The American Society of Magical Negroes Fails to Juggle Two Worlds

The satire is Key & Peele by way of Harry Potter, but those disparate themes never completely gel.

Justice Smith and David Alan Grier in The American Society of Magical Negroes
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Inverse Reviews

One needn’t be a scholar of African American Studies to understand the idea of the “magical negro.” The concept has only been around for the past 20 years, a term that came courtesy of Spike Lee. But even before the perpetually fed-up director had the guts to say the quiet part loud, the idea of a Magical Negro — one with no interior life of their own, who exists solely to supplement the narrative of their white comrades — persisted in the American subconscious.

The Magical Negro is an off-shoot of older Jim Crow-era sterotypes, repackaged for the feel-good race dramas of the early aughts. If you’ve seen The Green Mile, The Legend of Bagger Vance, or even The Matrix, you understand the purpose of the Magical Negro. Sometimes they have mystical powers; sometimes their genial nature is a superpower in itself. Whatever their gift, the Magical Negro dedicates their talents to improving the life of a white protagonist... and assuaging their existential guilt in the process.

Conveniently, Magical Negro films usually exist in a parallel reality, one where racial bias isn’t much of a factor. Bagger Vance is set in Depression-era Savannah, where lynching and race riots were part of the routine — according to Lee, though, Will Smith’s title character is “more concerned about improving Matt Damon’s golf swing” than righting any racial inequality.

“How is it that Black people have these powers, but they use them for the benefit of White people?” Lee asked in 2001. It’s that question that Kobi Libii, writer and director of The American Society of Magical Negroes, wants to answer 20 years later. The Sundance satire takes a subversive approach to a time-worn trope, stitching skits on white discomfort with a fantastical, heightened world. It’s Key & Peele by way of Harry Potter, if the Boy Who Lived also had a habit of acquiescing to his white peers. Rife for potential as that may seem, American Society never quite brings these two worlds together, leaving you to wonder whether they had any business colliding in the first place.

Justice Smith and David Alan Grier are a perfect match in American Society.

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Libii’s eponymous society has existed for centuries by the time Aren (Justice Smith) is invited to join its ranks. A mousy starving artist with crippling anxiety, Aren is the post-modern poster child of Magical Negroes — if only he were just a bit more comfortable in his own skin. It physically hurts to watch him move through the world: when we first meet him, struggling to sell the curtain of multicolored yarn he calls a sculpture, Aren can hardly bring himself to speak to a white person with any semblance of authority. After striking out at the art gallery, he nearly crumbles during a misunderstanding with a tipsy white girl and her overprotective boyfriend.

Before things take too dire a turn, Aren is saved by Roger (David Allen Grier), a veteran Magical Negro that sees potential in him. He flings Aren headfirst into their alternate world, and it’s here that Libii’s vision shines through the best. The American Society’s HQ is suspended outside of space and time; production designer Laura Fox casts cozy, wood-paneled offices and libraries in a perpetual amber glow. Their magic is also fittingly antique, suggesting a way of life that hasn’t changed since the 18th century.

The American Society, Roger explains, began in Monticello, as a coalition between the slaves of Thomas Jefferson. Anyone with an above-average grasp of American history will find due reason to cringe at that particular observation — and it’s not the last of Libii’s references that fail to properly land. Fortunately the director and comedian doesn’t ever try to sanitize this world, or to glamorize the society. Magical Negroes make white people’s lives easier because they want to survive. They put themselves before their “clients” because white discomfort is deadly, and it’s their job to minimize it before another Black person pays the price.

A sweet romance feels like a last-minute addition to Society’s thoughtful examination of race.

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A Magical Negro “can do more for Black people than a hundred marches,” Roger tells Aren, in one of many pointed jabs to far-left Black liberation movements. It’s a sticky subject to get into, especially as police brutality becomes an uncomfortable norm and “Cop Cities” spring up across the nation. But before American Society can even unpack this topic in good faith, it takes a sharp turn into another genre, saddling Aren with a client at a sketchy tech firm and dropping him right into a love triangle.

Aren is tasked with managing the discomfort of Jason (Drew Tarver), an insufferable graphic designer with absolutely no concept of his own privilege. Their conversations are interesting enough, especially once Aren begins to recognize his worth and finds the courage to stand up for himself. The introduction of a third player, Lizzie (An-Li Bogan), completes that aforementioned love triangle: Jason, listless at work, takes a sudden interest in Lizzie at Aren’s suggestion. The only problem is, Aren also has feelings for Lizzie, which throws a major wrench in the whole “put yourself before your client” brief.

The American Society of Magical Negroes has one foot in the real world — but it’s never as interesting as its heightened reality.

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That, in turn, causes tension within the Society, as Magical Negroes are forbidden from breaking the rules — if they abandon their clients’ needs, the entire collective loses their magical abilities. The closer Aren gets to Lizzie, though, the more you want him to make a choice for himself. His inner conflict brings up interesting questions about the individual vs. the community, but Libbi is frustratingly disinterested in bringing those conflicts to a natural conclusion. The more American Society focuses on the forbidden romance between Aren and Lizzie, the less it seems to care about the magical world it’s built, or the implications of powers that only exist to serve white people.

Will Aren develop a new kind of magic by trusting in himself? Can the Society of Magical Negroes rebrand in a way that doesn’t strip them of their own will? These questions — and the questions Lee posed 20 years ago — don’t seem to be a real priority for Libii. If anything, American Society bites off more than it can chew: Its observations on respectability, passibility, and socialization are equally valid, but there’s no room to address them all while exploring a fictional realm. In the end, it feels like a waste of a good concept. The disparate themes of this story work perfectly well on their own, but together, it’s never truly magic.

The American Society of Magical Negroes opens in theaters on March 15.

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