Muddled Messages and Magical Negroes
104 minutes of light-skinned audacity
This review is part of my 2024 Sundance Film Festival Coverage!
When I first heard about Kobi Libii’s The American Society of Magical Negroes I was amped. I dug Justice Smith as an actor, The Get Down, Generation, and even The Voyeurs were roles he all managed to knock out of the park. Also, David Allen Grier being part of it pushed my excitement up a bit more. The trailer release tweet has mad comments and QT’s but—not everyone was excited.
It was the film description that split the timeline:
The American Society of Magical Negroes is a fresh, satirical comedy about a young man, Aren, who is recruited into a secret society of magical Black people who dedicate their lives to a cause of utmost importance: making white people’s lives easier.
Black Film Twitter and Higher Education Twitter were holding hands as they condescendingly explained things like satire and what the Magical Negro trope was to anyone who tweeted practically anything about the film. So when it was announced that the film was going to be showing at Sundance, I made sure that when I got here I would cover my ears like a kindergartner so I wouldn’t overhear anything before I got to screen it for myself. I avoided reviews and conversations so that I could come to it with the same original excitement and vibes that I had when I first got wind of the film.
My time came to watch Aren (Justice Smith), an overly polite struggling artist who can't sell his yarn-filled artwork, connect with Roger (David Allen Grier) after another failed night at the gallery. On his way home, a drunk white girl asks Aren to hold her purse while she uses the ATM, the same one that moments ago reminded Aren just how much of a struggling artist he is. When her white boyfriend and his
secret boyfriend friend arrive, they mistakenly think Aren is robbing her. Roger helps by magically returning the purse to her hands and suggests they soothe their (probably White Claw) filled tummies at a restaurant with food as good as his mama makes—or grandma, I don’t remember but like…you get it.
Turns out Roger is part of the society of magical negroes, which is dedicated to making sure white people always feel great about themselves, and so we have been set up to understand the title of the film.
I didn’t make it to the packed premiere so I went a few days later. The theatre I went to holds a capacity of 501, my packed screening had under 30 visibly Black attendees. I know because I counted.
My excitement for the film started shifting about 15 minutes in. I hated the laughter of the mostly white/white-passing audience as a reenactment of sorts of The Green Mile played during one scene. I cringed when they went into a loud uproar of laughter at a line about dialect change. When they giggled loudly as Aren held the door open for one white person but about 8 others just kept walking out—my blood was boiling. It upset me because as the film ticked on, I felt more and more that this wasn’t one made for me. It felt like one made for the education and amusement of white folks, and their laughter shaking the theatre was the most unsettling confirmation. Then I started feeling that the film was also meant to serve as some sort of wake-up call for Black individuals who, knowingly or not, align themselves closely with whiteness.
In director Kobi Libii’s interview with Variety, he says:
“One of the ironies is that this piece is about proximity to whiteness, and what that does to you, and the advantages and dangers of that. So I’m trying to write and make tell stories that are really incredibly specific and authentic to my experience, and part of that is trying to reflect the privilege that I have by being light-skinned and being biracial.
It’s part of why I made the choice to cast Justice specifically, to reflect that I know my relationship to whiteness and white people is different. It’s really important to be precise and not pretend that my experience moving through the world is the same as a Black person who is a different shade than I am. Mine is very much a Black experience, even if it’s a different kind of Black experience, but I want to be really authentic about that and I hope people can appreciate that.”
I feel like pretending that his experience moving through the world is the same as a Black person who is a different shade (darker) than him…is exactly what he was doing. The film started to feel very “SAY MY NAME TOO!!” and stayed that way for me.
Many light-skinned, monoracial Black folks and fair-skinned bi/multi-racial Black folks are not purposefully trying to be palatable to white folks. In fact, they often go to Amanda Seales levels to prove that they aren’t. I can't watch a film like this and pity Aren, not even with his late monologue. Not when you can easily find dark-skinned Black individuals, often women, on TikTok or Twitter facing harsh criticism for expressing opinions or honestly just existing, and the FIRST thing people go for to bring them down or attack them is their complexion—that makes it harder to sympathize. I don’t need for those traumatic stories to be put on screen (there are enough thanks) but I do need for those experiences to be authentically acknowledged.
This doesn't negate Aren's or Kobi’s experiences, or those of people like them, but putting it on screen in this way doesn't touch my heart or give me some newfound clarity like I think it was intended to. Maybe for folks who are non-Black it did but…not for me.
Apart from the main parts of the film being muddled, even with Justice fucking KILLING IT with what he was given to work with….a love story gets worked into the narrative.
I attended a film panel at Macro Lodge where the director reiterated his belief in the beauty and importance of Black love stories, as mentioned in his Variety interview, and how he hopes to be able tell one. I wouldn't trust him with this at all. While the romance between Aren and Lizzie (An-Li Bogan) is undeniably cute, it was kind of thrown into the movie. If it were part of a different movie I'd have reservations, because of the persistent focus on interracial relationships in Hollywood, particularly with a Black character—but I would have been more invested.
It’s frustrating to hear Kobi talk about how important showing Black love is, and a few moments later talk about how important it was for his film to think through how other women of color (non-Black women of color specifically) experience racism. It’s interesting how he really wanted to think through the latter in the film but also just HAD to let us know he knows how important the former is. Like….What?
It added to the feeling that exploring a Black experience on film, his own to be precise, wasn’t truly that important. What was important was thinking about how everyone who is non-Black feels, how they move through their own experiences, and how they interact and react with/to Blackness.
I don’t know what would have made this movie better for me. I want to say casting but that’s playing too much into the reality of it all, and it also wouldn’t be true to the personal story that Libii is trying to tell. I don’t need to be able to deeply connect to every film that features Blackness, but I hope to watch them and feel—at some point—that you had me in some positive part of your mind while making it.
Before I saw this film, I went to get food across from the theatre. I was the only visibly Black person there…it’s Utah. When I was leaving, A white man I had never met popped up and stood in front of me with the biggest grin on his face, and held up his hand for a high five. His expression went from happiness to angered confusion when I skirted around him and didn’t engage.
He only wanted to interact with me because I was this cool Black person he’d seen IRL—and it was so weird to have the experience right before seeing this film.
Another thing in the film that pissed me off was having Nicole Byer, a Black woman, at the helm of this organization. I just..don’t need it out there even more, satirical or not, that Black women will save the world.
There were only I think 100 members in the society and most of them were dark-skinned. Just something I noticed.
Go watch Rye Lane on repeat instead.
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