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.Film Review: ‘The American Society of Magical Negroes’

Writer-director Koby Libii’s satirical fantasy is the season’s most provocative film

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Consider The American Society of Magical Negroes a live-wire conversation-starter of a movie title that automatically opens up a pertinent social issue discussion.

Writer-director Koby Libii’s satirical fantasy deliberately chose a hot-button phrase. As explained in the film’s introduction, a “magical negro” is a fictional character whose function is to selflessly come to the aid of the white characters. In other words, to reflect the white point of view and allay the discomfort of the white audience, usually at the Black character’s expense.

That curious narrative trope has been called out by such Black cultural commentators as Spike Lee and James Baldwin, but its origins go back at least to the time of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a pitiful tale of Black slaves written by a white author to soothe the conscience of a white abolitionist readership. 

For a 21st-century filmmaker like Libii—a playwright with a background in improv comedy—the use of “magical negro” is almost certainly ironic. Which is how we come to view Aren (Justice Smith), the central character, who seems to embody the pejorative definition to the point of painful ridiculousness. Painful for him, and to those of us who witness his struggles. Anyone who walks into Magical Negroes expecting a light-hearted urban comedy of manners is in for a surprise. In the words of James Brown, it’s as serious as cancer.

Frankly, Aren is a bit of a sad sack. At a gallery opening where he’s showing his minimalist sculptures, pieces of colored yarn hang on the wall haphazardly. No one is interested, and he flubs the sales pitch. After leaving the gallery that night his luck turns worse. An inebriated young white woman accuses him of stealing her purse after she accidentally fumbles it at an ATM on a lonely street, and only the sudden appearance of a mysterious man named Roger (David Alan Grier) saves Aren from a beating.

Roger, it turns out, is a being sent from another sphere of existence called the American Society of Magical Negroes—part make-believe club, part group therapy, with the goal of training Blacks like Aren in the fine art of convincing white people to feel comfortable in awkward situations. Society members use devices like the White Tears Meter to gauge their effectiveness. 

Why would Black people debase themselves to please whites in this craven way? That’s easy—in order to avoid getting shot. At one point Aren asks himself: “Am I living in fear?” Further: “I apologize all the time.” If, for instance, Ben Stiller acts like this, it’s just his perennial born-loser’s shtick. When Smith’s Aren does it, it’s no longer funny, it’s pathetic.

Things get more complicated with the addition of Aren’s love interest, an arguably white work associate named Lizzie (An-Li Bogan). Actor Bogan is part Asian; actor Smith is half white, just like Aren. Amid nonstop send-ups of corporate-speak at the high-tech Meetbox office—the CEO is an overbearing white guy with an Aussie accent who admires Ayn Rand and hates unions—Aren walks an agonizing tightrope between his stereotypical “bro” work buddy Jason (Drew Tarver) and the receptive Lizzie. But something always gets in his way; “They colonized my crush,” wails Aren. Every single white character in the movie, with the possible exception of Lizzie, is a dick.

And yet. When Aren finally wakes up and starts wearing interesting-looking sweaters, all is not lost. He does not get murdered by a nervous white cop. He learns to smile without wincing. TV veteran filmmaker Libii has constructed the most exasperating romantic comedy imaginable. It goads the audience to say to itself “What if?” instead of relaxing on a bed of clichés. 

The American Society of Magical Negroes purposely upsets the equilibrium, because for Aren the equilibrium is perennially upset. Kudos to actors Smith and Grier. Color this one frustrating but ultimately rewarding.

* * *

In theaters


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