The American Society Of Magical Negroes review | A charming but gentle satirical comedy

Justice Smith and David Alan Grier in the american society of magical negroes
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A young artist (Justice Smith) joins a magical society to soothe white people in Kobi Libii’s directorial debut. Here’s our The American Society Of Magical Negroes review.

The American Society Of Magical Negroes is, in so many ways, absolutely nothing like 2012’s John Carter. It didn’t cost $350m to make, for one. It’s also very unlikely to set off a chain of events ending in Disney buying Star Wars (not least because, at time of writing, they still own it).

One thing they do have in common, though, is that both have been kneecapped by their own names – if for completely different reasons. Where John Carter is a pretty bland name for an accountant, let alone a blockbuster action movie, American Society is, if anything, a little too exciting; it hints at the kind of provocative, risky filmmaking that the film itself seems largely uninterested in tackling.

Not that American Society, unlike John Carter, had much choice in its title. Taking the phrase popularised by Spike Lee’s visit to Yale in 2001 – referring to the trope of black characters being used solely to help and develop white characters in Hollywood and beyond – and making it into a literal society, it’s a premise that really doesn’t exist in the same way without putting that name to it, even if the name does hint at a kind of radicalism the resulting fantasy rom-com isn’t all that interested in living up to.

It’s a shame, because the story American Society is telling is actually a lot of fun. Ever-charming underdog Justice Smith (Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves; Detective Pikachu) plays Aren, an LA artist who passively accepts the microaggressions (and macroaggressions) he receives from white people every day. After an awkward episode attempting to sell a yarn sculpture at an exhibition, Aren is recruited by mysterious bartender Roger (David Alan Grier) to join a secret society. Bet you can’t guess what it’s called.

The American Society Of Magical Negroes (Aren’s first request is that they update the name) looks something like a cross between Hogwarts and a Freemason’s hangout: all dark wood panelling, self-scribbling chalkboards and nice carpets. Using a loosely defined collection of magical powers, the group whizzes across America to cheer white people up before they get mad. Because, as Roger reminds Aren, “The last thing some people see in this world is an uncomfortable white man.”

The catch? If any of their members put their own interests above their “clients”, they all lose their powers and the offending party has their memory erased. So, when Aren is assigned to help the brilliantly awful designer pining after his crush, the stage is set for a bit of a conundrum.

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As conundrums go, it’s a nice one to watch. Smith and an effortlessly charismatic An-Li Bogan have a really sweet chemistry that threatens to turn American Society into a straight-up rom-com with a gently satirical premise bubbling in the background. Paired with Michael Abels’ sweeping, fantastical score, whenever the two are on screen together the film delivers exactly the cuddly gut-punch you’d want to watch while drinking hot chocolate under a blanket.

This sweetness, of course, rather dilutes the film’s satirical edge. The intriguing central conceit feels more and more sidelined as the film goes on, and the final act in particular feels much more like Jerry Maguire than Sorry To Bother You. It’s not hard to see why some critics have already accused it of pulling its punches – especially so soon after American Fiction melded drama, comedy and social commentary much more seamlessly.

Still, I found there was something undeniably likeable about American Society. The script might not be sharp, but it is snappy. The jokes won’t draw a gasp, but they’ll probably get a chuckle. The characters aren’t all that complex, but they are charming. Go in looking for a fantasy comedy with just a splash of satire and you’ll have a grand old time. Just don’t expect much more than that.

The American Society Of Magical Negroes arrives in UK cinemas 26th April.

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