Way back in 2001, director Spike Lee coins the term “magical negro” to describe a movie trope where a Black character shows up only to help the white protagonist on their journey. They offer wisdom and mystical powers but barely have a story of their own.
20 years later, writer/director Kobi Libii flips the script with his new comedy The American Society of Magical Negroes. Right from the wild premise, you know this ain’t your grandpa’s movie about race. Libii imagines a straight-up secret society of Black folks who make it their duty to go around calming uneasy white people. Their logic? If they can keep whites happy and chill, it’ll prevent backlash and violence against the Black community.
Heavy stuff, but Libii keeps things breezy. We follow a down-on-his-luck artist named Aren (Justice Smith) who gets recruited by the Society’s bartender, Roger (David Alan Grier). After zapping into their swanky Hogwarts-style headquarters, Aren starts his new gig appeasing an obnoxious tech bro named Jason. But his job gets messy when they both fall for their coworker Lizzie. Now Aren’s torn between duty and desire.
While it doesn’t always stick the landing, American Society earns points for ambition. Libii attempts a tricky tonal balancing act between stinging satire, rom-com hi-jinks, and surreal fantasy. The result may be uneven, but the risk-taking is admirable. Visually, this world pops off the screen, with magic negro history lessons and corporate comedy colliding. The message about race in America may get muddled, but the wild ride offers some thought-provoking laughs.
What Happens in the Movie
Aren is a down-on-his-luck artist trying to sell his weird yarn sculptures, but no one’s biting. At an art gallery show, he gets mistaken for a waiter and has his own work ignored. Ouch.
After this disaster, Aren meets a mysterious bartender named Roger who reveals a crazy secret: he’s part of an underground society of Black “magical negroes.” Their mission is to use their powers to keep white people feeling safe and happy. Why? Because according to Roger, chill white folks are less likely to hurt Black people.
Aren’s skepticism fades when Roger demonstrates some legit magic, saving Aren from being falsely accused of stealing. Next thing Aren knows, he’s zapping into the society’s swanky old-timey headquarters to start his training.
For his first assignment, Aren must help a smug tech bro named Jason thrive at his job. But there’s a catch: Jason has the hots for their coworker Lizzie, who Aren also likes. As Aren helps Jason up the corporate ladder, he struggles watching Lizzie fall for Jason instead of him.
Now Aren faces a tough choice: does he keep focusing on his client Jason for the good of the society? Or does he follow his heart and pursue Lizzie, even if it means jeopardizing everything?
This unusual love triangle plays out in the clash between the society’s mystical world and the regular workplace. Aren tries to juggle his duties as a magical negro with his own wishes. But being forced to put Jason first leaves Aren wondering if this path is right, or if he needs to stand up for himself.
The premise sets up some thoughtful questions. Is the society’s servitude really helping the Black community? Or is it just enforcing old dynamics that should change? The movie keeps things light, but Aren’s journey invites some provocative laughs as he navigates race and romance.
A Visually Impressive World
One of The American Society of Magical Negroes’ biggest strengths is its worldbuilding. The movie crafts a rich visual experience as it bounces between two contrasting settings.
First, there’s the secret HQ of the Magical Negro society. With its wood-paneled walls, magical artifacts, and Harry Potter vibes, the society feels like a quirky Hogwarts for Black empowerment. When Aren first arrives, the movie has fun immersing us in this surreal environment, full of history and wonder.
Then there’s the regular corporate office where Aren reports for his first assignment. This provides an amusing clash as the magical alternate world collides with the mundane workplace. Having Aren navigate both domains highlights the story’s unique premise.
The production design sticks out, creating an immersive atmosphere. The costumes distinguish the corporate employees from the old-fashioned society members. And small magical touches like floating candles and appearing/disappearing doors liven up the world.
The visuals pop thanks to director Kobi Libii’s eye for color and texture. He fills the frame with little details that make both settings feel lived-in. The only drawback is we don’t learn much about the society itself beyond the surface-level trappings. Some reviewers wanted more depth to the worldbuilding.
But overall, American Society succeeds at forging a stylish environment where the supernatural and the everyday coexist. Libii crafts two different worlds that feel fully realized, even if one has more magical secrets left to explore. The rift between them powers the movie’s racial themes and Aren’s engaging journey.
Examining Race and Representation
At its core, The American Society of Magical Negroes aims to satirize and critique the “magical negro” trope that’s persisted in movies for so long. The premise of actual Black people serving as fantasy helpers for whites hilariously skewers the absurdity of the stereotype.
Throughout the movie, the society trains Aren in the art of making white people comfortable by being unthreateningly “Black” enough. This exaggerated tutelage highlights the tightrope walk Black folks endure in real life, forced to tiptoe around white fragility.
Ultimately, the movie questions whether this kind of appeasement actually helps the Black community, or just enables racism. Does subservience provide safety, or undermine dignity? Aren’s journey makes us re-examine notions of racial duty and self-sacrifice.
The film argues that, no matter how well-intentioned, Black people shouldn’t have to diminish themselves to accommodate white feelings. While broader culture still values the “magical negro,” Aren realizes he deserves to be seen as a complete human being.
Some reviewers felt the message got muddled, though. The themes operate on multiple levels, from overt satire to more subtle character arcs. And the rom-com plot splits focus from the racial commentary. The messy execution may blunt the socio-political edge, but thought-provoking insights still poke through.
While not executed perfectly, American Society still challenges audiences. It uses humor and hyperbole to pick apart why the magical negro trope persists, and how it affects real people. The story invites us to confront long-held notions of race and representation in media. Even when the tone wobbles, the core ideas resonate.
An Uneven Mix of Genres and Tones
The American Society of Magical Negroes takes big swings when it comes to blending genres and tones. This wild tonal cocktail doesn’t always come together smoothly.
Director Kobi Libii attempts an ambitious fusion of social satire, romantic comedy, and fantastical worldbuilding. At times, these elements mesh well, especially when the movie directly skewers magical negro movie tropes. These over-the-top parodies land some of the film’s best laugh-out-loud moments.
But the addition of the romantic subplot throws things off balance. As Aren navigates his ill-fated office crush, the broader commentary gets pushed aside for formulaic rom-com beats. The two genres distract and dilute each other, leading to an uneven tone.
Humor remains a strong point, though it’s inconsistent. When the jokes hit, they expose racial dynamics in clever new ways. Other times, the attempts at timely satire feel a bit toothless. The film never quite reaches full comedic lift-off.
While the wild tonal fluctuations don’t always work, they do showcase Libii’s creative spirit. He displays ambition in trying to blend these disparate elements into something totally fresh. The movie doesn’t always stick the landing, but it earns respect forboldly leaping in the first place. Viewers may experience tonal whiplash, but the genre mash-up offers its own bumpy charms.
Bringing the Characters to Life
The cast of The American Society of Magical Negroes features some memorable performances, led by Justice Smith’s poignant work in the lead role.
As artist-turned-magical-negro Aren, Smith brings plenty of charm along with nuanced pathos. His portrayal captures Aren’s deferential nature and dawning awareness of his own power. Smith’s thoughtful presence grounds the zany premise.
Comedic standout David Alan Grier nearly steals the show as the matter-of-fact mentor Roger. His deadpan line delivery wrings laughs from the script’s wildest dialog.
As Aren’s crush Lizzie, An-Li Bogan radiates wit and warmth. But her character is underdeveloped on the page. Bogan brings as much depth as she can to the underwritten role.
Drew Tarver amusingly inhabits the oblivious arrogance of tech bro Jason. He elicits cringes and laughs as Jason fumbles through tense racial interactions.
While secondary roles could be more rounded, the four leads each find the humor and humanity in their characters. Their dedicated performances mine the most meaning from the uneven material. Especially Smith, who announces himself as a charismatic leading man by making this messy journey so compelling.
An Ambitious but Flawed Satire
The American Society of Magical Negroes aims impressively high but stumbles a bit on the landing. While provocative and visually engaging, the film’s execution doesn’t totally live up to its aspirations.
The genre mash-up shows creativity, colliding workplace comedy and racial satire with fantastical romance. But the pieces don’t fully cohere. The tone wobbles unevenly from laughs to insight and back.
The worldbuilding provides eye-catching style, realized through strong production design and effects. But thinner characterization undercuts investment in the broader themes. We needed more depth to Aren, Lizzie and others to ground this wild premise.
Still, the shortcomings don’t negate the admirable ambition. Flaws aside, American Society challenges audiences with a gonzo race-focused romp we haven’t seen before. It may be something of a bumpy ride, but there’s courage in subverting such a famously harmful trope so boldly.
Writer/director Kobi Libii displays creativity and vision, even if the execution doesn’t totally fulfill the promise. For viewers craving something fresh, this messy magical satire still weaves an intriguing, thoughtful spell. While it doesn’t all work, the attempt at something bravely new makes an impression.
The American Society of Magical Negroes
Despite its messy execution, The American Society of Magical Negroes earns points for boldly subverting racist tropes in new ways. The visual flair and ambitious genre mash-up offer uneven but provocative pleasures.
- Ambitious and creative premise that flips the "magical negro" trope
- Strong visuals and production design
- Justice Smith delivers a charismatic lead performance
- Thought-provoking themes related to race and representation
- Uneven tone that mixes genres disjointedly
- Underdeveloped characters and worldbuilding
- Heavy-handed, muddled messaging
- Humor is hit-or-miss