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‘The American Society of Magical Negroes’ Review: A Racial Satire Wittier and More Scalding Than ‘American Fiction’

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For some of us, “American Fiction” has a satirical audacity that’s funny right out of the gate, gathers speed and force on the runway — and then, somehow, just when the comedy should be taking off, it turns muted and moralistic instead. I think the hitch is that after Jeffrey Wright’s Monk sells his fake memoir of Black street life, there’s a strong urge to see him — and the film — take a certain vengeful joy in how the book’s popularity skewers the racism of clueless white people. Instead, Monk is made so miserable by what happens that the movie never allows itself to discover that joy.

Had it done so, it might have been more like “The American Society of Magical Negroes,” a comedy of racial images that’s every bit as witty and scandalous as “American Fiction” (it almost feels like a kind of cousin to Cord Jefferson’s film), only this one follows through on the outrage. The writer-director, Kobi Libii, wants to make us laugh and twist our heads at the same time. He brings it off. “The American Society of Magical Negroes” is a deftly observant fantasy comedy that stays true to its own irreverence.

Yet this one, too, has a serious and circumspect artist at its center. Aren (Justice Smith), based in Los Angeles, makes sculptures out of yarn that the entire world ignores. And it’s not just the sculptures. In the art-gallery cocktail party that opens the film, Aren, who’s 27, moves through the room with a stilted awkwardness, and we’re cued to see why. The reason he’s so uncomfortable is that no one quite sees him; after all these decades of progress, he’s still the upwardly mobile version of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. When he’s told to chat up a potential buyer for his yarn sculpture, the man mistakes Aren for a waiter. That, the film tells us, is the kind of “unintentional” micro-aggression that can leave its target in despair.

But Aren is about to be rescued. After an awkward encounter at an ATM, Roger (David Alan Grier), who was the bartender at the gallery opening, comes up to Aren and coaxes him into coming along with him. He takes him to a vast hidden space, tucked behind a barbershop, that’s like the secret-agent chamber in the “Kingsman” films. It’s the headquarters of the American Society of Magical Negroes — a hidden organization of Black people who bond together to literally go out and become the saintly supporters, best pals, and homily-spouting life coaches of white people.

Why do they do this? The movie mythology of the Magical Negro has been talked about for quite a while now. “The American Society of Magical Negroes” has a wicked good time playing off those images — e.g., characters like Morgan Freeman’s devoted chauffeur in “Driving Miss Daisy” or Michael Clarke Duncan’s prisoner in “The Green Mile,” who exist for no real reason other than to help the white protagonist. Yet even as it’s giggling at the image of the Magical Negro as a hopelessly retrograde (and racist) big-screen trope, the film digs into the more challenging idea that “Magical Negroes” remain far more than a patronizing movie concoction. An opening title tells us that the Magical Negro is there in real life as well.

What the movie means by that is that if you’re Black, you will often find yourself in a situation — it could be on your job, it could be at a party, it could be anywhere — where unless you choose to make the white person near you feel good, and feel as if everything is all about him, you’re going to be ignored, shunted to the side, and possibly in danger. And what the film says, satirically but quite explicitly, is that Black people have so internalized this kind of coping mechanism that, in a far quieter form than you see in the movies, they make themselves into “Magical Negroes” in all sorts of insidious ways.

The film says that they have to do it; it’s a matter of survival (sometimes literally). The sly beauty of “The American Society of Magical Negroes” is that it’s a wicked satire of white people that’s also an empathetic satire of Black people. As a filmmaker, Kobi Libii sees the deep symbiosis in our racially messed-up society. In this movie, he’s talking about things that have been under the radar of mainstream culture for too long. That’s the film’s puckishly amused daring.

As Aren learns, the members of the American Society go out and make themselves into the submissive soulmates of white people, and as Roger explains, they do it because they’re trying to create a safer world for themselves. As Black Americans, they’re in danger the more that the white people around them (a boss, a cop, a stranger on the sidewalk) are stressed out. The more that they can lower that stress, the more collective well-being they’ll have as Black citizens.

This, of course, is a double-edged outrageous idea. The film demonstrates that there’s truth to it (which is its own outrage). At the same time, it deviously skewers the notion that Black people should have to make themselves into the enablers of overly privileged whites. The movie knows what an awful idea that is, yet it pushes it with a “celebration” that becomes a form of deadpan mockery.

Once he’s an official member of the Society, Aren is given certain fantasy tools and perks. He now possesses the power of teleportation, and he gets a meter that hangs in the air to measure the stress level of any given white person. A lesser movie might have turned all of this into broad farce. Instead, after a few deftly hilarious scenes in which the old Magical Negro movie tropes are mercilessly parodied, Dede (Nicole Byer), the imperious leader of the Society, lays out the rules of conduct for Society missions. Always make your demeanor acceptable to your white client. Always make everything about them. And above all, “We’re showing the client the parts of ourselves that make them feel good, and nothing more.”

The film assigns Aren to be the Magical Negro for Jason (Drew Tarver), a cocky bro of a software designer who works for a cool tech company called MeetBox, run by the guru-like Aussie bastard Mick (Rupert Friend). The heart of the film is set in the sleek MeetBox offices, parts of which look like they were built out of a giant Lego kit. “The American Society of Magical Negroes” turns into a corporate comedy, with Aren as Jason’s designer colleague and endlessly supportive best friend.

Aren now puts his slight awkwardness to good use. He’s always sussing Jason out, praising and encouraging him, dancing around what he wants. And the scalding thing is, all of this plays as perfectly plausible corporate behavior; so does the company’s sudden diversity frenzy after its facial-recognition software fails to recognize the faces of Black people (a scandal that’s quickly dubbed Ghanagate). But there is also a romantic hitch. Jason has another designer colleague, Lizzie (An-Li Bogan), who Aren met cute and flirted with in a coffee shop. The two are competing (without Jason knowing it) for her affections, but the Magical Negro element is that Jason didn’t even see her that way until Aren put the idea in his head.

The comedy is sly enough to come alive through the nuances of the acting. Justice Smith, in his solemn beard, plays a sexy geek with unusual flair, but he also has the tricky job of showing you Aren’s people-pleasing surface, the reality of his hidden thoughts, and the tug-of-war between the two; he brings it off with aplomb. Drew Tarver, who’s like a more laidback Will Forte, is the film’s egomaniacal stooge, and the glee of his performance is that he never overstates Jason’s entitlement; it’s just there. He also delivers one of the best “I’m not a racist” monologues I can remember, in part because Kobi Libii has written it with such an exquisite grasp of bogus liberal psychology. As Lizzie, An-Li Bogan is radiant but grounded, and David Alan Grier, in his white beard, plays the devotedly Magical but never toadying Roger as if he were pouring a lifetime’s worth of eye-rolling disgruntlement into it.

“The American Society of Magical Negroes” could wind up being quite the conversation piece, in part because I can see it igniting controversy. Is the film’s satirical point-of-view forward-thinking or in some way retrograde? I vote for the former, yet the risk the film takes is that it flirts with the latter. But by the end, any gloss of confusion is mostly burned away, and you’re left all too aware that what this movie is talking about is no American fiction.