The American Society of Magical Negroes (2024)

The American Society of Magical Negroes Review

The American Society of Magical Negroes

I hope the American Association of Magic Negroes disappears from my thoughts soon, but I doubt it will happen because such a thing might call for more fairy dust than the universe contains. This is the first movie by writer-director Kobi Libii and it’s a crazy satire about a hidden society of black people whose only mission is to make white people comfortable. It has no shape, no edge, no politics, no sense. it lacks the wide vision necessary for world-building. The film starts on unstable ground and tumbles down a tonally rocky hill before settling into an ending that clangs so emotionally off-key that its minor laughs during an overlong running time don’t just fade away; they’re drowned out.

The spell it wants to cast is immediately scrambled Aren (Justice Smith), a struggling visual artist, watches one white buyer after another pass his multicolor yarn sculpture without even seeing him or confusing him with help. Both experiences leave Aren flattened, though he’s an amiable and deferential young Black man who says sorry more often than some Canadians say “eh.” His pliability nearly gets him killed when a drunk white woman asks for help with an ATM and then accuses him of stealing her purse. Roger (David Alan Grier) saves Aren’s life. Roger sees something in the artist and invites him into the magical society (access through an unassuming barbershop). There we learn some basic rules When serving white fragility, Black folks must make way lest murderously angry whites go on a rampage also, these Black folks are not supposed to let their real Blackness show while serving white people. At first it seems like Libii knows that this organization has regressive respectability politics the movie wittily mocks both “The Legend of Bagger Vance” and “The Green Mile” but at some point you start wondering if the picture itself is in on the joke.

I also wonder about the world-building Outside of finding out that 100 Black people are involved and that it dates back to Monticello, we don’t get much history. Are there other groups on other continents repping the diaspora? They draw their power from each other (sense white folks’ anger or sorrow and snap them out of it), but what’s the actual structure of who has power in this organization beyond a Black woman president? Also, Aren is frustratingly thin. Does he have family or friends? We hear his mother was white. But what about his other people? There’s nothing communal about a community-defense movie.

Aren’s first mission tests his loyalty to the organization. Roger has him watch over Jason (Drew Tarvet), a white, pretentious designer who can’t understand why he can’t rise through the ranks at the social media company. A couple of problems immediately surface: Jason is a racist asshole who thinks people of color are beneath him as employees and friends he’s also smitten with Lizzie (a delightful An-Li Bogan), a much more talented designer than he or Aren could ever hope to be, and whom Aren himself starts to have feelings for. So now, Aren has to choose between keeping his client happy and keeping his heart intact a weird twist that kneecaps both the movie’s romance and politics. For every moment we spend with Lizzie and Aren grappling with their love for each other as two people of color working at a white company that couldn’t care less about them literally, its facial recognition software doesn’t recognize their faces “The American Society of Magical Negros” loses more time fleshing out its otherwise uninteresting racial point.

This is a film that takes place in a world where radical Black politics don’t exist or don’t work in fact, Roger tells Aren that their group does more good than 100 protests ever could. Now granted, we’re not supposed to take this assertion at face value but still, among all these “historical” magical negroes we meet along the way, the movie never once mentions equally important historical Black revolutionaries.

Unfortunately for Libii, no one told him making a movie was about more than just having an idea for one. Neither Smith nor Bogan can bring enough charm to tie it all together either. Even Grier can only do so much with an underwritten character who is never really given any logical reason as to why he stays with the group in the first place. Syrupy honeyed lighting goes head-to-head with cartoonish production design throughout.

Which is the point of this film. It ends with Aren loudly asserting his personhood in a speech that will surely work for many people but comes too late and is laden with too much of the movie’s skeleton politics to matter. When paired up against the conventional final grace note, you never quite know if “The American Society of Magical Negroes” wants to confront the anti-Black world it lives in or would rather just keep on grinning in its face.

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