Exclusive: Take A Look at The New Trailer For 'The American Society of Magical Negroes,' Director Kobi Libii Talks His Debut Film

The actor-writer-director discussed the inspiration behind his satirical comedy that stars David Alan Grier and Justice Smith.

In 2001, acclaimed filmmaker Spike Lee coined the phrase “magical, mystical negro” to describe a saintly Black character designed solely to enrich the lives of white people. The term ​​criticized yet another stereotypical characterization of Black people onscreen. But now, over 20 years later, the trope serves as the inspiration for actor-writer-director satirical debut film, “The American Society of Magical Negroes.”

The comedy’s sweeping trailer teases a story about a young man named Aren (Justice Smith), who, per the synopsis, is “recruited into a secret society of magical Black people who dedicate their lives to a cause of utmost importance: making white people’s lives easier.” The film also stars David Alan Grier and Nicole Byer as members of said secret society, as well as An-Li Bogan, Drew Tarver, Michaela Watkins, and Rupert Friend.

Libii — whose acting credits include shows like “Doubt,” Madam Secretary,” and “Alpha House” — developed his upcoming feature film as part of Sundance's Screenwriters and Directors Lab back in 2019, where he also met Smith. With a 2024 theatrical release and Sundance Film Festival premiere also set, Libii says having the movie distributed by Focus Features as a first-time filmmaker is an honor. “I'm really lucky,” he notes. “There are a lot of filmmakers, especially Black filmmakers, who don't get to make movies with this kind of support and level of distribution. So I'm very lucky to have all this because I don't think 10, 20 years ago I could make a movie like this.”

Libii spoke to in-depth about his forthcoming directorial debut, what inspired him to make the film, and how he recruited its talented leading men. What was your relationship with film and TV like growing up? 

Libii: It's just what was fun for me. I grew up in Indiana, and so we didn't have a ton to do. I'm really good at bowling because that was one of the three things we could do. But one of the other things was going to the movies. My dad would take me every Friday and make a point of all the Black movies. It was my favorite thing to do and I was lucky enough to grow up and now make my own movie. You have acting and writing credits, so what got you interested in directing?

Libii: I just felt like there were stories that needed to be told that weren't being told. It turns out that the best way to do that is just to tell them, you know? This [movie] is an example of that. There are all of these magical negro stories in the world that I don't love, and so this is an opportunity to be a little bit of a joyful corrective to those. You said you're not particularly a fan of the magical negro stories that are out there. So, where did the premise of your movie come from? That desire to see something else?

Libii: It all sort of starts with the Magical Negro trope. I'm sure you're familiar with it, but just to define it on my own terms, I think of the Magical Negro as a kind of stock Black character; a Black best friend character who is only focused on helping the white hero. They don't really have an inner life, and they don't have their own things going on. They're just relentlessly focused on helping this white character grow in most cases, and I always thought that was so funny. For whatever reason, the idea that there's a white writer who pictures the thing we do in the morning is getting up and trying to help them. I found it so absurd and incorrect and funny that I wanted to blow it out and criticize it, but also use it as a way to talk about other stuff. What it's like to grow up as a Black person in this culture and some of the wild and fantastical things we have to do to survive. To me, that's the origin story of the film.

The American Society of Magical Negroes For the people who aren't familiar with this trope, were you worried that the movie's message would be lost on them from the title alone?

Libii: Not particularly, because it's one of those things that like, even if you don't know the term, you know. It’s Spike Lee's term, he's the one who coined it. You know that Black character that's just there to be nebulously Black in the background. They're not really a person and we all can picture it. Beyond the movie, we all know what it's like to feel pushed to the side and have somebody else pushed to the front. Can you talk about stepping on set for the first time as a new director?

Libii: Yeah, I was lucky because, as you said, I'd come up as an actor, and so I'd been on a lot of sets and made a lot of shorts on my own time, and the Sundance Labs were really invaluable because they give you such a great baseline. It was much more familiar and comfortable than it had any business being, having technically not [directed] before. Your film’s trailer shows an entire hidden world where this secret society resides. How did you decide what that world would look like? 

Libii: Well, obviously, there are tropes from that side of the street. These wizarding worlds and the secret underground society tropes that have a particular look to them. One of the qualities we were interested in for that world is [making] it like an Ivy League vibe . . . You have these Black characters who are working so hard to be regarded in a very particular way, and to me, the effort and seriousness of purpose in those spaces is a metaphor for how hard they have to work just to move through the world every day. There’s a love story teased in the trailer, too. How did that plot come about?

Libii: To me, so much of this movie is about being seen as a stereotype. The work I satirically ask [the cast] to do is sort of lean into being seen as a stereotype for this convoluted, mythological purpose. But if part of the movie is about being seen as that stereotype, being looked at and appreciated by someone who loves you is the opposite of that feeling. At least in my experience, when someone really loves you and really sees you, you feel completely regarded as a human, and being seen by someone who loves you is the opposite of being seen as a stereotype. It's a perfect fit for this story about who's fully regarded as a person and who's regarded more as a background character. I wanted that element in there, too, so it's not just a criticism of this trope; it's also a hopeful and joyful opportunity to say, “Hey, this is what it can feel like when someone really sees you,” as opposed to the way maybe some of these white authors might see [us]. David Alan Grier and Justice Smith are an interesting pair as the movie’s leads. Did you specifically seek them out for their roles?

Libii: Yeah, I just think they're both so special. Justice is obviously a brilliant, brilliant actor, and he’s [doing] stuff here that he hasn't necessarily got to show other places. And David, he's just an icon. I grew up watching “In Living Color” and watching him, and he's been funny and incredible for as long as I can remember. There's a thing that happens to a lot of older white comedic actors — your Bill Murrays and your Adam Sandlers — where they get to do these leading roles later in life that takes their range out for a spin. Some of the Black comedic masters like David don't always get to do that, and so part of what I loved about this was saying, “Oh man, this is an actor I loved my whole life, who doesn't always get to do central roles like this,” and so I was thrilled when he was able to do it. Your film premieres at Sundance next month before its wide release in March. What do you hope audiences will take away from it when they see it? 

Libii: This movie is about learning to be seen how you deserve to be seen. That's something that a lot of Black people can connect with, but I think there are a lot of people who also maybe feel pushed to the side or not regarded as fully as they deserve to be. So I hope this is a nourishing and joyful space where everyone can feel a little bit more appreciated than in some of these movies I'm criticizing.

“The American Society of Magical Negroes” hit theaters on March 22, 2024.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

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