Justice Smith and David Alan Grier (photo by George Pimentel/Shutterstock for Sundance)
By Bailey Pennick
“I always tried to get these magical Negro parts, but I never could land them. It was a real path of success for Black actors” says David Alan Grier, standing on the Eccles stage. He pauses, looking out at the packed house. “But now I’m just in The American Society of Magical Negroes and I think that’s better!” The crowd goes wild, not just for the eternal appreciation of the iconic actor or the film that just had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, but for what Grier’s words represent. Through Kobi Libii’s assured feature debut, the conversation of racial representation and roles within art and society can be had thoughtfully and with levity.
Set in present-day Los Angeles — with all of present day’s systemic issues — Magical Negroes follows a young man named Aren (Justice Smith at his most charming) as he’s recruited (by a stellar Grier) to join a secret society of Black people whose main goal is to make the lives of white people better. Because, you see, if white people succeed and feel good, no one gets killed. While the basic plot of Libii’s film might sound outrageous and serious, Magical Negroes nails the tone of an excellent satire. The theater was filled with huge rolls of laughter and shrieks.
Spike Lee, a director who is well-versed in the striking satire, came up as Libii’s main influence for this film because he is the one who first coined the term “magical Negro.” “He gave language to something I saw growing up in prestige movies,” the writer-director explains. “It made me uncomfortable, but I never had the language for what I was feeling until Spike said it.” This sense of language and shared experiences was paramount for the team as they worked on a film filled with joy and injustice all at the same time.
“It’s a joy when I get to work on projects with a sympathetic ear and mind,” says Grier, discussing the ease with which the team worked together without fear of speaking their minds and playing their characters with the authenticity they deserved. And as for Smith and Libii? Their creative chemistry clicked the minute they met in the mountains at the Sundance Labs. “Justice came up to the labs with me, which is a real leap of faith for an actor,” recalls Libii. “It’s a really generous choice.”
The American Society of Magical Negroes is a film that was nurtured through the Sundance Institute, with Libii participating in the 2019 January Screenwriters Lab, 2019 Directors and Screenwriters Lab, and the 2019 Lynn Auerbach Screenwriting Fellowship. Before the film started, the first-time director thanked the Feature Film program team from the Institute and acknowledged the power that being part of this community gave him. “This film would not be here without the Sundance Institute.”
To see more of the magic of the 2024 Festival, click here.