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Movie ‘The American Society of Magical Negroes’ uses satire to address race

Christopher A. Daniel – The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (TNS)

In 2003, Kobi Libii was visiting Atlanta for the first time to compete in a debate tournament at Ebenezer Baptist Church. It was a moment which deeply influenced his career, he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The Indiana native said he stood at the podium where Martin Luther King Jr. preached four decades earlier and delivered his debate speech. The experienced made him realize he could use his voice to fully embrace and celebrate his ethnic identity.

Two decades after Libbi’s debate speech, he’s now written, produced and directed his first feature film, “The American Society of Magical Negroes,” now in theaters nationwide.

A romantic comedy mixed with satire, the film follows a young artist who gets recruited by a secret organization whose mission is to help make white people’s lives easier. It also explores the concept that failing to address race relations in order to protect white people from discomfort from doesn’t benefit anyone.

The movie, which stars Justice Smith, David Alan Grier, An-Li Bogan, Aisha Hinds and Nicole Byer, made its world premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival in January.

Libii, whose father is Black and mother is white, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution he used humor and social commentary on racial stereotypes, combined with warm color palettes and dissolving visual effects, to re-imagine his own life throughout the film’s 105-minute run time.

“It’s a film about my relationship to whiteness,” Libii, 44, said, adding that it specifically addressed his attempts at appeasing the maternal side of his family.

“Even though my experience with the world is Black via the privilege that comes with looking [light] the way that I do, I wanted to acknowledge it as part of the main character’s and my own proximity to one side of my heritage.”

The film’s provocative title comes from a term coined by filmmaker Spike Lee to describe Black characters in movies and books who are treated as secondary, and only exist to please and serve white characters.

Libii, who studied theater at Yale, started writing the idea in 2018 for what he thought was a skit. “When I started fleshing this out, I realized I was writing about something much bigger and much deeper, and it needed a bigger canvas,” he said.

A former cast member of Comedy Central’s news parody series “The Opposition with Jordan Klepper,” Libii was accepted into the Sundance Institute Screenwriting and Director’s Lab in 2019, where he workshopped the first draft of his screenplay and started filming parts of the story.

Smith, a queer actor who plays main character Aren, spent a month with Libbi at the Sundance Labs helping to mold the main character’s feelings about his own biracial origins. Smith was also raised by a Black father and Italian/French Canadian mother.

“Kobi and I grew up very similarly,” said Smith, who grew up in Orange County, California. “I knew this character and his journey of making yourself small to fit in, and having to liberate yourself from this expectation of being put in your place.”

Smith added that portraying Aren forced him to recognize his own continuing struggles with instinctively coddling people.

“The film touches on these really poignant conversations and topics, but it’s funny,” Smith said. “I still find myself in the name of people pleasing making space for people who are actively disrespecting me.

Libii and Smith said they hope “The American Society of Magical Negroes” persuades Black moviegoers to not carry shame or guilt in being their full, authentic selves.

Libii also believes the movie arrives at an opportune moment, as school districts across the U.S. continue to ban books and corporations eliminate diversity, equity and inclusion efforts.

“It’s been quite disappointing to see those commitments dry up.” Libii said. “I wish this story wasn’t as timely as it is.”

©2024 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Visit at ajc.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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