• Sun. Apr 14th, 2024

Movie Curiosities

The online diary of an aspiring movie nerd

The “Magic Negro” is a classic racist trope in pop culture, most especially during the last couple decades of the 20th century. While the character is typically black, they could be of any marginalized race. And while the character may not necessarily be “magical”, they will likely be deeply spiritual or “folksy”, generous with sage wisdom, and so on. Sometimes the character dies or gets killed off, sometimes they don’t. What really defines a “magic negro” is that the character has no personality, no backstory, no motivation, no development arc, and has no impact on the plot beyond what’s necessary to support a white protagonist.

So here’s The American Society of Magical Negroes, produced/written/directed by newcomer Kobi Libii. As the title implies, the movie is about a secret network of black people gifted with actual magic abilities, tasked with helping white people through their petty discomforts that might otherwise manifest as hate crimes. I might add that their history includes parodies of The Legend of Bagger Vance, The Green Mile, Driving Miss Daisy, and other classic examples in pop culture.

The upside is that those in the Society can charm their way out of any scenario that might result in racial violence against them. The downside is that the Society’s magic runs on selflessness. Nobody in the Society can use their magic to pursue their own interests, and especially not in putting their own interests above those of white people. Any Society member found guilty of doing so will be expelled from the Society, memory-wiped, and forced to live in the USA as a non-powered black person.

To repeat, if a black person engages in a selfless act, the entire Society loses their magic. And the punishment for doing so is for the offending culprit to get their memory erased… with magic. You might see a problem with the world-building here.

Speaking of which, the Society was made and marketed as a way for good-hearted black people to make the world a safer place with less racial violence inflicted against other black people. Yet Society members are themselves immune to racial violence by virtue of their powers. Makes you wonder how many in the Society are involved out of altruistic intent to help others, and how many stay involved just to keep their own “get out of a police shooting free” card. In the latter case, that seems like a case of using their powers for personal good, which sounds an awful lot like a violation of their own code.

Another fine example concerns Jason (Drew Tarver), a white guy who works as a graphic designer for a social media conglomerate that’s come under fire in recent months due to racial bias. Naturally, the Society takes an interest in decreasing Jason’s tension and getting the white boy what he wants. Trouble is, he wants to be CEO of the company. And he also wants to be a romantic item with a coworker (Lizzie, played by An-Li Bogan). Basically, Jason is an entitled white dude to the point where he won’t be satisfied until he gets everything. And if he gets it, the results could lead to worse consequences for BIPOC people in the long term and on a global scale. The Society wasn’t built for this kind of scenario, and there’s no answer to the question of what’s supposed to be done about a white guy who could be a danger either way.

Compounding matters, Jason isn’t a skinhead or a Klansman or anything like that. He’s just an ordinary white guy who’s oblivious to how much he’s been given by virtue of white privilege. Jason isn’t an overt racist himself, but he’s directly contributing to and profiting by systemic racism. He’s the product of a system that was built from the ground up to ease his every discomfort and give him everything he wants at the cost of discomfort and poverty for black and brown people. Exactly as the Society is doing. They don’t even seem to know it (or maybe they’re simply too proud to admit it), but the Society is directly contributing to a system that creates more entitled white people, causing the Society to work twice as hard with every generation of white people who feel their every petty want isn’t getting met.

Racism is a beast that cannot be fed. And by offering themselves up as nameless faceless sacrifices to appease white privilege and fragility, the Society is only making the problem worse. The Society was built from the ground up to try and put out a fire with freaking gasoline.

Everything about the worldbuilding to this movie is based on circular logic. And the diabolical genius of this movie is that the circular logic is the point. By leaning into the short-sighted absurdity of the premise and confronting it head-on, the film not only satirizes the namesake trope, but also makes deeply incisive and achingly poignant commentary about racial trauma, white privilege, and life with brown skin.

All this and I haven’t even gotten started on our protagonist.

Justice Smith plays Aren, a young black man who’s gotten through life by taking up as little space as possible. Long story short, he’s quickly identified by a seasoned Society agent (Roger, played by David Alan Grier) as prime material for a Magical Negro and inducted into the Society. Aren’s first assignment is the aforementioned Jason, which naturally entangles him in a love triangle with Lizzie. Thus Aren has to balance his Society obligations of remaining a nonentity with his (possibly mutual) romantic desire for Lizzie. This in addition to biting his tongue while dealing with Jason’s casual racism.

(Side note: Aren is a failed artist who uses yarn as his medium. Look for how the costume design makes such great use of his affinity for yarn.)

What we’ve got here is a story of someone who was picked for a job specifically because he’s a nonentity conditioned to live in fear of the White Man. And over the course of the story, he comes to learn his value with the understanding that he deserves to be alive. He deserves to take up space, he deserves to be heard, and — dare I say it — his life matters. It’s a deeply satisfying arc to watch, most especially at the climax when he gets to screaming about his experiences as a black man while he keeps getting shouted down by “non-racist” white people. Brilliant.

So, are there any nitpicks? Well, the editing could definitely be tighter. I could point to quite a few shots that went on for way too long, most especially with regards to the central romance.

Don’t get me wrong, Justice Smith and An-Li Bogan are both delightful up-and-coming talents, they play an endearing couple of love interests, and I wish the both of them well. Trouble is, Smith doesn’t yet have much of a demonstrated range beyond “socially awkward and clumsy.” Take someone limited to that particular skill set and make him a romantic lead, the result is pure cringe. Your mileage may vary as to how funny or sweet Smith is with Bogan, watching him try to navigate this thorny relationship with all the grace of a drunken elephant, but I personally found it way too painful and stretched out for far too long.

Speaking of the cast, I’m sorry to say that for how focused this is on the African American experience, Justice Smith is the only black actor here who’s got anything to work with. Aisha Hinds plays an exposition machine, Nicole Byer gets to chew scenery as the president of the Society, and neither of them get a chance to play much in the way of characters. Even in the case of David Alan Grier, Roger’s attempt at character development feels tacked-on and he’s mostly stuck playing a parody of the “mentor” archetype. Grier is a deeply talented character actor with a long and accomplished career, we all know he could have and should have been given more than this.

As for the white actors, we’ve got Drew Tarver playing a satire of white privilege, alongside Michaela Watkins as a satire of corporate culture and Rupert Friend as a techbro parody. It’s not much, but it’s not like the film wanted or needed or promised them to be anything more. And at least all three actors are genuinely funny enough.

Overall, I’d say that The American Society of Magical Negroes is a flawed yet damned impressive debut for Kobi Libii. It’s really quite astonishing how the film takes its own ass-backwards world building and spins that into a damning satire against the “magical negro” trope and systemic racism as a whole. It’s nice to see a film that takes on racial trauma without depicting black people getting hurt or killed onscreen, addressing the topic in an empowering and introspective way. The jokes are funny, but without ever cheapening or mitigating how serious the issue is.

I know the film has picked up a lot of bad reviews, but I can’t bring myself to agree. The cringe-worthy central romance aside, I found it to be a whip-smart and incisive movie that’s genuinely funny and powerful. You won’t be missing anything if you wait for home video, but it’s definitely worth a look.

By Curiosity Inc.

I hold a B.S. in Bioinformatics, the only one from Pacific University's Class of '09. I was the stage-hand-in-chief of my high school drama department and I'm a bass drummer for the Last Regiment of Syncopated Drummers. I dabble in video games and I'm still pretty good at DDR. My primary hobby is going online for upcoming movie news. I am a movie buff, a movie nerd, whatever you want to call it. Comic books are another hobby, but I'm not talking about Superman or Spider-Man or those books that number in the triple-digits. I'm talking about Watchmen, Preacher, Sandman, etc. Self-contained, dramatic, intellectual stories that couldn't be accomplished in any other medium. I'm a proud son of Oregon, born and raised here. I've been just about everywhere in North and Central America and I love it right here.

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