The American Society of Magical Negroes

The American Society of Magical Negroes starts off with a ton of promise. Aren (Justice Smith) is a young Black artist who doesn’t realize how deferential he is toward white people. Then he meets Roger (the excellent David Alan Grier), a member of the titular group, which he drafts Aren into. The society’s goal is to measure white people's anxiety, then non-threateningly step in to make them feel comfortable. Making life easier for whites isn’t the point; surviving in white America is. Aren is quickly schooled in the art of using the special powers afforded by membership.

Writer/director Kobi Libii devises witty examples of the society’s practice in action, along with sharply satiric rules that must be followed to be as “acceptable” to whites as possible. Some big laughs are generated from this, in part because we know what the movie is saying about prejudice – overt or subtle – has a strong basis in reality. There seems to be every reason to believe we’re in for a scathing, take-no-prisoners indictment of race-based interactions.

Then The American Society of Magical Negroes stumbles badly. Aren is assigned to address the anxiety of Jason (Drew Tarver), a developer at a Facebook-like company called Meetbox. Here, he falls in love with Lizzie (An-Li Bogan), a coworker Jason has his eye on. Suddenly the movie turns into a dull romantic triangle. The hitch is that doing anything to benefit himself would cause the society’s members to lose their powers, so Aren has to constantly wrestle with the question of whether his feelings for Lizzie are worth it.

That takes up the whole middle section of the movie. Thankfully, it gets back on track during the finale, wherein Aren finally gets the chance to vent a lot of stuff he’s been holding in. Nevertheless, it’s too late in the game to change much. After such a strong start, the potential Aren/Lizzie romance is a letdown that adds nothing to what the story is ostensibly about. That’s no fault of Smith’s or Bogan’s – both are appealing, charismatic performers who do fine work.

The romantic sublot seems like Libii felt it necessary to make the plot more palatable to wide audiences. When you think of it, that’s kind of ironic, maybe even intentionally so. Either way, it doesn’t work. The American Society of Magical Negroes definitely has a few pointed beats that make it an admirable project. On the whole, though, there’s an inescapable feeling that it could and should have gone for the jugular far more than it does, especially in light of Spike Lee’s Bamboozled, Jordan Peele’s Get Out, and Cord Jefferson’s American Fiction.

Scroll down for a look at the Blu-ray bonus features.

out of four

The American Society of Magical Negroes is rated PG-13 for some strong language, suggestive material, and thematic material. The running time is 1 hour and 44 minutes.

Blu-ray Features:

Along with the original theatrical trailer and feature commentary from the director, the Blu-ray of The American Society of Magical Negroes comes with three well-produced featurettes, each running 4-5 minutes:

Secret Society Members: Cast and crew members discuss working with each other, as well as the movie’s themes. Smith reveals how the story is similar to his own racial awakening.

Crafting a Magical Society: This segment looks at how sets, cinematography, costumes, and color schemes were utilized to reflect the film’s themes.

Speaking Your Truth: Libii and the cast members discuss the movie’s ideas and how they personally relate to them.

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© 2024 Mike McGranaghan