Sundance 2024 Film Review: The American Society of Magical Negroes

In fiction, there is a character trope often called the “Magical Negro,” in which a black character serves only purpose in the story—to show up and help a white person get the knowledge, inspiration or resolve they need in order to fulfill their dreams and goals. The Magical Negro does not have any goals or desires or character arcs outside the role as help to a white character. The American Society of Magical Negroes opens with the question “what if that trope isn’t just fiction…?”

Justice Smith plays Aren, a struggling artist who lives in a constant state of anxiety and people-pleasing that stems from existing as a black person in America. At the beginning of the film, his subconscious need to accommodate and placate the white people around him puts him in a situation where a man jumps to the conclusion that Aren is trying to rob his drunk girlfriend (who initially asked for his help but then got confused in her inebriated state). Just before the situation turns violent and potentially deadly, David Alan Grier—playing Roger—intervenes and magically fixes the situation. The white people leave happy and Roger takes Aren on a walk. He explains that he wants to recruit him into a centuries-old organization called the American Society of Magical Negroes. 

Thus begins the strongest sequence of the film where Aren is taken to an arcane school (think Hogwarts for Black Americans) that is located through a secret entrance in a barber shop. He is taught that the society is the “Vanguard of White Relaxation” because the most dangerous animal alive is a white person who feels uncomfortable. Their job is to monitor comfort levels and intervene when the levels rise to dangerous levels (the device they use measures “White Tears” as the key indicator). Leading most of this instruction is Aisha Hinds (playing Gabbard). The training montage is hilarious and skewers films like The Green Mile and Driving Miss Daisy

The writing is sharp as a knife with brilliant satire that evokes equal parts laughs and yikes. The following “training course” mission involving a lonely and isolated white cop sequence is both silly and subversively dark. 

After that creative and exhilarating opening, the movie shifts back to the real world where Aren is tasked with his first assignment—help a graphic designer for a generic billion-dollar social media tech company whose fear and discomfort with his place in the world is beginning to escalate into dangerous territory. 

Though the skewering of the corporate lip service to diversity and the toxic environment created by white, clueless, insulated Tech CEOs is very funny and prescient, the turn from magical realism into “social media companies are bad and ignorantly racist” is a tonal shift from originality to expected and takes a little wind out of the films’ sails. However, the continued strong writing, great performances (again, Justice Smith is king neurotic mumbler these days), and real world comedy keep the movie going as we get to the climax which becomes rousingly raw, honest, heart breaking and equally hilarious. 

The movie presents the idea that the only way to be safe is to never make white people uncomfortable. And, especially for a Sundance movie, the film does the same. It pushes and prods and skewers the racism of white supremacy but never pushes quite hard enough to make us uncomfortable. Charm and wit round off and potential sharp edges. 

The American Society of Magical Negroes is an official selection of Sundance 2024, from writer/director Kobi Libii. Only in theaters March 15.

But, as a movie that already has mass distribution secured (Focus Features will be releasing TASoMN in March), it takes the Barbie approach. By boiling down concepts and ideas that, on their face, are considered controversial and triggering by some into a funny, charming and witty story, it makes them digestible. Instead of digging deep and really pushing back, TASoMN makes you laugh and root for the characters without feeling like they’re attacking the predominant American culture of white supremacy. 
And that was (one of the many) strengths of Barbie. While criticized by some as being too pedantic, safe, or mass market—it reached audiences who would never go near a 100-level course on feminist theory. The American Society of Magical Negroes takes a similar approach. And while some will wish it dug deeper or pushed harder, I could see its approach, excellent delivery and execution opening the discussion on racism, white supremacy and the dangers of being black in America to a wider audience. And I hope it really does. Because it’s a really funny, intelligent and heartfelt film.

Phillip Sevy
Phillip Sevy
Phillip Sevy is a writer/artist who has had work published by Dark Horse Comics (Triage, The House, Tomb Raider), Image Comics (The Freeze, The Tithe), and others (Paradox). When he's not at his computer working, he's planning one of the many D&D games he runs.

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