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‘The American Society of Magical Negroes’ Review — Satire Plays It Safe

‘The American Society of Magical Negroes’ Review — Satire Plays It Safe
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The Big Picture

  • The film
    The American Society of Magical Negroes
    attempts to parody the trope, but lacks the teeth to do justice to the concept.
  • The middle section of the film prioritizes romance and forgets the more pointed criticism of the trope.
  • While the film has its heart in the right place, it should have focused more on critiquing the “magical negro” trope or being a romantic comedy, not both.


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This review was originally part of our coverage for the 2024 Sundance Film Festival.

The term “magical negro” was originally popularized by Spike Lee as a way to describe Black characters in films that only exist to aid white protagonists. When Lee first introduced this term in 2001 on a visit to Yale, he mentioned films like The Legend of Bagger Vance, The Green Mile, What Dreams May Come, and The Family Man as examples of this exhausting trope, and in the two decades since, this cliché continues to rear its ugly head in entertainment. In The American Society of Magical Negroes, the feature debut of writer-director Kobi Libii, he attempts to parody and take down this concept, yet with a film that doesn’t have the teeth to do this story justice.


The American Society of Magical Negroes

Aren is recruited into a secret society of magical Black people who dedicate their lives to a cause of utmost importance.

Release Date
March 22, 2024

Director
Kobi Libii

Runtime
104 minutes


What Is ‘The American Society of Magical Negroes’ About?


Justice Smith stars as Aren, a failing Black artist who specializes in yarn structures that, surprisingly, don’t sell at galleries. After seeing how he interacts with white people at one of his exhibits, he runs into Roger (David Alan Grier), who introduces Aren to the American Society of Magical Negroes. This secret organization attempts to make white people more comfortable—by being both authentically Black and acceptable to whites—as helpers to their white “clients.” While the “magical negro” was thought to be part of just movies, they also exist in the real world. In his orientation to the Society, Aren is shown scenes similar to the aforementioned movies, as a Black man teaches a white guy how to play billiards, similar to a scene in Bagger Vance, while another scene shows a Black prisoner helping a white guard get his love life back by grabbing the guard’s crotch, akin to The Green Mile.


While Aren isn’t sure about the idea at first, seeing how Roger works his magic—literally and figuratively—makes him curious about the new position. His first major assignment comes at a social media platform called Meetbox, where he has to help Jason (Drew Tarver), who is frustrated with his job. But while helping Jason by working alongside him at Meetbox, Aren also meets Lizzie (An Li Bogan). As the two start to grow closer, it turns out that Aren’s interest in Lizzie might conflict with the desires of his client—a major no-no for the Society. Aren has to decide what is best: keep his white client happy, or do what’s best for himself, damn the consequences.

‘The American Society of Magical Negroes’ Can’t Do Justice to Its Concept

Image via Focus Features


The American Society of Magical Negroes begins and ends at interesting places, as this is when Libii prioritizes taking down this troublesome trope. When we first see the Society, it’s almost a Hogwarts-esque place, full of wonder and the unexpected. Nicole Byer rules over this department, flying over the other members of the society, and the film can more directly address the types of movies that brought this concept to life. The ending also takes the opportunity to point out the ludicrous nature of the “magical negro” and show that this type of character shouldn’t solely exist to boost the white characters—which is mentioned in a well-delivered monologue by Smith.

Unfortunately, too much of The American Society of Magical Negroes is essentially a rom-com where Aren and Lizzie get closer, with the occasional obstacle thrown in the way by Jason. While we know the Society’s stance on putting the self before the client, the film’s middle section forgets its more pointed criticism to instead create an easily digestible comedy. As Roger says when he introduces the Society to Aren, the job of the “magical negro” is to make white people comfortable, and yet, this is exactly the type of film that shouldn’t make anyone comfortable. Eventually, the film does address that issue, but it’s doing so in a film that has gone down too easily to make this entirely effective.


When the film focuses more on these tropes, it’s not particularly radical, but it’s where the story finds its strength. However, when we get to the Meetbox of it all, Libii’s script isn’t nearly as funny or succinct as it needs to be. There are some scenes where the director doesn’t know when to cut and get out, instead, reiterating the same points over and over and dragging the overall film down with it. Libii’s scenes make the point, then continue on for twice as long as they need to, which can occasionally turn decent scenes into exhausting ones.

It’s a shame because either aspect of the film could certainly work on its own. But in doing both, The American Society of Magical Negroes can’t give either concept the focus it needs. While the Meetbox segment of things is definitely clunky, a bit more tightening could’ve made it into an intriguing look at the often problematic nature of getting ahead in the corporate world. Similarly, if Libii had leaned more into the actual society, as we learn more about the ins-and-outs of how this group works, instead of just narrowing in on one assignment, this could’ve also been a strong direction. However, in mixing these two ideas together, both are handled in a way that can’t give this story the oomph that it needs to become a searing satire.

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Justice Smith and David Alan Grier Are Solid, Even When the Film Falters

Justice Smith in The American Society of Magical Negroes

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Image via Focus Features

But always solid in The American Society of Magical Negroes are Smith and Grier. Smith’s character finds self-respect throughout the film, and we watch him go from being a man who is afraid he might make people feel uncomfortable to being able to find the confidence that he needs, as opposed to making others happy. Even though the film goes in directions it maybe shouldn’t, Smith is good at both the helper to Tarver’s Jason and the romantic lead alongside Bogan’s Lizzie. But the standout here is Grier, who is essentially the Morpheus to Aren’s Neo, showing him the way the world works and opening his mind to the reality of it all. Grier is a mentor with past regrets, and he always manages to be quietly hilarious and somewhat tragic. Together, Smith and Grier are delightful and play off each other well. It’s just a shame they’re not in a film that can critique these ideas deeper.


The American Society of Magical Negroes has its heart in the right place, but the film has a clever idea that it can’t support when it focuses on places it arguably shouldn’t. This is a film that should’ve either focused on the criticism of the “magical negro” trope or been a romantic comedy—not a combination of the two—and in doing both, the film loses much of its power in its shaky middle. The American Society of Magical Negroes is a film that needs bite for its high concept to work, and unfortunately, Libii’s film doesn’t have teeth.

The American Society of Magical Negroes Film Poster

The American Society of Magical Negroes

REVIEW

The American Society of Magical Negroes has a great concept, but its satire isn’t as biting as it needs to be for this idea to work.

Pros

  • The American Society of Magical Negores begins and ends with a solid parody of tired tropes.
  • Justice Smith and David Alan Grier are solid, even when the film falters.
Cons

  • The middle half of the film mostly forgets the satirical aspects that make this film interesting.
  • This concept needs to hit hard, and unfortunately, it’s not as biting as it should be.

The American Society of Magical Negroes is now available to stream on VOD in the U.S.

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