Director Kobi Libii wants to tell a different type of story about race with his feature film debut, “The American Society of Magical Negroes,” which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on Friday. “It imagines that being a Magical Negro is a real job you can go get,” Libii said at TheWrap’s Sundance Portrait and Interview Studio presented by NFP. “It’s a satire about race and representation and also, in its way, a full-hearted love story.”
For star Justice Smith, who plays one of the people inducted into this secret society of Black people meant to help aid white discomfort, he was enthralled by how Libii is trying to rewrite how Black stories are told. “Kobi is stretching the monolith of Black art,” said Smith. “This system is so layered, and the way we’ve metabolized it is so complex” that it can’t be distilled into a two-hour film.
“What we’re talking about are defense mechanisms and survival strategies for Black people navigating racism in America,” said Libii. The director remembers the first time his father explicitly taught him how to be polite and nice to cops, that there was a specific way he needed to behave. Part of the film, for Libii, is about overlearning those lessons and it allowed him to help process those childhood conversations.
“It’s a conversation with myself about my own capacity to take up space and be bold, and not try to assimilate. It’s also a conversation amongst us, as a community…and a conversation about being nice to ourselves,” said Libii. There also needs to be a conversation about what specific racial stories are told on-screen. “We need to be talking about race in new and different ways,” said Libii.
Smith also identified a lot with Libii’s script. “I didn’t know if every Black person [would identity]. I know that it was my specific racial experience,” said Smith. “The homogenous white spaces that we grew up in, both being biracial. I felt so much of Kobi’s specific survival mechanisms…that I also [said] ‘I do this.” The actor always wanted to be in a piece about race, but he understands how colorism plays into his specific place in those stories. “When I read the script I said, ‘this is something that I can give voice to.'”
According to the director, Hollywood has been good about telling about obvious racism like slavery. “What’s harder and more elusive is to tell stories about the systemic nature of racism and the psychological component of it,” he said. “The way it seeps into our brains and creates these biases and these ways in which we undermine ourselves. That quality of race and racism is really hard to tell stories about, but I’m interested in us exploring that and not just the way racism was in 1890, which is an important historical conversation but not necessarily the way a lot of us experience it today.”
Smith said it’s why Black creatives need to be allowed to tell all types of stories. “We have to keep funding Black film and Black creators so they can talk about every single aspect of this.” “Our parents teach us to the best of their ability how to survive and travail their world,” said star David Alan Grier. For him, part of this movie is an exploration of how different generations are looking at race. “We don’t, a lot of time, see the changes as acutely as the next generation,” he said. “By their very nature they’re more impatient, they want that change to be done now. They want more now.”
Watch the full interview above.
“The American Society of Magical Negroes” hits theaters on March 15.