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The American Society of Magical Negroes: Intriguing Concept, Poor Execution

When Kobi Libii’s directorial debut, The American Society of Magical Negroes, was first announced, the controversial title and eye-catching poster had social media ablaze with opinions. However, audiences expecting a Black Hogwarts-esque experience were sorely disappointed when the trailer revealed it to be a satirical workplace romantic-comedy. Starring Justice Smith, David Alan Grier, Drew Tarver, and An-Li Bogan, this film wants to do a lot but ends up buckling under the pressures of its own premise and delivers a lacklustre final product that manages to do neither genre complete justice.

The 2024 film follows a young man, Aren (played by Smith), who is recruited into a clandestine group of ‘magical’ African Americans committed to making the lives of white individuals as easy as possible. The fictional organization functions under the motto that ‘white discomfort’ is the worst ‘nemesis’ of white safety, and appeasing white individuals is the only way to safeguard Black futures. Aren is an insecure artist who is recruited by Roger (played by Grier) to be the magical force in the life of Jason (played by Tarver), an engineer working for the fictional social media platform, MeetBox. Aren’s loyalty to the motives of the organization is tested when Lizzie (played by Bogan), a coworker at MeetBox, catches the eyes of both Aren and Jason.

The concept is meant to be a satirical critique of the ‘Magical Negro’ trope first coined by filmmaker Spike Lee in 2002 to describe the stock side character of color in the white-dominated film industry whose sole purpose is to provide words of wisdom and be a mystical force in the lives of the white protagonist. The film is Libii’s attempt at literalizing the trope prevalent in a major chunk of American cinema, TV, and literature. Movies like The Family Man, Green Mile, The Legend of Bagger Vance, etc., are all examples of this trope, and Lee’s lecture tour and Libii’s movies make digs at them. The trope perpetuates problematic power dynamics, ‘recycling the noble savage and happy slave’ trope, as Lee mentions. Libii’s is a commendable attempt to question this type of representation that impacts racism in ways that are invisible and intangible.

Despite its intriguing setup, the film fails to challenge the status quo or the audience due to its overly cautious handling of the issue, turning it into a mirror reflecting the status quo instead of satirizing it. It misses the opportunity to make a strong statement about racism and representation. Race satire is a tricky art to pull off without upsetting audiences; however, in its attempts to avoid this, the film falls for the same issues of characterization it derides. The characters are all one-dimensional. Information about the protagonist is scarce, making it almost impossible to know anything about the character other than the fact that he is a dull, insecure artist who studied at the Rhode Island School of Design and makes dull art from yarn.

The movie falls into the same trap when it comes to world-building. It lacks the coherency, structure, political awareness, etc., required to do justice to the grand vision of world-building. The script makes no attempt to engage with radical Black politics, as Libii seems to avoid giving the audience any opportunity to put his ‘fictional society’ under any kind of scrutiny. In the end, the film’s shift into a workplace romantic comedy is a blatant disregard for the original stereotypes it set out to challenge. This makes sense with the knowledge that Libii initially intended the film to be a two-and-a-half-minute comedy sketch; therefore, the script feels padded out to fill space and time.

An ambitious concept, the film fell to its knees because of a weak script. While its intention of talking about racial discomfort, satirizing the Magical Negro film trope, and challenging the very meaning of representation is tantalizing, the film cannot be held up simply by a Barbie-adjacent, enlightening speech that Smith delivers before pursuing his own happiness over his white client’s. In the end, the film is neither the scandalous bogeyman that enraged commenters on social media would have you believe nor the ambitious critique that the director intended, but a mediocre mishmash of ideas without ideas to support its central thesis.

Ditipriya Acharya



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