‘American Society Of Magical Negroes’ Star And Director Get The Skepticism

Justice Smith stars as “Aren” and David Alan Grier stars as “Roger” in writer/director Kobi Libii’s “The American Society of the Magical Negroes.” (Courtesy of Focus Features via CNN Newsource)

By Lisa Respers France, CNN

(CNN) — When the first trailer for the film “The American Society of Magical Negroes” debuted late last year, some people misunderstood the intent of the film or expressed disappointment it wasn’t a Black “Harry Potter.”

“Hollywood historically has not done well by Black people and so it makes sense that Black audiences are skeptical when there’s a movie about race,” Justice Smith, who stars in the film as the main character, told CNN. “This film, it’s controversial, even in the title, and so it’s gonna ruffle some feathers.”

A satirical romantic comedy, “The American Society of Magical Negroes” centers on Aren, played by Smith, an unassuming young man recruited to be part of a fictional secret society of Black people who use their powers to make white people feel comfortable.

The film’s title references a trope in films and television, coined by Spike Lee, in which Black secondary characters exist solely to help white primary characters.

Director Kobi Libii told CNN the rom-com aspect of the project is as important as the satire.

“It’s a film about being looked at like a stereotype and how reducing and degrading that gaze is,” he said. “And the opposite of being looked at like a stereotype is being looked at by somebody who loves you.”

Neither Libii nor Smith took the reaction to the film’s first trailer personally.

“I hope when people see the film, they get the full context of what we’re trying to say,” Smith said.

Based on some of his own experiences as a Black man, Libii said he hopes the movie will spark “productive conversation about race.”

Casting Smith, a light-skinned Black man, has already stirred conversation and controversy, given the role that colorism has often played in discussions about race.

Smith said that Libii, who is also lighter-skinned, addresses the “false promise of assimilation” in the story.

“It’s this idea that palatability will save you and what we’re saying is that it won’t,” Smith said. “Our casting is showing that these essentially passable, palatable people of color, who talk a certain way, who dress a certain way, who are light-skinned, who appease and appeal are still not given a seat at the table.”

“No matter what, they will still be excluded and neglected,” he added. “And I think that sharpens the satire in that way.”

“If even a Black person who looks like Justice and a fair woman of color, like our female romantic lead played by An-Li [Bogan], if even those people aren’t given the full privileges of whiteness, then to me it puts the lie to the argument that if you just behave a certain palatable way, you’ll be included,” Libii said. “That’s just not true and so it sharpens that critique.”

Even with all that, Libii said it’s still a universal film.

“I think that white audiences will get a lot out of this. It is very specifically a story about my experience as a Black person,” he said. “It’s not every Black person’s experience, it’s my particular Black experience, but I think there is a real pleasure in watching a journey that’s specific to someone else and specific to someone else’s culture. I know I can empathize with stories of people from different cultures and I would like to hope that white audiences will be able to empathize with my particular journey.”

“The American Society of Magical Negroes” is in theaters Friday.

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