Reel Reviews | The American Society of Magical Negroes (Sundance ’24)

by Charles Kirkland, Jr.

A young man is recruited into a secret society of Black people who dedicate their lives to a cause of utmost importance: making white people’s lives easier in The American Society of Magical Negroes.

One night after a failed showing of his “art” at a prestigious exhibit, Aren finds himself in a very dangerous position with a white extremely drunk white girl and her two brothers.  The situation is quickly defused by a man who was the bartender at the art show.  After a quick, almost cursory explanation of how he defused the situation, Aren is invited to join a very exclusive job tasked with the welfare of African Americans across the entire nation.

Written and directed by Kobi Libii, The American Society of Magical Negroes stars Justice Smith, David Alan Grier, Drew Tarvet, An-Li Bogan, and Aisha Hinds. This film is Libii’s first feature film.

The premise of The American Society of Magical Negroes is quite interesting.  In sum, there is a secret society of Black people who possess magical abilities.  The purpose of the society is to put black people in the world who make white people feel good, releasing their anger and thereby keep them from taking out their aggressions on Black people.  While on the surface, they are making white people feel good, in actuality, they are protecting Black lives.  Again, wonderful premise.  Unfortunately, the film abandons the premise by the second act of the film and becomes another film altogether.  Libii’s direction makes the movie feel a lot like Men In Black in the beginning and then Hitch toward the end.

This is Justice Smith’s second movie at the Sundance Film Festival and his performance in this one is much better than the one he submits in I Saw The TV Glow.  However, this little bit of praise is just a little bit of praise.  Throughout the film, Smith appears wooden and procedural in his approach.  He does little to make the audience care for his character and his chemistry with everyone else on the screen is slightly off.  At first, the chemistry problems seem a function of the character but as the character is supposed to grow through the film, Smith’s performance does not. It is an average performance at best.

Average at best seems to be the theme that debut director Kobi Libii is striving for with this film.  Instead of creating a movie that deeply dives into the trope of the Magical Negro, this film just lightly brushes over the topic.  There is one scene towards the end of the film that expresses the ridiculousness of the existence of the society but it is so mired in crosstalk and diversion that the point gets lost.  Not to mention that the theme has changed from satire to romance by the time the scene occurs. The American Society of Magical Negroes ends up being a very safe movie, one that will continue to allow white people to feel good and thereby succumbs to the trope it should have attacked.

Grade:  C