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‘The American Society of Magical Negroes’ falls short of achieving its satirical mission

Built atop a provocative-sounding title and premise, “The American Society of Magical Negroes” starts and ends quite well. Almost everything in between, alas, proves uneven and inert in a way that dilutes its satirical punch, making this an interesting introduction for first-time writer-director Kobi Libii but a less than satisfying one.

Like “American Fiction,” the basic concept hinges on the way Black people are seen – and especially depicted in various forms of media – by a white-dominated culture. The “magical negro” refers, as the director’s statement explains, to “a narrative device in which a Black supporting character exists solely to serve a white protagonist’s storyline.”

Plenty of movies and TV through the years have fallen into that dubious basket, and Libii might have been better served by weaving in clips (assuming the budget would have allowed for that) instead of satirically replicating them, which is the approach employed here.

Still, the film gets off to a reasonably good start as Aren (Justice Smith), a struggling artist, is recruited to join the secret society by one of its members, Roger (David Alan Grier, easily the movie’s strongest asset), who observes his awkward demeanor toward Whites at an art-gallery event.

As Roger explains it, the shadowy society provides “client services” for white people in need of some sort of emotional support, because “white discomfort” represents an enduring danger to Black people. Gifted with semi-magical powers to assist in their tasks, the operatives proceed from a playbook that includes making themselves “acceptable to Whites” while still managing to seem authentically Black.

After his rapid orientation, though, Aren quickly embarks on an assignment that involves becoming the helpful pal of Jason (“The Other Two’s” Drew Tarver), an employee at a very-Facebook-like social-media firm called Meetbox, who wants to rise within the company’s ranks and realizes that he has a crush on Lizzie (An-Li Bogan), one of his coworkers. Unfortunately, Aren feels the same way about her, plaguing him with conflicted feelings as he endeavors to fulfill his mission.

While Libii appears to be going for natural and relaxed in the performances and interactions, there’s a flatness to much of what transpires. And while Smith has experience playing against fantastical situations (see “Detective Pikachu”), the character and the key rom-com component remain too thinly drawn through much of the film.

The ending nearly redeems that, but not entirely, or at least, not enough to endorse this as a theatrical experience as opposed to the “Whenever I find it streaming somewhere” option.

That’s too bad, since the core issue, and relegating people of color to secondary roles, resonates in a way that’s both timely and timeless, in everything from movies to the “Black best friend” trope in sitcoms.

Principally known as an actor, Libii found a way to get this ambitious project made, which itself feels like an accomplishment for a new director. Mostly, though, “The American Society of Magical Negroes” demonstrates that truly nailing this kind of satire requires a deft, if not magical, touch.

“The American Society of Magical Negroes” premieres March 15 in US theaters. It’s rated PG-13.

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