Many of us know the phrase “go along to get along,” and that can apply to the classic “magical negro” stereotype. Films such as The Legend of Bagger Vance and The Green Mile share a commonality of the leading white protagonist having an issue and a supporting Black character possessing some mystical insight/powers to make it disappear. Only when this ailment is cured the Black person is looked at as some equal — usually inside a world that sees them as being less than others. That role is problematic for obvious reasons, but there exist real-world connotations to it — some that writer/director Kobi Libii looks into specifically in The American Society of Magical Negroes. The premise and film are rich with satirical references and some laughs. (there are even homages to the previous films I mentioned with a twist). However, the main issue it’s striving to tackle is Black people trying to seem palpable and non-threatening to white people to avoid danger.
In the film, There’s a notion that for the sake of the safety of Black people, solving white people’s issues will prevent injustices and prejudice from happening. While the premise comes back around for American Society’s main character, the same palatability of the film hinders it and almost ignores the outliers of these interactions. We meet Aren (Justice Smith) inside a small art exhibit where he is the only Black person. He’s talented, but his extensive yarn sculpture is not garishing any interest from buyers. To make matters worse, he feels uncomfortable inside that space — always apologizing for “being in the way.” After losing his spot for the month, he heads to an ATM, where a woman asks for help. Being the good-hearted person he is, Aren obliges. To his dismay, she and her male friends accuse him of trying to steal her purse.
From the side of the street comes an older Black man named Roger (the great David Alan Grier), who can smoothly talk the people away from Aren. Aren doesn’t know that he’s about to be inducted into a unique society that is a small rift of Hogwarts Academy (they go through an opening in a barbershop wall). The American Society of Magical Negroes has been around for centuries, monitoring white people (or clients) around the world for anxiety levels. As soon as they see a spike, one of the wizards goes quickly to solve whatever problem that might exist. The rules go like this: you have to toe the line to be acceptable to white people while being Black enough that it makes them feel at ease.
Libii sets this up in a way that will prove to be the main conundrum for Aren. Why is it that the whole experience of Blackness has to be hidden for society at large to feel safe? It often comes at the sacrifice of Black people’s wants and desires for themselves. It’s a thorny subject, and many ways it can go are not always neat. History tells us it isn’t. The issue isn’t that American Society examined the subject, but even when Black people have done what the film is trying to examine, they lost their rights and died anyway. In Arem’s first assignment, he is tasked with working at a tech company alongside a white graphic designer named Jason (Drew Tarver), whose stress level has increased. While this is supposed to be a quick job, Aren meets Lizzie (An-Li Bogan) and soon develops feelings for her.
Within this particular part of the story, American Society looks to tackle a lot. The company critiques entities that propose themselves to be progressive and diverse only after a scandal. In this particular case, facial recognition software is not working on Black people. A less-than-charismatic CEO figure leads the charge of rebranding and “re-committing” to “representing everyone.” Inside the pseudo-love triangle, Lizzie has her own story of marginalization that comes with being an intelligent woman in the workplace. Besides the attraction she and Aren share, it brings them together. In this rom-com phase of the film, Smith and Bogan do a nice job of bringing it home — even if it feels like this part is an entirely different film. Aren is presented with a choice of sacrificing his potential happiness over perceived safety. This is at the constant barrage of being around Jason’s constant dismissal of his biases (“I don’t have a racist bone” and foresight of him being who he gives him a leg up.
American Society may succeed by the end of saying we shouldn’t avoid having those uncomfortable conversations. However, even that message feels like it’s been done repeatedly. I can’t help but tackle an extensive subject of Black people having to shrink themselves in a sweetened way. I could have used some more bite to it. In reality, there have been situations throughout history where Black people have had no choice but to protest and push for revolution because the real-life circumstances of being likable have hurt them also. Arem gets his moment towards the film’s end, where all his frustration boils to the surface, but who else gets that right without consequences? This film takes on corporate and societal hypocrisies, which will get some chuckles and maybe some self-examining thoughts. With that in mind, the premise contradicts itself, going for accessibility, which its own premise is trying to dismantle.
Photo Credit: Focus Features