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Sundance Film Review: The American Society of Magical Negroes

Film Reviews

Sundance Film Review: The American Society of Magical Negroes
Director: Kobi Libii

Offscreen and Sight Unseen
Premiere: 01.19

During a lecture tour in 2001, director Spike Lee coined the term “Magical Negro” in reference to the trope of amiable Black supporting characters who come to the aid a white protagonist and advances their story. The American Society of Magical Negroes runs with this concept to create one of the most important comedies of the century.

Aren (Justice Smith, Pokémon: Detective Pikachu), a 27-year-old sculptor, is mistaken for a mugger by a group of white people one night when Roger (David Alan Grier, The Color Purple), a kindly old Black man with a long gray beard appears out of the shadows to share some homespun wisdom and give everyone a warm, fuzzy feeling, saving Aren from being hurt or worse. As it turns out, this meeting is no accident: Roger is there to recruit Aren to a super-secret organization that exists to calm down uncomfortable white people, creating a safer and less violent world for Black people. This sort of behavior is second nature to Aren anyway, and he joins the Society’s mission. 

Aren’s first assigned “client” is Jason (Drew Tarver, The Other Two), a frustrated designer at a big tech company who just wants to get ahead and feels like he can’t catch a break. The task of keeping Jason confident, focused and above all, calm, seems easy enough, and it comes with an added perk: Aren strikes up an almost instant spark with Jason’s coworker Lizzie (An-Li Bogan, After Yang). Things get complicated, however, when Jason suddenly decides that he wants to be with Lizzie, and breaks the code of the Magical Negroes which states that you can never put your desires ahead of the client’s wants. If Aren the timid Aaron dares, for once in his life, go after what he wants, the betrayal of this code could endanger the magic of the entire Society and the future of Black Americans.

In an amazing feature debut, writer-director Kobi Libii has taken the age-old stereotype, popularized by Uncle Remus in Disney’s Song of the South, and cleverly mixed it with the basic story formula of Men in Black to tell a story that is both timely and long overdue. The American Society of Magical Negroes is an uproariously sharp-edged satire not only of American cinema, but of American culture, history and morality. Whether pointedly tracing the origins of the Society to Monticello, the home of Founding Father and infamous slave owner Thomas Jefferson, or giving us dead-on parodies of films ranging from The Defiant Ones to The Green Mile and The Legend of Bagger Vance, Libii doesn’t pull any punches. This movie is going to make some people feel uncomfortable and even defensive. It’s also going to be deeply cathartic for others, and hopefully, the majority of audiences with that approach will see a bit of themselves in it somewhere.

Smith, who just gets better with each movie he does, is a charming lead who is easy to root for throughout, and he’s relatable enough to allow viewers of any race to put themselves in his shoes. Grier, who got his big break on the groundbreaking sketch In Living Color in the ‘90s, is an inspired choice for the role of Roger, blending humor and pain to create an outstanding characterization.

The American Society of Magical Negroes is a daring, exquisitely crafted film that succeeds on every level, entertaining while educating and, most importantly, giving voice to thoughts and feelings that need to be shared and heard. It deserves to be celebrated and remembered, and Libii may be one of the most exciting filmmakers to come along in a while. –Patrick Gibbs

Read more of SLUG‘s comprehensive coverage of the 2024 Sundance Film Festival.