The American Society of Magical Negroes Isn’t As Bad As The Internet Thinks. But Its Magic Is Missing

Photo: Courtesy of Focus Features.
Minor spoilers ahead. "How is it that Black people have these powers but they use them for the benefit of white people?" Spike Lee asked a group of students at Yale in 2001. It was there that Lee coined the term “magical negro.” And his now famous question is one that should ring loud in all our minds as we attempt to reckon with The American Society of Magical Negroes, the feature debut from writer/director, Kobi Libii, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah on January 19th. The “magical negro” speaks to the cinematic trope of supporting Black characters magically coming to the aid of their white protagonists. The magical negro’s own story is of little import. They are a vehicle for someone else’s growth, inspiration, redemption. Will Smith’s character in The Legend Of Bagger Vance or Michael Clarke Duncan in The Green Mile are just a couple examples (which are both nodded to in the film). And being in service to these white characters requires the “magical negro” to have a commitment to knowing their protagonist better than they know themselves. Black people, whether in cinema or the real world, know intimately who we are dealing with at all times. But who takes the time to get to know us? Who will tell the story of the magical negro that doesn’t begin and end at how quickly they can get out of the way to further someone else’s plot? Who will dare to ask the magical negro what they need? When will they get to be the hero of their own story? 
These are the questions at the center of The American Society Of Magical Negroes. We’re first introduced to our protagonist, Aren (played by an enigmatic Justice Smith), a friendly, overly apologetic, struggling artist, as he painfully watches buyer after buyer pass over his yarn sculpture at an art gallery showing. He is amiable to a fault; shrinking himself to near oblivion, turning into a human pinball to avoid even the possibility of being in the way of white people. His ability to deflate and defer to the white gaze and to the white people in the room is uncomfortable in its familiarity. As a Black woman in the audience, I understood the ease of Aren’s ability to slip into palatability. It’s safer. There were moments, like watching Aren fumble through professional settings with white people, that felt true and identifiable; Black folks will recognize the desire to put our own well-being to the side for white comfort. But at times, the film does exactly what it’s critiquing: leaving a magical Black character without the depth needed to sustain a story. 
We aren’t given much about who Aren is or how he came to be the skittish person we see who cowers to whiteness at the art gallery. Instead, we’re thrown right into a scene which presents the crux of the film’s plot. Aren comes to the aid of a drunk white woman using an ATM and —  at her request — he holds her purse and attempts to help, only for her to almost immediately accuse him of stealing said purse. The scene is riddled with clichés but will likely still manage to trigger the stress response of every Black person watching. The sinking feeling is palpable when two white men appear, one is the drunk woman’s boyfriend, to come to her defense. We know how this story ends. We know what happens next. But this is a fantastical film that makes great attempts to flip the script we think we know. And so we meet Roger (David Alan Grier having a lot of fun in a part that never quite deserves him) again. We first see him as the quiet, carefully-observing bartender in the film’s opening art exhibit scene. Roger miraculously appears to have found the young woman’s earring, and, in an even more auspicious turn of events, the purse that was previously and compromisingly in Aren’s hands is suddenly back with the drunk  woman. How lucky.

Black folks will recognize the desire to put our own well-being to the side for white comfort. But at times, the film does exactly what it’s critiquing: leaving a magical Black character without the depth needed to sustain a story. 

gloria alamrew
Roger takes Aren under his wing and invites him into a secret society of Black people whose sole job is to make white people as comfortable as possible. Why? As Roger tells it, it’s because when white discomfort rises, so do the chances that Black people will be killed as a result. The more at ease and happy white people are, the safer Black people are. Inside the group’s headquarters, we’re shown scenes of famed magical negroes from the past for the newest cohort to study and take inspiration from. What made them great, Roger explains, is their relatability, their kindness, and most importantly, their ability to focus on their white client’s needs — never their own. The scenes poke fun at The Legend of Bagger Vance (2000) and The Green Mile (1999) and elicited laughter from the Sundance crowd. For a moment watching the film, it seems like Libii is well prepared to take the audience on this satirical journey. But The American Society Of Magical Negroes’ limited world building and character development are its ultimate downfalls. While the film gets close at times (and I have to admit I laughed out loud and had some fun in the theater during the film), it fails to stick the landing on some of its most important messaging. 
Besides the frustratingly bare bones character development of Aren, we aren’t told much about this magical society beyond the fact that it dates back to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello estate. Its leader, a larger-than-life Dede (a criminally underused Nicole Byer), floats in the air and presents the final and most important rule of the society: should you ever put your needs ahead of the client’s, all of the magical negroes will lose their powers. It’s a daunting and almost too on-the-nose reflection of the discourse that pierces through the Black diaspora today. Should the desires and goals of the whole supercede the individual’s? What about when those goals don’t make sense anymore? These are questions (and subsequent answers) that I so desperately wanted The American Society of Magical Negroes to dig into but, again, the film never quite gets there. Any film about Black people is inherently a film about community, so it’s disappointing that we don’t really see that community in any robust or substantial way. Why does the society still persist today? What keeps them in such strict loyalty to one another? What are Roger’s motivations to remain within it after decades of service? What community does Aren even come from? 
Aren’s own loyalty is quickly put to the test when he’s given his first client, Jason (Drew Tarvet), a white, upwardly mobile tech-dude, whose discontent levels hit concerning lows the previous week due to his inability to move up the ranks at MeetBox, a tongue-in-cheek amalgamation of real-world social media conglomerates ran by billionaires with less-than-desirable personalities. Throw in the fact that Jason turns out to be exactly who you think he is: the boring, uninspired, racist office jerk who sees everyone around him — particularly women and people of color —  as professional and personal stepping stones to achieve status and that he’s romantically interested in Lizzie (played charmingly by An-Li Bogan) who Aren has also developed feelings for? Well, now you’ve got a good old love triangle. This side plot, for me, presents one of the more glaring failures of the film. What kind of statement does this satirical film about a magical society of negroes actually seek to make when our protagonist, a Black man, falls for a non-Black woman of color (who could pass for white)? 
Photo: Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images.
David Alan Grier, Kobi Libii, and Justice Smith at the Sundance Film Festival 2024
When Unbothered spoke to the cast and director on the red carpet ahead of the Sundance premiere, we asked Smith to respond to early criticisms raised about his character not having a Black love interest. He expressed empathy and understanding for the frustration felt within our community because we aren’t given as many opportunities to center Black love in film, “[But] I think Kobi [Libii] was trying to highlight the ways in which multiple ethnic communities experience passability, experience what it means to mold yourself into something acceptable. He was trying to draw a through-line and unite us all under white supremacy.” 
Libii echoed these sentiments and while he expressed the importance of Black love stories and his hope to make one in the future, he spoke to the responsibility he felt to not repeat the “empathetic failings” of previous “white magical negro authors” who refused to see the full humanity of  people who didn’t look like them. “I believe that white people who wrote magical negro movies weren’t thinking through the experiences of other marginalized people, specifically Black people. For me on this film, it was absolutely crucial that I think through the experiences of other marginalized groups, specifically non-Black women of color in this case,” Libii said, defending the love story between Aren and Lizzie. “I believe that intersectional work is really positive for the Black community in a different way than centering a Black love story is.” It was a noble effort on Libii’s part, but one that I can’t help but feel takes away from the larger responsibility he and this film has to its Black audiences. Is this yet another manifestation of Black folks making sure everyone else around us is comfortable first — perhaps, or even necessarily, to our own detriment?
The love story pushes the film’s message and heart to its final spiral downwards. We’re shown tepid moments of political commentary when Lizzie apologizes to Aren for failing to stick up for him when Jason reveals that he was on the project team responsible for MeetBox’s latest controversy. Dubbed #GhanaGate, the company comes under intense fire when their latest facial recognition tech literally couldn’t recognize Black people’s faces. While Lizzie, a person of color, is surely grappling with her own complex feelings, her brief apology in a shared cab ride home only barely acknowledges the racial hierarchy elephant in the room. She is what the film industry loves to call “ethnically ambiguous” (and the film itself never identifies which non-white ethnic group she belongs to). The movie never explicitly calls out the fact that she does have more power than Aren and could have stood in that power to counter Jason’s blatant and overt biases. Jason admits to Aren in a later scene that he didn’t even realize that Lizzie was “ethnic.” If her proximity to whiteness is being used to further the film’s racial satire, it doesn’t come through. 

I believe that white people who wrote magical negro movies weren’t thinking through the experiences of other marginalized people, specifically Black people. For me on this film, it was absolutely crucial that I think through the experiences of other marginalized groups, specifically non-Black women of color.

kobi libii
Furthermore, when Lizzie is told a big presentation opportunity is going to Jason instead of her, the audience is given yet another glimmer of what The American Society Of Magical Negroes could have been. One of the film’s emotional highlights occurs during a scene between Aren and Lizzie, as he’s trying to comfort her (at times it’s hard to tell if Aren is being a magical negro for Lizzie too), about the presentation. He recalls a story of witnessing a finance bro being mugged on the street. The mugger pulls a knife out and for a brief moment, Aren recognizes that the finance bro thinks he’s being given a gift. His monologue beautifully picks up on the almost imperceptible kind of nuance that Black folks notice. He talks about the level of confidence and safety that only a white man can walk through this world with; that in their minds, it’s more likely that a perfect stranger on the street would be giving them a gift than looking to harm them. 
“Just once,” Aren concludes, “I want to know what it would feel like to have that expectation of the world.” It’s these moments that sparked the biggest response within me. Aren’s moments of self-reflection and attempting to parse through his lack of self-efficacy and the persistent white jealousy he feels provide the film’s limited political bite.
In an emotional scene between Roger and Aren, Roger tells the story of going to see his dad, a shoe shiner, in town as a child and witnessing a white man spit on his dad’s head. His father, who Roger notes as having a temper, instead of responding with (rightful) rage smiles at the white man. Young Roger runs home, embarrassed and ashamed, and tells his grandmother what he saw. And it was her response to him — that as long as his daddy comes home alive then there’s nothing to be ashamed of — that has kept him in service to the society of magical negroes. It is a tough story to hear and it’s a powerful acting moment between Smith and Grier, but it fails to acknowledge the expectation of respectability that comes with this sentiment, or get to the nuance of Roger’s grandma’s advice. Should prioritizing simply being alive, instead of living authentically and freely, be the goal? 
 The film’s moments of biting political satire are few and far between, which renders the emotional climax confusing and hollow because it doesn’t ring true nor consistent with the build and rhythm of its preceding scenes. Aren commits the cardinal sin of the society and puts his needs ahead of his client’s and — finally — tells Jason about himself. In a crescendo of self-awakening, Aren comes to the heartbreaking realization that he deserves to be in this world. But how did he get there? Aren’s sudden injection of political thinking seems like it comes from nowhere. Smith’s skillful performance (one of the film’s bright spots is that it’s clear Justice Smith is a STAR) isn’t enough to render this scene as a satisfying conclusion to the film’s premise. 
In the end, The American Society of Magical Negroes suffers the same fate as so much of satire does. Is it for the victims of the injustice you are satirizing to feel more seen, or is it an educational tool for the oppressor in hopes they will, you know, tone down the oppression? In crafting satire, speaking to the right audience is critical. When Roger says to Aren that the society does more good for Black people than “a hundred protests ever could,” we have a responsibility to ask who he’s really speaking to in that moment. There are too many moments in which The American Society Of Magical Negroes feels like it is talking to white people. The most impactful and powerful satire can never serve two masters. We have to force ourselves to put white comfort aside and center only the stories, voices, and people that we’re trying to uplift. My fear is that this film will end up embodying the same hollow but palatable cultural resonance as the telling line delivered by the society’s leader, Dede: “It’s diverse. It’s different. It’s yummy. We like it.” 
This review was filed from the Sundance Film Festival. The American Society of Magical Negroes is in theaters March 15th. 

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