accommodationist point of view, but I just find that so disrespectful to my ancestors. To say to a Black man living in an era where lynching was a real phenomenon, to have any judgment of anything they had to do to survive that system of domestic terrorism, is absolutely not my place.

But I think in the Black community it is radioactively embarrassing to say anyone in our community has ever done anything accommodationist. And it would be much more comfortable if I was just so, so damning of it and made such a villain out of that worldview as opposed to what I believe is the more nuanced, respectful view, which is that living under systemic racism compromises all of us. And to pretend that we are all pure is to me an impossible standard that puts impossible pressure on all of us.

Would you say this movie not only satirizes white Americans, but also Black Americans?

Absolutely. A lot of what the phrase “Black satire” means is expressing anger at white people. And listen, I have plenty of anger and there’s plenty of anger in the film. But to me, focusing too much on expressing that anger and scoring those points is just another way of centering white people. To me, part of the political work I’m doing in this film is from the bottom of my heart, not thinking about how a white audience will react to it. But trying to express my particular experience being subjected to systemic racism.

Were there specific things that Aren experiences that you also experienced?

Well, I was in a magic society for a short time. That’s a joke. But yes, of course, those characters, they’re all sort of from me in some way and based on my experience. The microaggressions are real things that have happened to me. Being gotten out of trouble by my dad in certain situations has happened to me.

The title of the film feels deliberately provocative. How did you settle on this?

I’ve seen reactions from white people saying, “How am I supposed to say this title?” And I think part of what you’re hearing when white people express that discomfort is them experiencing, sometimes for the first time, something they’ve never experienced before, which is double consciousness. Something Black people have to do constantly is think about two audiences. I think about myself, I think about the way I might authentically be comfortable moving through the world. But I’m also at the same time almost thinking with a second brain about how this is going to land on the white people around me. And what you’re seeing is white people having to do that in some cases for the first time around this title.

Much of the film involves a romantic relationship between the protagonist and another character. Some people have criticized this as being distracting. How did you decide to introduce the romantic story line into the plot?

It’s a film about being seen as a stereotype. And to me, the opposite of being looked at like a stereotype and looked at like you’re less than is being looked at by somebody who loves you. And the experience that some people have watching the film is that these don’t fit together. Another term for that is juxtaposition, which is to say I’m deliberately putting two things that don’t seem like they fit next to each other, and trust that you will find meaning in that contrast.


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