Sunday, March 17, 2024

The American Society of Magical Negroes: A Review



The term "Magical Negro" is shorthand for a black character whose entire existence is to offer sage wisdom to the white protagonist. Perhaps a good film mocking this trope could be made. The American Society of Magical Negroes is not it. Boring, insipid and in its own way racist, The American Society of Magical Negroes fumbles badly whatever ideas rattled in its head.

Meek artist Aren (Justice Smith) is quickly recruited by Roger (David Allen Grier) into a secret society of black people whose entire purpose is to placate white people to prevent said white people from going on murderous rampages against black people. After practicing with an insecure white policeman whom he gives confidence to, Aren's first official assignment is Jason Monk (Drew Tarver), a web designer at Meetbox,  a facial recognition company. 

Unbeknownst to Aren, also working there is Lizzie (An-Li Bogan), a pretty girl whom he met at a coffee shop (after accidentally spilling coffee on her). To his dismay, Aren must fix Jason's professional and romantic life, one that includes Lizzie. Meetbox is in the middle of a scandal due to its failure to distinguish between faces in Ghana, a glitch that was of Jason's making. Despite this, Jason has been selected to present the new and improved facial recognition system to Jason's idol, Meetbox CEO Mick (Rupert Friend). It might have been Lizzie's work, but Jason still gets use out of his white male privilege.

Aren, however, is starting to get a sense of himself. So are other Magical Negroes, causing Magical Negro Queen Dede (Nicole Byer) to lose her ability to float. She has already expelled one Magical Negress, forcing her to live as a "regular black woman" (and thus, removing her protection from certain death at the hands of white people). Now she faces greater rebellion by Aren. Will he be able to lead his people to the promised land while still landing the "ethnic" Lizzie?

I remember hearing something about some kind of outrage over the word "Negro" appearing on black crayons. I figured that this was some kind of Internet joke, but apparently not. I came across a petition to remove the word "negro" from Crayola crayons because "negro" was offensive. Never mind that "negro" is the literal Spanish word for the color "black" and that the offensive crayon also contained the French word for "black" (noir). To the creator of this petition, the word "negro" had to be expunged in the same way that Confederate statues, the country music groups Lady Antebellum and the Dixie Chicks (now Lady A and The Chicks respectively) and Gone with the Wind needed to be removed. I read the comments by those signing the "No Negro Crayons" unsure if they are serious or seriously stupid.

Watching The Magical Society of Magical Negroes, I am reminded of this faux-rage because its thinking is as shallow as those who find a foreign language needs to be altered due to their own sensibilities (and as a side note, the creation of "Latinx" falls into that mindset). Writer/director Kobi Libii is not subtle about his ideas. The film climaxes in an America Ferrera in Barbie-like rant about how "this country wants (Aren) dead". I would argue that this country does not give a damn about Aren, but it has nothing to do with his race.

Rather, it is because Aren is, to use a good Yiddish term, a nebbish. Right from the opening, Aren is so meek and docile that it would be a wonder if anyone actually cared about him to even bother hating him because he's biracial. There's a quick mention by Aren that his mother is white, but this is irrelevant to The American Society of Magical Negroes. Whatever conflicts already existed within Aren about his identity are not explored in this blink-and-you-miss it moment.

As a side note, Aren's art is ugly and the gallery owner is right: if he won't fight for his artwork, why should she? His yarn art is being rejected because it is awful, not because he is black. This may be a subconscious recognition from Libii that he may believe his creative output is rejected because of his race versus the fact that it isn't good. 

Libii stumbles greatly in his worldbuilding. Within the first ten to fifteen minutes, Aren gets swept into the world of the ASMN, but there is no sense of mystery or logic to this universe. Who is Dede? Why is she the Queen of the Magical Negroes? Why does she float in the air? What does Thomas Jefferson and Monticello have to do with anything? None of these questions are answered. I am not sure they are even asked. Why not just jump into Jason's story rather than take up time with the insecure cop? Why also would Ghanaians actually want facial recognition? I figure this was to suggest that "all black people look alike", but again, would the lack of facial recognition in Ghana cause this much worldwide outrage?

The American Society of Magical Negroes ends with Lizzie herself being part of a secret society: SOSWAG (The Society of Supportive Wives and Girlfriends). I figure this was meant to be a great twist. I push back against that because Lizzie was neither a wife nor girlfriend to anyone, let alone a supportive one. It's the last unclever moment in a film that imagines itself much funnier and smarter than it is.

It is curious that Libii could have had a better story if he had put a greater focus on the love triangle between Aren, Lizzie and Jason. The accidental encounter between Aren and Lizzie in another other film would have been the beginning of a "meet-cute" story. We could have even made Aren a magical being, one of a long line of them, who finds himself falling for his assignment. There is potential in that idea. However, The American Society of Magical Negroes is more interested in trying to find racism everywhere than in mining its potential.

I cannot say what kind of actor Justice Smith is. The two other films that I have seen him in (Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom and Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves) have him playing the same type of character that he played here. In The American Society of Magical Negroes, he is playing what I think of as Woody Allen's illegitimate black son: a total nebbish, weak, meek, halting and stumbling. It is to where I now genuinely wonder if Justice Smith is acting or being. He has played the same character three times, so my growing idea that this is how he is in real life is not without some evidence.

No one really "acts" in The American Society of Magical Negroes, though I think Grier and Bogan are better than the material. To be fair, the brief parodies of The Legend of Bagger Vance and The Green Mile, heavy-handed as they were, did have the potential to be amusing (though the former used billiards rather than golf). I would argue, however, that 1923 and 1955 were different from 2024. 

The American Society of Magical Negroes is too convinced of its own moral rightness and cleverness to be good. It is not funny, it is not romantic, it is not insightful. It is worse than nothing; it is boring. I was nodding off by the end, awakened only by Justice Smith yelling about how American wanted him dead. I know America would not care one way or the other.  

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