The Inverse Interview

American Society of Magical Negroes Remixes the “Lore” of the Black Experience

The director and star unpack the film’s trickiest choices.

Drew Tarver and Justice Smith in The American Society of Magical Negroes
Focus Features
The Inverse Interview

There aren’t many Black filmmakers out there who’d willingly center their story on the “magical negro.” The cinematic trope is dehumanizing by design. Like the Mammy or other racial stereotypes, Magical Negroes have no internal narrative of their own: no past, no history, and no real personality beyond their easy charm and inexplicable supernatural powers.

The American Society of Magical Negroes is meant to be a critique of the eponymous cliché, but director Kobi Libii also wanted to understand what makes these characters tick. “Part of my mandate here was like, ‘Okay, if these white [filmmakers] couldn’t take these people seriously as characters and really empathize with them, let me as a corrective do that,’” Libii tells Inverse. “In a very dark way, this is how I identify with Magical Negroes.”

“Why would a reasonable person make the choice to be hyper-focused on white people?”

The director, writer, and comedian came of age during a veritable boom of Magical Negro films. His narrative debut is dedicated to unpacking the feelings he didn’t have a language for as a young biracial film lover; to understanding a trope that kept Hollywood from reaching more inclusive heights.

“Why would a reasonable person — why would I — make the choice to be hyper-focused on white people?” Libii asked himself. What began as an “empathetic exercise” led to some uncomfortable introspection: “The very upsetting answer that I found was that I do that sometimes, and that I had been taught to do that quite explicitly, and that I believed on some level that it would make me safer... even if I know that it doesn’t.”

A subtler approach

Libii found that he was seeking safety from white discomfort, a subtle but no less debilitating practice for so many people of color. In the U.S., white supremacy is everywhere — and it doesn’t always manifest in tangible, headline-grabbing ways. Sometimes white people assume that you’ll get out of their way as they power-walk on the pavement, or down the narrow aisles of a grocery store. Sometimes they assume they can cut you in line. However slight, these microaggressions can make people of color feel invisible, or less human than their peers. If they happen often enough, you get a character like Aren (Justice Smith), American Society’s reluctant protagonist.

Before he’s drafted into the eponymous society, Aren can hardly move through a crowd without apologizing or bobbing and weaving for every white person in his path. He seems like the perfect recruit for the Society of Magical Negroes, as the group only has one goal: make their white clients more comfortable, no matter the personal cost. With the help of his mentor Roger (David Alan Grier), Aren learns how to assuage a trigger-happy white cop with the same patience and geniality as Morgan Freeman in Driving Miss Daisy. Roger ensures that his efforts will save countless Black lives, and it’s not hard to see why.

It’s a subversive way to tackle systemic violence, especially given the types of stories Hollywood usually uses to tell it. “I think we’re relatively good at telling stories about racism when it’s corporeal violence, or slavery stories where it’s really tangible,” Libii says. Think of Jordan Peele’s Get Out, or tonal copycats like Them and Antebellum. “The more insidious forms of systemic racism that are a little less tangible and more psychological — but I think incredibly destructive — are so hard to tell stories about.”

Building the lore

“I’ve gotten to a place where I love talking about race,” Smith says.

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It’s harder still to address those subtler themes with a lighter tone — especially with the degree of whimsy that Libii employs in American Society. The film is half-set in the real world, where systemic racism and white fragility abound, and half in its eponymous society. Libii drew on “tasty” genre pieces like Men in Black and Artemis Fowl in building this heightened reality, grounding it all in some real-life Black history for added authenticity.

That scope was especially helpful to Justice Smith. The actor was involved with American Society from its early stages, back when Libii was developing the script at the Sundance Labs. “I had wanted to do a movie about race for so long, but I hadn’t seen my specific racial experience represented,” Smith tells Inverse. “Which is fine, but when I got sent the script, I was like, ‘I get this. This, I know how to do.’”

“Race is, in a twisted way, a fun lore to explore.”

His shared experiences with Libii helped Smith and his director connect over the material, and bring their personal connection with race into clearer focus. “Race is a conversation that I’ve had to unpack and navigate my whole life,” Smith adds. “But I’ve gotten to a place where I love talking about race. I think race is really, in a twisted way, a fun lore to explore.”

Libii bakes that lore into the fabric of his secret society. He traces the origins of the group back to the colonial era, while their headquarters frequently pay tribute to the unsung heroes of the Civil Rights movement. “Finding this synergy between that genre stuff and these elements of Black history that were interesting and felt right to me were pretty fun,” Libii says.

It’s a subtle example of revisionist history, but one that allows its world to feel more comprehensive and real. But Libii wasn’t content with focusing on only one reality. Once Aren applies his skills in the real-real world, however, American Society takes on another aspect of the marginalized experience.

Another empathetic exercise

American Society’s romantic subplot unpacks another aspect of the marginalized experience.

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“One of the things Magical Negro [stories] failed to do was have empathy for other marginalized people,” Libii says. The films in question are always focused on the dynamic between a white protagonist and their well-meaning Black mentor — but they never show the toll that this relationship takes on the latter, or how that toll is shared with other people of color.

Libii tackled this blindspot with the introduction of a romantic interest, An-Li Bogan’s Lizzie. Through her relationship with Aren, Libii wanted to live “a little bit more rigorously” in the experience of a non-Black woman of color. “I wanted every audience member to have a moment where they had to center Lizzie’s character and just say, ‘Wait, hold on. I just watched this whole film thinking about it as through the lens of one protagonist — but let me, just for a second, think about it through the lens of this other person and what was going on with them.”

Lizzie and Aren are both caught in a stifling relationship with a white co-worker — and Aren’s first official client — Jason (Drew Tarver). As they commiserate over their frustrations at work, the pair grow a lot closer romantically.

Justice Smith and Kobi Libii connected over their shared experience.

Tobin Yelland/Focus Features

Smith and Bogan’s chemistry is palpable, and their efforts to reconcile their respective identities against Jason’s white privilege make for some juicy conversations. That was another personal choice on Libii’s part: “I have such pet peeves about love stories and how they’re told,” the director admits. “I just want people who actually connect the way that my wife and I connect. And talk about really sensitive stuff and real stuff.”

That said, their relationship is already courting scrutiny online. American Society has its hands full unpacking such a loaded racial trope; adding in a love triangle with a white-passing woman of color pushes the film into even murkier waters. Will American Society ignore the complexity of Lizzie’s own privilege — her ethnic ambiguity — in order to bring her closer to Aren? Would it really take so much out of the story to make Aren’s love interest a Black woman?

Libii has been defending his choices since American Society premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, and his intentions are, fortunately, pretty clear. But whether they will work for an apprehensive audience remains to be seen. For his part, though, the director is more than ready to participate in the discourse.

“I’m excited for that conversation,” he tells Inverse. Hopefully it will serve as motivation to push more inclusive stories forward, rather than setting the industry back.

The American Society of Magical Negroes is playing in theaters now.

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