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Sundance movie review: 'American Society of Magical Negroes' a witty satire

Justice Smith (L) and David Alan Grier star in "The American Society of Magical Negroes." Photo courtesy of Focus Features
Justice Smith (L) and David Alan Grier star in "The American Society of Magical Negroes." Photo courtesy of Focus Features

PARK CITY, Utah, Jan. 19 (UPI) -- Spike Lee coined the term "magical negro" during his 2001 college lectures to designate Black characters who only serve to help the White characters, not themselves.

The American Society of Magical Negroes, which premiered Friday at the Sundance Film Festival, asks what if magical negroes were real?

Roger (David Alan Grier) recruits struggling sculptor Aren (Justice Smith) for a job in the American Society of Magical Negroes. The film explains the concept, and demonstrates scenarios that satirize films like The Legend of Bagger Vance, The Green Mile and Driving Miss Daisy.

The actual society is a scholarly mansion revealed behind secret passages, like a Hogwarts for Black saviors. Roger also explains that White people are too dangerous when they get uncomfortable, so Magical Negroes' mission is to calm them down.

This is a poignant take on real-life racial violence, from microaggressions to killings of unarmed Black people. Writer/director Kobi Libii has the Society use magical devices to track White happiness to pick their neediest clients.

Kobi Libii wrote and directed "The American Society of Magical Negroes." Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute
Kobi Libii wrote and directed "The American Society of Magical Negroes." Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute

It is also something Aren already does but it's so ingrained in him that he is in denial. He buries his own needs and apologizes for things that aren't his responsibility just to keep other people comfortable.

Aren's first assignment is Jason (Drew Tarver), a designer for an app, who is approaching dangerous levels of discomfort. Aren gets a job at the app company and uses some of the Society's magic to be assigned to Jason's team.

Aisha Hinds teaches new recruits in The American Society of Magical Negroes. File Photo by Christine Chew/UPI
Aisha Hinds teaches new recruits in The American Society of Magical Negroes. File Photo by Christine Chew/UPI

Aren improvises some wisdom about graphic design to build up Jason's confidence in his work. Aren also has to enable Jason to be oblivious to his racial biases and actual design mistakes in order to lower Jason's volatility.

The film addresses sexism in the workplace, too. Jason gets assigned to pitch a logo that Lizzie (An-Li Bogan) designed because, their boss (Mikaela Watkins) says, he's better in the room.

Nicole Byer plays the leader of The American Society of Magical Negroes. Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI
Nicole Byer plays the leader of The American Society of Magical Negroes. Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI

Prior scenes made it clear that Jason is not good in any room, so he's definitely getting the pitch because he's a man.

Lizzie is also someone Aren is romantically interested in after they met in a coffee shop. When Jason expresses feelings too, Aren is forced by his job to build Jason's romantic confidence too.

Justice Smith stars in "The American Society of Magical Negroes." File Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI
Justice Smith stars in "The American Society of Magical Negroes." File Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI

Libii sidesteps the issue that workplace romances may be problematic too. Perhaps that is out of the purview of The American Society of Magical Negroes, but other films tackle that subject.

The film is aware of how Hollywood movies tend to treat female roles, even if they don't have as catchy a name for them. Libii's perception is not limited to race, as he takes some astute digs at app companies' opposition to unions as well.

Jason is a caricature who speaks in all the cliches White people use to prove to themselves that they're not bad people. Libii has empathy for them too as he points out they're essentially tying themselves in knots gaslighting themselves to avoid facing uncomfortable conversations.

But those conversations will eventually be a relief because the end result will not be "you're a bad person" as some might fear. It would be "you have work to do but we appreciate you not avoiding that work."

Ultimately, Libii clearly doesn't want The American Society of Magical Negroes to keep enabling white people but he has fun with the ways in which they can so blatantly do so. Instead of simply mitigating the racial issues, one hopes one day such a society could render itself obsolete.

Focus Features will release The American Society of Magical Negroes on March 15.

Fred Topel, who attended film school at Ithaca College, is a UPI entertainment writer based in Los Angeles. He has been a professional film critic since 1999, a Rotten Tomatoes critic since 2001, and a member of the Television Critics Association since 2012 and the Critics Choice Association since 2023. Read more of his work in Entertainment.