Review | ‘The American Society of Magical Negroes’: A bloodless satire that’s too eager to please

(2 stars)

“The American Society of Magical Negroes” starts with a promising premise: that the stock literary/cinematic character of a mystical, sometimes supernatural Black person who dispenses homespun wisdom in service of a White character’s story arc isn’t just a lazy, racist trope, but part of an underground network of real-life, modern-day Uncle Remuses and Aunt Jemimas who can teleport in and out of people’s lives. A Justice League, if you will, of supportive African American sidekicks who come to the aid of troubled Caucasians — in this case, a lovelorn Los Angeles graphic designer (Drew Tarver) for a social media app who’s stalled in his career and romantic aspirations.

But the feature debut of actor-turned-writer-director Kobi Libii takes that auspicious idea for timely satire and wraps it around a simplistic superhero plot that in turn is wrapped around what amounts to a fairly conventional love-triangle rom-com. The movie is something of a turducken: not exactly flavorless and certainly laugh-getting at times, but also overstuffed (and, in this case, a little undercooked).

The real protagonist, naturally, is not Tarver’s Jason, but Aren (Justice Smith), a young, aspiring visual artist who, when we meet him, is standing awkwardly by his yarn sculpture in a group show. When Aren is instructed by his dealer to court a collector, the White arts patron mistakes our mixed-race hero for a caterer and hands him his empty wine glass. It’s the first of many indignities that Aren will suffer.

Later that evening, when an attempt to help a drunk White woman use an ATM leads to accusations of mugging by the woman’s boyfriend, Aren is rescued, and then recruited, by a mysterious Black stranger named Roger (David Alan Grier). In a speech peppered with cozy “y’alls” and “ain’ts” and a tip on where to find the best pulled pork in town, Roger defuses the tense situation, then makes a job offer to Aren. How would he like to join the titular society, whose mission is not crime-fighting but monitoring the global output of “White tears” and then swooping in — with a carefully calibrated mix of what the film calls authentic Blackness and palatability to Whites — to comfort the afflicted? An uncomfortable White person, Roger explains, can be dangerous, even deadly. In the long run, the work of the Society is ultimately not subservience to Whites, but the saving of Black lives.

Touché, at least theoretically.

The film’s idea of what constitutes Blackness, however, is questionable. Is Roger’s countrified, aw-shucks submissiveness — a sort of racist caricature — meant to be seen as the authentic part or the palatable part?

What’s more, in its skewering of racial clichés, “Society” ends up trafficking in banalities of a different — yet just as overworked — sort. Aren’s first assignment lands him in a scenario we’ve all seen before: He and Jason both like Lizzie (An-Li Bogan), their fellow employee at MeetBox. Aren suppresses his love for her, not because he’s Jason’s friend, but because it’s literally his job. So much for life-or-death stakes.

The lightweight nature of the plot is, arguably, appropriate to the film’s gentle comedy, which elicits chuckles here and there, but rarely stings or draws blood. Smith also makes for an appealing, if frustratingly bantamweight, hero. It isn’t until close to the end that Aren shows any grit, when he yells at Justin, “Make space for me!” in a speech about how the two were never friends, because Justin didn’t really see him. It’s that feeling of erasure, of invisibility that is all too common.

In Aren’s satisfying flash of anger, “The American Society of Magical Negroes” briefly gets real. Otherwise, like Aren, the film itself feels overly deferential at times: as if it wants to make people comfortable when it should want to make them squirm, at least a little.

It’s tempting to compare the film to “American Fiction” for the two movies’ critiques of our culture’s hackneyed and gimmicky narratives of race. But the difference here is that “Society” too often panders to the very impulses it’s trying to lampoon.

PG-13. At area theaters. Contains some strong language, suggestive material and mature thematic elements. 104 minutes.

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