Wednesday, May 1, 2024

Review: The American Society of Magical Negroes

A poignant exploration of racism and appeasement wrapped in sarcastic, quirky, rom-com magic. 

A “magical negro” is a sarcastic artistic term used to describe an inspirational Black side character whose sole purpose is to inspire, comfort, and motivate the story’s protagonist. Although they frequently appear in speculative films and television, they don’t typically have actual magical powers. “Magical” is a sarcastic reference to their ability to help the (not-Black) protagonist find motivation to work through their emotional obstacles. It’s sort of like a mentor but often with more of a folksy / self-deprecating vibe. I won’t list specific films or shows but, if you think for a second, you can probably remember a few examples. The trope of the "magical" Black person is not bad per se, but it becomes exhausting when it’s repeatedly used, especially as a way to give lip service to diversity while keeping diverse characters in background roles and out of leading roles.

The American Society of Magical Negroes parodies this literary and film trope by creating an actual organization of people who problem solve anxiety-causing issues for white people in the real world. If you are expecting some kind of Black version of Hogwarts or Shadowhunter Academy, prepare to be disappointed. The film is a sarcastic deep dive into society’s underlying class systems. It’s much more of a companion film to social commentary stories like American Fiction and Origin than to fantasy pieces like Harry Potter or Shadowhunters. There is some magic on screen but not much. The fantastical moments are meant to be a brief, humorous backdrop, not a primary plot device.

In the film, Aren (Justice Smith) is an extremely polite, young Black man and a struggling visual artist. After a disappointing art show he encounters a drunk woman at night who hands him her purse, causing the woman’s two male friends to accuse Aren of stealing it. Aren is understandably fearful of what will happen next. A kindly older Black man, Roger (David Alan Grier), appears and magically transfers the purse back to the woman. Roger then engages in charming, folksy banter about the delicious food at a nearby restaurant. This de-escalates the situation and the two men who were previously threatening Aren become friendly and leave happily with the woman. Roger then invites Aren to join a society of people who use folksy banter make white people feel more comfortable, then they pivot to inspirational cliches to inspire them. By doing this they help make the world a safer place for people of color. According to Roger, without this surreptitious placating behavior, the violence against Black people will escalate in America.

Obviously there is a lot to unpack in this premise. Aren is led through secret door in an unassuming shop and finds himself in a meeting room of Black people who have been granted minor magical powers in exchange for taking on assignments to be supportive advisors to stressed, non-Black people. Aren has some understandable hesitation about the mission statement (and even the name) of the group but ultimately (due to his dwindling finances) accepts a job inspiring a self-absorbed young man, Jason (Drew Tarver), at a tech company. With Aren’s help, Jason progresses at the firm at the cost of Aren’s own career hopes and at the cost of Aren’s love interest Lizzie (An-Li Bogan). Introverted Aren initially enjoys the opportunity to be accepted in his new workplace and to help  Jason. But Aren grows to resent his artificially subservient role. Additionally, despite her superior work performance, Lizzie finds herself cut out of opportunities because Jason’s louder persona is confused with talent by their bosses. The story has some additional interesting context: Aren is biracial (partly white); Lizzie is a person of color; and, although Jason is self-absorbed, he is not a true villain. In addition to the scenes of Aren’s adventures, we also see snippets of the other Society members working in various timelines and locations, inspiring leading characters. Each scenario references a famous classic film with the “magical negro” trope.

As you can imagine, this film is not for everyone. The title may mislead some into thinking it’s a high fantasy—it’s not. Although the Society members can time travel, teleport, and blink objects into existence, magic is a minor part of the story. On the other hand, the interactions of Aren and Lizzie make the film feel substantially like a rom-com. But the trope of the misguided romantic triangle (between Jason, Lizzie, and Aren)  is not the true message. The real story is about race and classism (and later sexism). The theme of the supportive, inspiring colleague quickly shifts to the more troubling concept of appeasement by those in the minority towards those who are in power in society. These uncomfortable, underlying themes will resonate with anyone who has felt like an outsider in a space that should equally belong to them. After several mildly humorous and ironic moments, we have a climactic scene where Aren decides to tell Jason the truth about his feelings of fear and erasure. It’s not a universal monologue on all types of racism but rather a specific niche of oppression felt by some people of color in some societal spaces. It rages against both the appeaser and the oppressor.

The ultimate messaging is sharp and meaningful but it may get lost in the rom-com hijinks. Like The Book of Clarence, the story is weighed down by an overload of conflicting film elements. However, for those who can relate to Aren’s dilemma of standing up for himself in a society that will then see him as threatening or alien, the film will truly hit home. The American Society of Magical Negroes is a good companion piece for other recent films on race, such as American Fiction, Origin, and The Book of Clarence. For those who connect with the story, the film will provide a lot to ponder and hopefully create a starting point for meaningful discussions on Black roles in film and in real life.


Nerd Coefficient: 7/10


·         A poignant exploration of racism and appeasement

·         Conflicting thematic elements

·         Heavy, biting sarcasm that may elude some viewers

POSTED BY: Ann Michelle Harris – Multitasking, fiction writing Trekkie currently dreaming of her next beach vacation.