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‘The American Society of Magical Negroes: Collector’s Edition’ (Blu-ray review)

Universal Studios

An unfortunate movie trope gets the Men in Black treatment in The American Society of Magical Negroes, as a young Black man is recruited for a secret society of… well, it’s all in the title.

We have all met the magical negro. He helps Matt Damon improve his golf swing, drives Miss Daisy, and grabs Tom Hanks’s crotch so he can pee again. Sometimes he is a she, offering a pert “You go, girl” to the rising young career woman or telling her employer’s daughter that she is smart, she is kind, she is important.

Spike Lee coined the term to describe a run of films in which Black characters exist only to make white characters feel better about themselves. The magic can be literal (The Green Mile), but it’s more likely to take the form of a personal service… even when the white guy is supposed to be doing the serving (Green Book).

The archetypal magical negroes, Uncle Remus and Aunt Jemima, may have been cancelled, but their descendants still report for duty every Oscar season.

The magical negro has been parodied in various comedy sketches, most notably on MadTV and The Chris Rock Show. Which made me wonder how first time writer-director Kobi Libii was going to stretch a one-joke setup into a feature-length film.

The unfortunate answer is: not that well. The American Society of Magical Negroes is initially charming, sometimes eye-opening; but eventually, like John Coffey, it gets weary walking that last grim mile.

Justice Smith (Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves) portrays Aren, an art student who sculpts with yarn and tries to make white people like him. His evening begins with humiliation when a wealthy art patron mistakes him for a bartender, and nearly ends in the morgue when a drunk white girl accuses him of stealing her purse.

Fortunately Roger (In Living Color’s David Allen Grier) arrives to save the day. Affably bearded and chuckling like the chef on the old Cream of Wheat box, Roger defuses the crisis and sends the girl and her boyfriend off to a rib-tickling barbecue joint. The script skips past Aren’s initial disbelief and straight to the point: ever since the time of slavery, there have been magical negroes whose sole responsibility is save Black lives by convincing white folks that colored people are just here to help.

Aren says yes—it’s what he’s been doing all his life, after all—and is assigned to boost the career of Jason (Drew Tarver), an undertalented and overpromoted graphic designer for a social media platform called Meetbox. The company’s under fire for inventing a facial recognition system that somehow fails to recognize Black faces, which opens the door for Aren to pose as a diversity hire so he can get close to his client. Then a complication walks in: Lizzie (An-Li Bogan), a graphic designer whose leadership and creative talents have yet to be recognized. Aren likes Lizzie, and it’s mutual. Unfortunately, Jason likes her too… and by the rules of the society, the emotional needs of the white client must always come first.

Aren might be tempted to break the rules to pursue romance with Lizzie—except that all of the magical negroes’ powers are linked, which means that if one of them crosses the line, they all go down. The punishment for breaking the rules is severe: your memory gets wiped, you lose the charm that protects you from physical harm, and you get to live the rest of your live as an ordinary Black person, subject to getting shot by cops or simply staying invisible for the rest of your life.

From there, the story moves along predictable lines, as Aren finds it impossible to throw Lizzie into Jason’s undeserving arms.

This is where The American Society of Magical Negroes starts to feel unmagical. You can sense the whole cast pumping themselves up, as if willing the movie to become a disarming satire—there’s even a cry-from-the-heart monologue that goes for the same lump in the throat that America Ferrera achieved in Barbie—but the story never takes off, mainly because there’s not much story. Just a really long one-joke comedy sketch. The movie’s best moments take the form of training videos in which previous magical negroes re-enact thinly disguised versions of The Legend of Bagger Vance and The Green Mile. But those can only get you so far before we have to return to the very thin plot.

Now and again we get hints of where the movie could have gone—for example, a Cyrano de Bergerac-style subplot where Aren feeds Jason the words he wishes he could say himself—but the scripts never commits to this or any path, mainly because Aren doesn’t actually have a good reason to commit to his job. He can’t pretend to like Jason because Jason’s too obviously shallow for anyone to like. Consequently he spends most of the movie trying to summon the confidence to quit doing the job he was hired to do.

For a movie with magical negro right in the title, Aren doesn’t work a lot of actual magic.

This is the kind of flaw that’s exposed when a ten-minute sketch is stretched out to feature length: there’s no good reason why anyone would want to be a magical negro. It’s kind of an awful job. In the movie it’s partly modeled on, Men in Black, Will Smith’s Agent Jay is protecting our planet from intergalactic war. He has fun weapons to play with and cool cars and all those aliens. Jay isn’t just saving the world, he’s having fun doing it. But saving Black lives by making white people feel less threatened? Maybe it hits just a little too close to home. This is a reality that people of color have to live with every day, and it’s good for white people to know that. But that’s a message, not a movie.

There is a potentially great story buried within The American Society of Magical Negroes.

Whenever you have a character who’s pretending to be something he’s not, there’s a golden chance to show them learning to see through the masks that other people are forced to wear. In this case, there’s a scene where Aren is meant to be comforting Lizzie after she’s just gotten some crushing news at work. Instead of asking Lizzie about her creative aspirations—she is a seriously talented designer, after all—Aren allows himself to be coaxed into talking all about his own. We’re meant to think that he’s achieved a breakthrough moment of intimacy simply because he opened his heart, but it’s a one-way street. She’s just feeding him questions.

All of this suggests that Lizzie is playing just as limited a part as Aren: the role of the supportive girlfriend. Kobi Libii clearly had something like this in mind when he wrote the script—toward the end it’s revealed that there are other stereotypical-character societies besides the magical negroes—but it’s a tacked-on moment, never fully explored, and Aren himself never tumbles to the discovery. Consequently, Lizzie remains a cypher, and Aren never really gets to know this person he’s fallen in love with. She’s a prize: her value is defined by the fact that Jason also wants her, and Aren saw her first.

I suspect that the movie never really went there because it would mean dealing with Aren as a character with human flaws, rather than as a pure vessel for the film’s message. The message itself is important: white people need to get over the need for magical negroes, and Black people need to stop censoring themselves out of fear.

Comforting stereotypes may seem harmless—but, as South Park’s member berries illustrate, they can also serve as a sweetener for dangerous fantasies. But a movie can’t live as a message any more than it can live as a one-joke sketch.

To make a real story out of The American Society of Magical Negroes we’d need to work a different kind of magic: the kind where the characters matter more than the moral.

Extras include featurettes and commentary.

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