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‘American Society of Magical Negroes’ Is a Huge Sundance Misfire

PARK CITY, Utah—In fiction, a “magical negro” is a stereotypical figure whose purpose is to use their (quasi-supernatural) powers to aid a white protagonist. The cinema abounds with such individuals, from Dick Hallorann in The Shining to John Coffey in The Green Mile to Bagger Vance in The Legend of Bagger Vance, and it’s that state of affairs which writer/director Kobi Libii strives to satirize with The American Society of Magical Negroes.

A comedy in which a mild-mannered Black twentysomething is enlisted to serve in a secret project that keeps the world safe for whites and Blacks alike, it’s a feature debut (which just premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival ahead of its Mar. 22 theatrical bow) with a lot on its mind. However, unlike last year’s far sharper and more complex look at modern issues of race and culture, American Fiction, it proves a muddled and preachy mess that barely earns a single laugh.

Aren (Justice Smith) is an aspiring artist whose yarn sculptures at his latest gallery show are a gigantic disappointment, and not because of the color of his skin but, rather, because they’re terrible. Introduced moving out of the way of a white attendee, Aren is fundamentally deferential and apologetic to any Caucasian who enters his vicinity. The underlying reason for his meekness, though, is never explicated other than it’s a symptom of an intolerant American society that so denigrates and devalues him that he doesn’t feel like he deserves to exist. As such, he’s not really a person with actual distinctive traits or deep convictions so much as a vessel for Libii’s political sermonizing, which crescendos during a finale that resorts to a lot of screaming about “experience” and “acknowledgement.”

After his upcoming solo show is unceremoniously canceled, Aren heads home and, on the street at an ATM, tries to assist a drunk white woman, only to wind up looking like he’s trying to rob her. Fortunately, before this stranger’s boyfriend can intervene with his fists, Aren is saved by Roger (David Alan Grier), who does his best Dumbledore impression and promptly whisks the young man away (via teleportation!) to a barber shop that conceals, behind a small hidden doorway, the American Society of Magical Negroes.

Founded in Monticello (because apparently Thomas Jefferson is now the godfather of American slavery), this organization is described by Roger as a “client services firm” that maintains domestic peace by having its Black members assuage “white discomfort.” In this sense, Roger contends, magical negroes are bona fide heroes—their submissiveness, and suppression of their true selves in order to keep white folks happy, helps them lessen inequality, protect each other, and maintain social and political equilibrium.

The American Society of Magical Negroes’ big idea, then, is flipping its title trope on its head, positing it as not demeaning and reductive but as empowering. In theory, this could have been a potentially clever jumping-off point, and it certainly surprises Aren, who looks askance at Roger and yet goes with the flow due to the fact that he lacks a spine.

At the very moment he’s recruited, though, plot contrivances crop up to complicate his odyssey, beginning with a meet-cute at a coffee shop with Lizzie (An-Li Bogan), whose drink he spills and with whom he engages in painful banter. This encounter is mercifully cut short by Aren’s first assignment: to assist Jason (Drew Tarver), a bland white graphic designer working at a social media company founded by a cluelessly offensive blowhard (Rupert Friend). This establishment gives everyone boating-related titles like boatswain and admiral (because, I guess, white people like boats?), and it’s just landed in hot water courtesy of facial-recognition software that doesn’t work with Black visages. Who else works there? Lizzie, of course.

At this point, The American Society of Magical Negroes reveals itself to be a socially conscious romantic comedy, and if those two modes don’t sound compatible, Libii does nothing to alter that impression. Much time is spent on the budding love triangle between Aren, Lizzie, and Jason, the last of whom is the epitome of laid-back and oblivious entitlement, as well as Jason’s simultaneous rise up the corporate ladder thanks to his gender and pallor.

Alas, the film doesn’t care about characters so much as talking points, meaning that Tarver’s villain comes off as a symbol more than a human being. The same goes for Aren and Lizzie, two generically affable nobodies whose amour blossoms during dull walks in the park where they talk about how it’s nice when others listen to you. Despite the script giving them nothing but second-rate mush to spout, the pair have modesty chemistry, which keeps things from totally running aground.

While Libii knows that magical negros aren’t positive role models, he stretches that gag out for as long as possible before having Aren realize it and, consequently, seize his individuality. This is turgidly obvious stuff masquerading as hot-button truth-telling, and considering that the film fails to concoct anything funnier than Friend’s tycoon citing The Fountainhead and Aren saying that Jason “kind of colonized my crush”, the whole thing plays like a messy, dreary provocation. At its lowest, its jokes so wholly miss the mark (in every conceivable way) that they barely seem like jokes at all, as when the Society’s leader, upon excommunicating a member for violating their rules, says that this woman will now suffer the worst fate imaginable: being a regular Black person in America.

Grier is his usual charming self as Roger, yet the dapper sage’s belief that Black people should muffle their personalities and desires in exchange for safety—exemplified by an anecdote about the abuse suffered by his father—is something to which the film doesn’t ascribe, regardless of its early pretenses. Instead, its prime interest is lecturing audiences about contemporary race relations via corny rom-com machinations. In that regard, the material resembles Roger himself: phonily cheery on the outside, and hurt and angry on the inside. The difference between the two, however, is that whereas Grier’s gentleman maintains his counterfeit smile throughout, The American Society of Magical Negroes falters trying to act playfully when all it really wants to do—and ultimately does—is harangue.


January 2024