Early promotional efforts for Kobi Libii’s feature film debut “The American Society of Magical Negroes” failed miserably with Black social media due to a miscommunication of the film’s intent. At Sundance, where the film had its world premiere on Friday, invited a far more enthusiastic response.
The film is inspired by the “magical negro” trope, a Hollywood pattern of centering Black characters who cater to white characters originally credited to Spike Lee back in 2001. “The American Society of Magical Negroes” attempts to probe today’s race relations, highlighting the invisibility many people of color experience in the American workplace as well as other challenges.
There is a lot to like about Libii’s effort, particularly with the prolific Justice Smith (“Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves,” “Jurassic World Dominion) leading the cast. Veteran comedic actor David Alan Grier, as well as Nicole Byer, An-Li Bogan, and Drew Tarver lend noteworthy assists.
Smith stars as struggling Black artist Aren who is recruited into a secret society of Black men and women whose main purpose is to placate and bolster white egos in hopes of curtailing violence against their race. In keeping with the theme, Aren finds himself paired with ambitious tech employee Jason (Tarver). Although presumed a colleague, Aren consistently defers to Jason serving as more playmate than equal.
As the two men develop feelings for fellow high-ranking colleague Lizzie (Bogan), Aren finds his supporting role to Jason hard to maintain. Keeping him focused, however, is older magical negro Roger (Grier). Later, as the company MeetBox faces calls for cancelation for its DEI violations, Aren is even more conflicted to the point that not even Roger’s wisdom can save him from himself.
As an alum of both Sundance’s Screenwriters Lab and Directors Labs, Libii’s debut comes with high praise and expectations. He delivers in many ways, while failing in others. Casting is top-tier.
As always, Smith scores with his winning charisma. Grier is also extraordinary, striking the perfect balance between protective older mentor and father figure while also perpetuating outdated and regressive ideals around race and “Black people’s place.” The Chicago Second City alum lands many laughs. The overall look and feel of the film is impressively slick and modern, especially for a debut film. Unfortunately, it’s the narrative that presents the greatest disappointments.
Despite Libii’s many accolades in television and on stage as both an actor (“Doubt,” “Madam Secretary”) and writer (“Klepper,” “Boiling Pot”), the goals are far from crystal clear. During the film’s many attempts to call out general white cluelessness around the marginalization of Black people, especially in the workplace, “Magical Negroes” frequently loses its way.
Its insistence on adding a love story only confounds the problem. Just as Aren is unsure of how to assert himself in white company, Libii, who wrote and directed this film, demonstrates that on-screen. Many of the tonal issues come from an inability to commit to a specific audience, with the primary target here being white audiences and those Black people who exist primarily in white spaces.
Unlike “American Fiction,” “Magical Negroes” lacks broad appeal. That doesn’t make it a film without merit, but it makes it harder to sell to a more mainstream Black audience. Given that it’s slated for a March release by Focus Features, the latter could prove most difficult.
What the film does, however, is offer great promise that, with time and more thoughtful consideration and feedback from more knowledgeable race consultants, Libii can make the impact he seeks. Even with its faults, though, “Magical Negroes” is sure to spark meaningful and needed conversations around race among the audiences reflected in the film. At the very least, Libii shows that he is witty and adept enough as a director to continue working in his craft.
Focus Features will release “The American Society of Magical Negroes” on March 15.
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