Justice Smith and Kobi Libii discuss new film

Director of photography Doug Emmett (left), actor Justice Smith (middle) and writer/director Kobi Libii (right) work on the set of “The American Society of Magical Negroes. The film will be released in theaters on Friday, March 15. // Photo courtesy of Focus Features

Hollywood’s latest controversial film comes courtesy of “The American Society of Magical Negroes.” Initially premiering at the Sundance Film Festival and releasing in theaters on March 15, this movie tackles Black discomfort through intentionally polarizing situations that incite contemplation and reflection.

Kobi Libii’s directorial debut features lead actor Justice Smith (“Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom”), David Alan Grier (“The First”) and An-Li Bogan (“After Yang”). The story focuses on Aren, a struggling Black artist failing to turn heads with his yarn sculpture at an exhibition. Aren is a kind, soft-hearted Black man whose passion for art does not fit the traditional masculine Black male stereotype. As the only person of color within the exhibit, a constant wave of white collectors fawn over the other traditional pieces while staring cluelessly at Aren’s work. 

When walking around the gallery, he awkwardly avoids getting in the collectors’ way by apologizing with a smile through every step, struggling to connect with them. After his new acquaintance, Roger, saves him from an altercation, Aren is introduced to The American Society of Magical Negroes, whose sole purpose is to alleviate the discomfort of white people. The rest of the film follows Aren’s journey within the society and how it conflicts with his own. Libii drew on a protagonist rarely seen before, a gentle, straight Black man, as a reclamation project to bring a new style of characters to the foreground.

The contention appears in its line between satire and seriousness. At its core, the storyline delves into the cost white privilege imposes. The typical stereotypes are visualized but the way in which they play out differ. The majority of the film consists of Black people limiting themselves to carry white people to their dreams. Black characters must dehumanize themselves and lean into prejudices, fearing outrage from white discomfort. The society admits white people are the most dangerous creatures on the planet because of their unpredictability and ignorance to other experiences. 

Aside from the magic, the Black experiences within the society, while glorified and dramatized, are all too real. Libii and Smith traveled to Atlanta on Tuesday, March 5, to take part in an interview about the film and their vision. 

“I connected with the script. I saw myself in it,” Smith said, as he explained how his personal experiences influenced his character. “I grew up in a very white community, Orange County, Calif., and I internalized a lot of the messaging that I received from my white peers. I compromised myself; I made myself small in order to survive socially, and it was a very dark time for me. It was only after I got out of that community that I experienced a real liberation and real empowerment, and I defined my Blackness for myself, and I connected with the community and I healed.” 

Smith’s character, Aren, similarly struggles with feeling like an outcast in his life and tries his hardest not to take up too much space. “I just got that vicious cycle mentally of ‘I feel so uncomfortable in this environment, in this space, so I’m going to appease in order to feel less uncomfortable.’ But then that then gives them permission to further disrespect me, which then makes me more uncomfortable,” Smith said. The movie’s narrative is meant to reflect the pain that results from staying within this cycle and repeatedly compromising oneself for the sake of everyone else. It is discomforting yet familiar to see these experiences unfold in such a demeaning way. 

Libii’s creative decisions also drove the cinematography to reflect this break from the cycle of self-compromise, saying “making sure a story reflects your vision is about being honest at every step of the way. And being a director is a million choices.” To connect Aren to the film’s atmosphere, he explained, “From a look perspective, I wanted the look of the film to reflect the main character. And so it is a very soft, gently lit film, very modern lighting, very colorful, very artful … and I liked this idea that there’s this character that sort of bursting with these gentle, beautiful colors but they can’t really be expressed because of how colonized he is.”

The lighting and vibrance change within the film as Aren’s identity becomes less muddled and more authentic. Libii described it as “a subtle journey in the same way the main character is taking up more space and himself becoming more vibrant.”The film itself is clear about what it is like living with a constant defense mechanism in being Black. 

“One of the things I’m writing about in this film is about this very particular defense mechanism that I was taught quite explicitly as a young Black man on how to survive America and that was to make white people comfortable,” Libii said. 

He continued with the first thing he was taught as a child. 

“A classic example of that is how you talk to white cops, this is what you gotta do to stay alive, this is not about your pride, don’t worry about it, just do it,” he said. “And I believe I slightly over-learned that lesson, and it interfered with my ability to take up space and be confident.”

Libii relates to Smith’s character and the purpose behind the magical society. 

“That message, especially for Black people and I would say especially for Black men, is incredibly embarrassing and incredibly shameful for me to raise my hand and say ‘I was colonized in the following ways,’” he said. “My job is to be incredibly honest about an experience I haven’t really heard anybody talk about,” Libii explains. “It feels important to just be incredibly, almost painfully, honest about it and try equally hard to be incredibly entertaining.”

A key characteristic to Aren is his artistry and lack of understanding of himself. The evolution of his yarn sculptures move parallel to his own character development. Smith explained these transformations throughout the course of the film. 

“Aren is a soft individual, and that’s not welcomed by society for Black men to be seen as ‘soft.’ His art is all about his pursuit of piece and softness and comfort and that’s exactly what he was pursuing in his life the entire time, and he was obviously using the wrong tactics to get there, but by the end of the film, when he finds his strength, he realizes it’s the strength to be soft in the face of a world that doesn’t allow that, that won’t allow that or that wants to take advantage of that,” he said. 

Libii added that “there’s also a bit of taking up space there too, in terms of he’s unable to defend his work, which is a stand-in for his point of view and a stand-in for himself. He’s unable to say ‘I made this and I believe in this. This is who I am’ at the beginning of the film, and he’s able to do that in the end of the film.”

“It’s interesting because he basically learns how to create boundaries and protect this symbol of gentleness,” he said. “I see a dichotomy of strength versus soft, like he’s learned how to stand up and assert his need to be gentle. Fighting to be at peace, that’s the dichotomy.”

Both Smith and Libii know the controversy behind “The American Society of Magical Negroes,” especially in the response from the second trailer that revealed the society’s mission. 

Rather than a fictional society with epic spellcasting battles or a masterful “chosen one” adventure, this film decides to add magical emphasis to everyday personal battles that not every audience member agrees with.

“I know there are Black people who see this and say, ‘Hey, that’s me. It’s really comforting to hear someone else say that,’” Libii said. “I also think there’s going to be Black people who see this and say ‘Oh s—, is that me?’ in a way that is incredibly uncomfortable to reckon with consciously, or for some Black audiences, unconsciously the reckoning and a real discomfort.”

Libii continued on the variety of responses the film may receive from the Black community. 

“There’s also going to be Black audiences who say ‘Nope, never done it.’ God bless those people because we’re a wonderfully diverse community, you know. But to me, my job isn’t to calibrate how each one of those discrete audiences will feel, it’s how to speak my truth and try to do it with integrity and … trust that ultimately there’s going to be healing and positivity for that.”

The discomfort shown in “The American Society of Magical Negroes” is one few movies dare to discuss. Many people of color can relate to times they have had to adopt a “white persona” or change their personality so as to not stand out in a crowd. What Libii does differently is reveal, through brutal honesty, the ways Black people and people of color compromise themselves. In the film, it is a revelation to Aren that he has a right to exist without having to prove himself to society or white people. From company discrimination to friends ignorant of their own implicit bias to personal identity friction due to social expectations, “The American Society of Magical Negroes” makes the shameful moments and uneasiness of self-compromise more digestible.  

“The American Society of Magical Negroes” is a conflicting watch. It is difficult to successfully navigate satire through such charged issues, and not every scene flows in an easily comprehensible way. Regardless of the jarring moments, the message stands as the highlight of the film. Beyond the magical society is an epiphany of identity and reflection on past experiences that challenges your interactions with yourself and others.