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Tobin Yelland/Focus Features

MOVIE REVIEW
The American Society of Magical Negroes (2024)

Spotlighted by Spike Lee in the early aughts, Magical Negro is a well-worn narrative trope involving Black supporting characters whose entire raison d’être is to selflessly serve the white protagonists. We’ve been told this story time and again, in popular movies such as “The Shawshank Redemption,” “The Green Mile,” “The Legend of Bagger Vance” and “Green Book,” to name a few. While now well-known and widely accepted in cinema studies, the academic jargon still makes many a white editor uncomfortable and prone to excise it almost instinctively as if it’s unfit for polite conversation. Unfortunately, this time they won’t be able to cop out and strike it from the title of “The American Society of Magical Negroes.”

Ordinarily these high-concept films built around making a point all end up being heavy-handed and didactic, but actor Kobi Libii’s directorial debut, premiering at the Sundance Film Festival, is actually fun. He takes the term quite literally, by equipping magical negroes with actual supernatural abilities. But they exercise these special powers for a different kind of greater good – to ameliorate white people’s discomfort. The most dangerous animal in the world is the white man, according to Roger (David Alan Grier), a veteran M.N. By placating white people, the Society of Magical Negroes is making the world a safer place.

Moonlighting as a bartender at an art show, Roger encounters Aren (Justice Smith), a struggling young artist of color whom the patrons naturally mistake for a waiter. He’s what some white people would characterize as “articulate,” without any trace of a blaccent. Aren’s nonthreatening demeanor does not ward off problems, however. While playing good Samaritan to a random white woman in need of assistance at an A.T.M., Aren automatically becomes suspect in the eyes of her white male companions. Thankfully, Roger comes to Aren’s aid and defuses the situation by dropping some useful barbecue facts.

Roger’s ulterior motive is to recruit Aren into the Society of Magical Negroes, headquartered in Monticello, Va. Being “articulate,” “nonthreatening,” accommodating and overly apologetic are all qualities that make him the ideal candidate. During their version of orientation, recruits watch some mystical V.R. replay of magical negroes’ greatest hits from the ’20s and the ’50s, with the aforementioned films providing fodder for hilarious reenactments.

Aren is assigned to Jason (Drew Tarver), whose facial-recognition technology fails people of color and thus attracts a flurry of negative publicity and accusations of racism against his techie employer, MeetBox. The mission is to ensure all of Jason’s wishes are fulfilled, so Black people can, you know, live. Inconveniently, Aren shares a budding romance with Jason’s work wife, Lizzie (An-Li Bogan), for whom Jason also pines.

The story culminates in a spectacular presentation given by an Elon Musk-esque tycoon, Mick (Rupert Friend), offering a public mea culpa and D.E.I. pledge while his underlings simultaneously shout over Aren, who’s been brought on stage to create the illusion of diversity but finally gotten fed up. There’s so much to unpack in one scene that it’s truly a magnificent sight to behold. There has never been another depiction about corporate lip service to diversity, equity and inclusion more on the nose than this. If only the E.E.O.C. would tackle this widespread phenomenon as opposed to, you know, just racial epithets thrown around the workplace.

For something that’s not exactly a Hollywood tentpole blockbuster, the film has excellent production values. The special effects are seamless, while the orchestral score provides the kind of lush, expansive soundscape normally only afforded big-budget productions.

Craftsmanship aside, “The American Society of Magical Negroes” is a real conversation starter. It’s sharp, observant, whip-smart, provocative and bitingly funny – and not just every time there’s a drastic tonal shift to deploy the magical negro trope like cinematic code switch. It’s like Charlie Kaufman, but polemical. While not a deliberate takeaway message, the film reveals that perhaps the greatest superpower of all is Black people’s inner strength to endure all the white tears and microaggressions on the daily.

Comments

This review had me laughing out loud and thinking hard at the same time! The concept of a magical negro society sounds outrageous, but it seems like the film uses it to make a clever point. Is the satire funny throughout, or are there moments that hit a bit too close to home? I'm curious about the tonal shifts the reviewer mentioned. Does the film balance the humor with the social commentary effectively? This sounds like a thought-provoking watch for sure!

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