In one of the few laugh-out-loud scenes of “The American Society of Magical Negroes,” actor, writer and comedian Kobi Libii’s unevenly written but good-looking directorial debut that gradually runs out of steam, a Black man grabs an unsuspecting white person by the crotch to supposedly cure him of a prostatic illness.
The scene is a direct reference to Frank Darabont’s 1999 Oscar nominee “The Green Mile,” in which Michael Clarke Duncan’s prison inmate with a heart of gold (and supernatural powers) and Tom Hanks’ kind guard get similarly, well, acquainted. “The Green Mile” was only one of the then-recent barrage of popular movies like “What Dreams May Come,” “The Family Man,” and “The Legend of Bagger Vance” (also amusingly referenced in Libii’s movie) that Spike Lee blasted in 2001 when he coined the concept of a “Magical Negro” trope in fiction: a stereotypical Black person with little to no narrative of their own, one that solely exists to support the journey and growth of a white person.
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Now, more than two decades later, Libii wrestles with his own demons around this trope with his fanciful Sundance-premiering satire that should have been considerably funnier. In it, he imagines a fantastical world in which being a “Magical Negro” is a real job for a select few Black Americans. The goal of their underground society — whose antics somehow wholly resemble the magical world of the “Harry Potter” franchise — is simple: Identify nervous white folks and make them feel at ease. Why? Because nervous white people, especially those in a position of power, are the world’s most dangerous animals that threaten everyone’s safety. Maintaining their emotional contentment is vital to survival.
When he is first introduced at an art gallery, uncomfortably lingering next to a mess of yarn that is supposed to be his artwork, the aspiring but not awfully talented artist Aren (a memorable Justice Smith, also of “I Saw the TV Glow” at this year’s festival) has nothing to do with the said society. We quickly get the sense that Aren is perhaps a little too polite for his own good: to his tactless rep, to the gallery clientele, to the white folks who walk by him as if he doesn’t exist…
Losing his upcoming solo show on the spot after failing to sell his sculpture, Aren leaves the show with his tail between his legs, only to be stopped by a drunk white woman who asks for his help at an ATM. A series of events falsely make him look like he was stealing the woman’s purse in front of some coarse white dudes, when Roger (the wonderful David Alan Grier, the best thing about the movie) emerges out of thin air and saves the day as a Magical Negro on duty.
From there, Aren becomes Roger’s new recruit for the society, whose hidden headquarters they teleport to via some secret door. (And the Hogwarts-adjacent references don’t stop there.) Thankfully, Libii’s world-building here is pleasingly cinematic as Aren and Roger make their way through production designer Laura Fox’s attractively dressed and lit, chandelier-heavy alternate universe. Accompanying them is Michael Abels’ majestic score that embraces and hints at something more mystical and enthralling than the movie deserves. Soon, a punch-drunk Aren learns the basics of his new job at a training session: He is supposed to treat every selected nervous white person like a valued client and strive to be acceptable to whites, while staying authentically Black in ways the whites would approve.
The script-based troubles of “Magical Negroes” begin swiftly when Aren receives his first assignment to look after a beyond-basic white graphic designer named Jason (Drew Tarver), whose discomfort level has been on the rise. Jason works for a cringey, Musk-like tech-bro with a social media company in the throes of a recent controversy over face-recognition software that fails to work on Black façades. (Their awful “We love black faces” social post, cluelessly unleashed to battle the dispute, does nothing but fuel it.) Also at the company is Lizzie (An-Li Bogan), whom we meet during a witty coffee-shop meet-cute with Aren.
Enter a miscalculated rom-com-y love triangle (that involves the two plus Jason) and a meandering storyline that quickly loses the momentum Libii has built with everything leading up to it. It would be one thing if we could at least get to know Lizzie and Aren a little deeper through the romance beats Libii employs. But we mostly watch the duo become flat mouthpieces to simplistic talking points that don’t run much deeper than, “It is hard to live in America if you’re not a white guy.”
In fairness, Libii’s aim throughout is, of course, to critique, own, and deflate the Magical Negro trope, inspecting the obvious complicity of defensive white people who say things like “I don’t have a racist bone in my body” and even examining the relative submissiveness of older generations like Roger who had to prioritize survival over personal assertiveness back in the day.
To take it a step further, what the “The American Society of Magical Negroes” tries to do with the topic of racism is have a broad but smartly entertaining conversation around it, much like “Barbie” did with feminism. But without substantial jokes that land and authentically written character journeys — among the two assets of “Barbie” — Libii sadly falls short of delivering something that feels as urgent. In the end, when Aren reaches his America Ferrera moment and launches into a monologue about how he shouldn’t have to compromise himself to comfort white people, the emotions somehow don’t gel, with Aren’s big angry scene ultimately seeming unearned.
This critic’s mind wandered off to the likes of “Sorry to Bother You,” “Luce,” and even the imperfect but sharply scripted “American Fiction,” vastly different recent movies that engage with Blackness in white America in ways a lot more complex and critical. “The American Society of Magical Negroes” feels inexplicably watered-down in comparison, further saddled by an unnecessary late twist and a preachy tone that manages to say only the most obvious.
“The American Society of Magical Negroes” premiered at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. Focus Features will release the film Friday, March 15 only in theaters.
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