Sundance has a long history of screening films that tackle issues of race in the U.S. from every possible angle. Some are angry (Birth of a Nation, 2016), some satirical (Dear White People, 2014), and some quite gonzo (Sorry to Bother You, 2018).
Kobi Libii’s feature debut The American Society of Magical Negroes has the distinction of going for all three, and while it results in a wildly uneven tone, there’s something refreshing about its thoughtfulness. Cord Jefferson’s recent TIFF hit, American Fiction, arguably did a better job of balancing character and politics. But Libii is a talented world-builder, whether taking us into the esoteric halls of an all-Black Hogwarts, or the absurdly boho offices of a largely white Silicon Valley dot-com.
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The title is probably the most provocative thing about it, but even that comes with a spoonful of sugar. A pre-credits title card affirms the role of the “magical negro” as a supporting character in TV, books, and movies that exist solely to affirm the white (usually male) lead. We may think they exist only in fiction, but Libii assures us that “others know the truth.” We learn more of this via Aren (Justice Smith), a young Black artist taking part in a group show with his latest piece, a mysterious rack of yarn.
No one is buying, so his agent sends him off to schmooze a wealthy collector. But instead of spotting his latent talent, the collector mistakes him for a bus boy and hands him his empty glass.
The night is a bust. Aren is fired, bins his artwork, and heads home. In the meantime, however, it appears his true potential has been spotted by someone else: Roger the bartender (David Alan Grier). Following Aren, Roger heads off a potentially dangerous confrontation when Aren is accused of stealing a drunk white woman’s purse.
Calming things down with an unexpected act of magic, Roger whisks Aren away for a job interview. Climbing through the wall of a barber shop, they enter a secret society — The American Society of Magical Negroes — a fusty, fantastical place that Roger downplays as “a client services” firm. “Unofficially,” he adds, “we’re saving the damn world.”
It turns out that the role of the Society — a noble Kingsman kind of enterprise — is to stabilize the temperature of white society, a service initiated in the 18th century by the slaves at Thomas Jefferson’s 5,000-acre plantation Monticello in Virginia. The aim is to maintain equilibrium by appeasement, something Roger insists has done “more to help black people that 100 marches.”
The Society is selfless in that respect, and the golden rule is that its magic can only work in the service of the clients. Anyone who breaks it — makes the situation about themselves — will be banished forthwith, and their memory duly erased.
Out of politeness, more than anything, Aren reluctantly signs up and is given his first client: Jason (Drew Tarver). Jason is an ambitious tech bro at a company called Meetbox run by Mick (Rupert Friend), accurately described by his staff as “a free-market psychopath.”
Aren’s mission is to flatter Jason’s fragile ego and assist him as he climbs the corporate ladder. Which seems simple enough. But things get complicated when both men fall for their coworker, Lizzie (An-Li Bogan). Aren is expected to play matchmaker, but if he refuses to play ball and courts Lizzie for himself, he will forfeit the job and lose Lizzie forever.
If this juxtaposition of surreal and the mundane seems strange, that’s because it is, and while both worlds are satisfying in their own way, Libii’s film struggles to settle down. There’s also a little vagueness about the Society’s own rules, which can be confusing at times, notably when Lizzie becomes the chief point of conflict (does she have no agency in this?).
But The American Society… has a good heart, and that’s what prevails. Even Libii seems more interested in the love story than the message, which Aren delivers during the film’s messy climax: an important global telecast at Meetbox HQ. Commercial prospects are uncertain, but Libii is a talent for sure, creative and imaginative, but not yet fully focused. As Jason would say, “Clarity is dope.” But there’s plenty of time for that.
Title: The American Society of Magical Negroes
Festival (Section): Sundance (Premieres)
Distributor: Focus Features
Director/Screenwriter: Kobi Libii
Cast: Justice Smith, David Alan Grier, An-Li Bogan, Rupert Friend
Running time: 1 hr 44 min
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