‘The American Society of Magical Negroes’ Review: Lampooning an Offensive Cliché

by The Technical Blogs


Kobi Libii’s satirical comedy, “The American Society of Magical Negroes,” opens in an art gallery where people are milling about. A young Black man tries to walk through the crowd, constantly apologizing and sidestepping the gallery-goers. He acts as if he feels in the way and out of place. But as we learn when he arrives at his own yarn installation, he’s one of the artists whose work is for sale.

The scene says a lot with a little, hitting comic beats but ending deflatedly thanks to the art dealer’s ruthless reaction to this diffidence. Yet the behavior of the young artist, Aren (the enormously talented Justice Smith), is exactly what catches the eye of a bartender at the show, Roger (David Alan Grier), who hides a secret identity. Cue the title of the film, which turns the movie trope of the “Magical Negro” character into a mission statement: Roger belongs to an elite group tasked with eliminating discomfort for white people and making them feel better about themselves.

Roger recruits Aren, and within moments, they’re helping white people leap their anxieties in a single bound. Libii’s premise rests on the rationale that “the happier they are, the safer we are,” as Roger puts it. When he and Aren pacify a disgruntled white cop by helping him get into a nightclub, it seems clear that the stakes involve the threat of racial violence, though these ideas prove to be a challenge to explore in a film that leans into romantic comedy.

Aren’s big assignment is to go undercover at a tech company and build up a co-worker, Jason (Drew Tarver), who’s feeling down for a couple of reasons. He’s hit a dead end at work, and he’s sweet on his superior, Lizzie (An-Li Bogan), but barely seems to know it. Aren must help Jason realize his dreams while suppressing his own: Aren and Lizzie have already flirted, quite promisingly, in an early meet-cute scene.

Libii’s story underlines the self-negation involved in the trope of the title and ridicules the expectations and constraints forced upon Black people in myriad ways. The American Society of Magical Negroes has a hideout where Aren and other agents are trained on scenarios that echo the selfless-helper plots of “The Green Mile” and “The Legend of Bagger Vance.”

But Libii’s telling softens the sting of critiques of such stories, as when Spike Lee slammed “Bagger Vance,” set in 1930s Georgia, by saying it was “more concerned about improving Matt Damon’s golf swing” than about the lynchings taking place at the time in the South.

Instead, this film’s satire embraces the fantastical mold of secret superhero powers and intrigue: Aren and Roger are capable of actual magic, like teleportation, conjuring and the ability to read a “White Tears” sadness indicator that’s invisible to white “clients.” The society’s formidable leader, DeDe (Nicole Byer), even floats above the ground when addressing members. “Key & Peele” helped pave the way here with a 2012 sketch in which two older Black men find themselves dispensing wise words to the same sad-sack white man, and proceed to battle each other with energy blasts.

Libii does bring out the racist structure of the “Magical Negro” trope by showing how Jason and the society’s other clients are varying degrees of bigoted. They might feel better, but they aren’t really trying to become better people. Aren’s misery only grows as he lends a sympathetic ear to Jason’s tortuous justifications of his entitlement.

But even as the movie is lampooning one trope, it keeps taking refuge in other conventions in ways that undercut the pop of its premise and make one wish for greater depth to its thought experiments. A creaky fantasy-genre rule dictates that the society’s members lose their powers when one of them puts self-worth first, which is what Aren starts to do. Then rom-com tropes take over — with Aren speaking his heart and running through the streets — in ways that obfuscate some of the movie’s uncomfortable implications.

Libii faced premature criticism last year on the basis of his film’s trailer (and it’s possible that any social satire now reckons with higher expectations in the huge wake of “Barbie”). But the film has its flaws: slackness in key scenes, and the fact that front-and-center Aren could definitely benefit from more detail of any sort (or friends outside work, or a glimpse of family onscreen).

Smith’s nimble performance is such a pleasure to watch that it almost doesn’t matter, but it’s fair to say that this film could have gone even further with its bold scenario.

The American Society of Magical Negroes
Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 44 minutes. In theaters.


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