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16 Mar 2024

A one on one with Kobi Libii, director of ‘The American Society of Magical Negroes’

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March 16, 2024 Category: Entertainment Posted by:

By Kharisma McIlwaine

The trope of the “magical negro” is one many of us are familiar with. A Black character whose sole purpose is to support their white counterparts in various ways. In those scenarios, the feelings of the Black character are either ignored completely or only addressed if they propel the white character’s story arc forward. Now, imagine an organization — composed solely of Black people — that are tasked with making sure that white people’s feelings are always centered, no matter what.

Writer/director Kobi Libii (right) on the set of THE AMERICAN SOCIETY OF MAGICAL NEGROES, a Focus Features release. Credit: Anne Marie Fox / Focus Features

“The American Society of Magical Negroes” tells the story of a young yarn artist Aren (Justice Smith) who is pulled into a secret organization, The American Society of Magical Negroes, when Roger (David Alan Grier) saves him from the literal threat of white tears during an encounter with a white woman at an ATM. The film also stars Aisha Hinds, An-Li Bogan, Nicole Byer, Michaela Watkins and Drew Tarver. Kobi Libii, writer, director and producer of “The American Society Magical Negroes” spoke with the SUN about the inspiration behind the film, the danger of the magical negro trope and what he hopes audiences will experience with the film.

Discussions about race are often held privately and are reserved solely for friends and family. In “The American Society of Magical Negroes,” Libii intentionally puts that conversation front and center while sharing some of his own experiences.

“I hadn’t really seen some of these conversations in a movie before,” Libii said “A movie is a person to me, in some ways. The viewers are sitting down and you’re having a one-on-one conversation with whatever the voice of that film, the filmmaker or the people that made that film is.

As valuable as it is to have these conversations with my friends or my community, there is just a different sort of intimacy to being able to have these conversations in this way.”

“Also, it’s just really hard to talk about some of this stuff,” he continued. “As a man, as a Black man, there’s a real shame to what I’m talking about here — making yourself small, being accommodating — it’s embarrassing. I’d much rather talk about what a proud revolutionary I was. I think sort of going first and raising my hand saying, ‘This is something I’ve struggled with.’ I hope this will be an invitation for people that might not be able to say that out loud to engage with some of these things and have some grace for themselves about it, too.”

Libii began developing “The American Society of Magical Negroes” first as a sketch, then the concept quickly transformed.

“I thought I was going to be writing a sketch, because it’s a big funny premise, and usually big funny premises should be about two minutes long,” Libii said. “Then I sat down and started writing it and got really absorbed in what I was writing. “It was a little darker than a sketch and a lot longer than a sketch, and I sort of took a step back and said, ‘What am I exploring?’ I realized I was exploring this very particular defense mechanism that I was taught on how to survive systemic racism and my own process for moving beyond that.”

From left, Justice Smith as “Aren”, David Alan Grier as “Roger” and Aisha Hinds as “Gabbard” in writer/director Kobi Libii’s “The American Society of Magical Negroes”, a Focus Features release.

Race and racism are always a touchy subject. The title “The American Society of Magical Negroes” in and of itself ruffled some feathers. Looking at tough topics through the lens of humor and satire, however, can sometimes make those difficult conversations much easier to have.

“Comedy is how you talk about taboo subjects and how you talk about the unmentionable,” Libii said. “At least for me personally — this is so hard for me to say out loud. The release valve of comedy makes it bearable for me to talk about and hopefully makes it bearable for other audience members to digest as well. It’s kind of always been the title, because it is the premise. I think I flirted with some other more bureaucratic names for it very early on, but I think part of the job of a movie is to sound fun. I always kind of feel like it’s my job to say, ‘No. I didn’t waste your time. I promise if you come, this is going to be a good time. It’s going to be nourishing, it’s really about some real stuff, but you’re going to have a good time.’ The title is fun to me.”

The conversation around inclusion in films brings us to the trope of the magical negro. For decades we’ve seen Black people cast solely as stereotypical characters or as supporting characters for their white counterparts. This trope diminishes the importance of Black characters’ lives by silencing authentic Black experiences for the sake of white character development. This occurrence is not reserved solely for the big screen.

This trope resonates deeply, because Black people experience this kind of disregard in their daily lives.

“I think the magical negro is a stock character, a recurring character that typically white writers have employed across movies and literary history,” Libii said. “It is a Black character who only exists to support the white lead. They don’t really have their own internal life, they’re not really a three-dimensional person. The Black best friend, the wise old man who comes in with a sprinkle of advice for the white hero just at the perfect moment. The reason that it’s important as a troubling trope to me, is because it quietly says Black lives don’t matter. It quietly says Black people belong in the background and white people belong in the foreground. The hero of the story is a white person and a Black person only matters as much as they’re adding value to a white person’s story.”

“The film is an attack on this trope, and also is an attack on that theme in American life,” he added. “Who gets to be the center of American life? Whose lives matter and whose lives require marches, movements and real effort to protect? That dichotomy is all there in the trope. Part of what I’m interested in writing about is how racism works now. There are so many important historical stories about slavery, segregation and racism in America’s past, that sometimes centering those stories can contribute to the suggestion that it’s over or that we’ve solved it. But we haven’t solved it, it has just changed how it has been showing up. It’s showing up in these insidious ways — in technology, in unconscious biases.

It’s not that there’s a literal second system for Black people the way that there was in the 50s, but the outcomes are still really real. Part of my job as a Black filmmaker is to try to make that difficult to pin down, insidious quality of racism tangible and visible for audiences.”

(L to R) Justice Smith stars as “Aren” and David Alan Grier stars as “Roger” in writer/director Kobi Libii’s THE AMERICAN SOCIETY OF MAGICAL NEGROES, a Focus Features release. Credit: Courtesy of Focus Features

There are many that believe Black people can shield themselves from the weight of racism by becoming a version of “Black” that is more easily digestible. “The American Society of Magical Negroes” addresses what is on the other side of assimilation.

“It’s a film about the false promise of assimilation,” Libii said. “The suggestion that if you just comply with the officer’s order, you’ll be safe. If you just behave a certain way or talk a certain way, it’s going to be ok for you in America and you’ll get the privileges of whiteness. But to me seeing a quote “acceptable Black person” who is as fair as Justice is and as approachable as Justice is… seeing him behave in these ways and look as he does and still not get those benefits really sharpens the critique that the rhetoric around assimilation is a lie, and that we’ll always be treated differently, no matter how “acceptable” we are.”

The attempt to be accepted and to assimilate is another coping mechanism used to divert white discomfort which can negatively and dangerously impact Black people’s lives in a myriad of ways.

“White discomfort can kill you,” Libii said. “I don’t think there’s any clearer example of that than interactions with the police. You’ll hear over and over again, officers involved in fatal shootings say things like “I’m not racist.” I don’t think they have an unavowed belief. I don’t think they’re members of the Klan, but for a split second unconsciously, a Black body just seems dangerous to them. That discomfort with our bodies can kill us. That is the most extreme version of what I’m writing about. Historically, that discomfort terrorism can be much more direct.

That reality is one that I’m incredibly grateful to not have to live under, but that generational trauma still abides. Both as a generational legacy and as a real thing that can happen to us now, it can be a very high stakes thing when white people are uncomfortable and we’re around.”

Black people have been indoctrinated to center whiteness as a means of survival. An uncomfortable truth is that white fragility literally jeopardizes the safety of Black people and living within that existence is exhausting. It is important to note that it is not the duty of Black people to make white people feel safe or comfortable. Racism exists — that reality makes many uncomfortable, but discomfort and truth often walk hand in hand. It is the responsibility of each of us to do the introspective work required to deconstruct the racist system, and to learn to value other people’s lived experiences, especially when they do not mirror your own.

Ultimately, the conversation needs to continue. Libii shared his hopes for “The American Society of Magical Negroes” to do just that.

“One of my big aspirations for this film was trying to be better than the white authors with magical negro movies, and by better I mean more empathetic to the experiences of other marginalized people,” he said. “The way I think about my job as an artist is to do two things; be incredibly honest, especially about things that are a little embarrassing to me, may be hard to talk about or that I think people aren’t talking about, and then also to be incredibly entertaining. I feel like ethically and aesthetically if I’m doing those two things, then people get different stuff out of it, but they get something real out of it. These issues are very raw, they’re really challenging conversations in some cases, so the ball is going to bounce differently for different audiences. But, I’d like to think anyone who has felt pushed into the background or othered, especially Black people, will feel a little bolder and a little bigger after watching the film.”

“The American Society of Magical Negroes” opens in theaters nationwide on March 15. Check your local listings for showtimes and locations.

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