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THE AMERICAN SOCIETY OF MAGICAL NEGROES

I Universal Pictures I March 15, 2024 I

Starring:  Justice Smith, David Alan Grier, An-Li Bogan, Drew Tarver, Michaela Watkins, Rupert Friend, Nicole Byer

Directed By: Kobi Libii

A young Black man named Aren (Justice Smith) is recruited by an older member (David Alan Grier) into a secret society of magical Black people who dedicate their lives to a cause of utmost importance: making white people feel more comfortable and their lives easier.

REVIEW BY: Darren Zakus

RATING 4 out of 5

The American Society of Magical Negroes is a crowd pleasing film full of great laughs, a meaningful deconstruction of the “magical negro” character type, and a strong performance from Justice Smith that makes Kobi Libii’s feature directorial and writing debut a true winner.

 

A “magical negro” is the term, that was popularized by Spike Lee, used to describe a supporting African American character in film who comes to the aid of the white leading character. These characters have helped create memorable films, such as Driving Ms. Daisy and The Green Mile, but they have never been the focus of the film. Playing off this stereotypical character type, Kobi Libii has developed a satirical film that takes the premise and flips it on its head, making the magical negro character the lead of the film and the white character the supporting role. Libii has been working on the film since 2019, where it was part of Sundance’s Screenwriter and Directors Lab along with lead actor Justice Smith, and it has finally been shot and will be releasing this March after premiering at the 2024 Sundance International Film Festival this past weekend. And the results are a truly entertaining film with a secret romantic comedy subplot, that by the end of the story will have audiences re-examining their behaviour thanks to Libii’s very sharp and honest screenplay.

 

There is no doubt that it is the concept of the film that is going to draw audiences towards the film, and the world that Libii has created within the film is fully realized and very engaging. While set in our world, the mythical American Society of Magical Negroes at the centre of the film is full of rich mythology and magical rules that creates a wonderful second world to the film. From the rules on how the society functions, their magical powers, it’s history that pokes fun at some of the most infamous magical negroes in cinematic history in one of the film’s funniest scenes, and the lively characters that make up the society, it’s impossible not to become fully invested in the film because of it. Aiding the world building is a great musical score from Michael Abels which captures the mystery, wonder and magic of the titular society, resulting in a symphonic soundscape that further draws the audience into the world of the film.

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Libii’s actual story is very straightforward as it follows a new member of the society assigned to his first white individual to help, finding that his personal life and mission directives are in conflict which puts the magic of the entire American Society of Magical Negroes in jeopardy. It’s full of hilarious jokes and one liners, sweet romantic moments between Smith and An-Li Bogan’s characters, and some great dramatic moments from the always excellent David Alan Grier. While simplistic in plot, the themes about racism and the African American experience that Libii is able to deconstruct during the course of the film are anything but simplistic. Other films in the past year have looked at racism, such as Origin and American Fiction to great effect, but Libii does not repeat the ideas raised by these films, but instead adds another perspective to the conversation. Every character that Libii has written in the film, both African American and white, is grounded and not a mustache twirling caricature, which allows more subtle racist tendencies to be explored. While obvious to the viewers watching the film as Libii’s writing and direction makes sure to highlight these racist tendencies using either humour or the emotional response of Smith’s character, they are subtle actions that some people may not even realize that are racist as they are not racist monsters that we tend to associate racism with, which makes the climactic scene of the final act that much more powerful when Smith’s character finally speaks his truth and addresses these actions head on. The scene itself is truly an incredible scene, where Libii and the cast mix humour, frustration, naiveness and emotion for a truly explosive moment in the film that will have you laughing, feeling emotional and holding your breath as you are stunned by everything that is happening in it, which drives home the message and theme of the film.

 

Leading the film is Smith as Aren, who has had no shortage of prominent roles in major films over the past few years, but this role truly lets him to showcase his acting abilities. He has the awkward persona that he has brought to so many roles, but the insightful screenplay from Libii gives Smith some truly challenging scenes that allow him to tap into talents he has not previously been able to showcase in his past roles. His romantic chemistry with Bogan is adorable, creating a truly sweet romantic comedy subplot, proving his versatility as an actor. Bogan is great as Lizzie, helping to create the emotional heart of the film outside of the social commentary, while Rupert Friend, Nicole Byer, and Michaela Watkins all have memorable comedic moments. Drew Tarver stands out as Jason, Aren’s subject for his first assignment, capturing a great sense of humour for this privileged white male, while making him human so that even though his actions are undeniably racist, he is never an evil character but one the audience is able to sympathize with. Though, the best performance of the film belongs to Grier as Roger, Aren’s mentor within the American Society of Magical Negroes. Grier brings a true wisdom and lived experience to the role that makes his character complex and an excellent mentor as he breaks down the magical negro stereotype to find a human character at the centre of it, that combined with Grier’s talents as an actor, allows him to steal every scene of the film he is in with his magnetic screen presence.

 

Every film that has tackled racism in the past year has done something different to create important and insightful discussion in cinema surrounding these real life issues we have in our world today. They have all tackled these topics in different genres, but the fantasy and romantic comedy elements of The American Society of Magical Negroes helps to create the most crowd pleasing film to tackle this subject matter with an honesty, absolutely hilarious comedic sense, and an endearing emotional subcurrent that ensures that audiences are treated to an information yet whimsical experience. With excellent performances from the entire cast and a spectacular performance from David Alan Grier, Kobi Libii’s first film is nothing short of a great debut that makes The American Society of Magical Negroes a truly delightful film with a biting social commentary which has the intended effect on audiences.

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