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‘The American Society of Magical Negroes’ review: Big swing, big miss

By Adam Graham, The Detroit News
Published: March 17, 2024, 6:00am

A toothless satire blends with a half-baked rom-com in “The American Society of Magical Negroes,” a flat comedy which barely seems invested in its provocative, high-wire premise, nor does it know what to do with it.

Justice Smith plays Aren, a put-upon young artist whose yarn sculptures are largely confusing to potential buyers. He’s so sheepish that he’s practically apologetic they’re not connecting, and he walks away from a gallery opening defeated, his shoulders slumped.

On the way home, in the midst of being framed for a robbery, he meets Roger (David Alan Grier), who recruits him into the secret group of the title, who meet in a “Kingsmen”-like clandestine headquarters and are headed up by the flamboyant Dede (Nicole Byer). Their stated mission is to make white people comfortable, because when white people get agitated, or nervous, that’s when bad things start to happen. As long as they can buddy up to white people and make them feel assuaged, or more in control, the balance of the universe is kept in order and life goes on.

It’s a callback to the “Magical Negro” trope in popular storytelling, in which a Black character exists seemingly only to make a white character feel better about themselves, or to overcome personal strife or obstacles. (See “The Green Mile” or “The Legend of Bagger Vance,” both of which are parodied here.) “American Society” brings the “Magical Negro” out of books and movies and into real life, and Aren is assigned a case where he’s asked to partner up with tech bro Jason (Drew Tarver), who works for a Facebook-like social media company.

Jason has a crush on his co-worker, Lizzie (An-Li Bogan), and as his new friend, Aren is supposed to help him pursue her. But he develops a crush on her himself — to his credit, Lizzie has a lot more chemistry with Aren than she does with Jason — but that puts him in conflict with his job, which is to keep Jason happy. Or… something?

At least the scenes between Smith and Bogan have a bit of spark; drop everything else and maybe there’s a salvageable romantic comedy here, since nothing else in the film works, not even a little.

Writer-director Kobi Libii only dips his toe in the water of the film’s thesis, and seems unwilling to dissect or interrogate it in any meaningful fashion. He gives his characters teleportation powers and a meter that reads whether or not white tears are about to flow, cute devices that are tossed out there but are never really explained or explored. Those touches would be fine in a sketch comedy bit, but as the backbone of a feature film, the ideas are frustratingly thin.

To make matters worse, “The American Society of Magical Negroes” leads to a Big Speech which undercuts most of what came before it and seems like the kind of thing that would be parodied in a better, sharper portrait of race and society. This is a movie where both insight and magic are in short supply.


‘THE AMERICAN SOCIETY OF MAGICAL NEGROES’

Grade: D

MPA rating: PG-13 (for some strong language, suggestive material and thematic material)

Running time: 1:45

How to watch: Now in theaters

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