Saturday, July 20, 2024

Unveiling the Influence and Message in ‘The American Society of Magical Negroes’: A Conversation with Filmmaker Kobi Lobii

(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

When the “American Society of Magical Negroes”  teaser trailer hit platforms and TV shows alike, some people grinned with intrigue to see what controversial button would be pushed and what exactly the film would be about. Myself, I thought, “This will surely test the waters of social commentary and wokeness.” But as I watched the film, it was plain to see that it had more than just racial satire and that it wouldn’t be a Dave Chappelle-esque comedy skit in movie form. The film provided more about finding your voice in a society that, if not careful, will quiet it or make you feel like you never had a voice.

The writer and director of the film, Kobi Libii, discussed the film’s message in an exclusive interview with Taji Mag, which I hope will answer some of the questions and criticism the film has experienced during its previous screenings.  

Dapper Dr. Feel (DDF): At what moment did you decide this was not going to a comedic sketch? 

Kobi Lobii (KL): “Yeah, you know, I never even finished the sketch. It was that quick, you know? I sat down to write the sketch and then found myself writing something that wasn’t sketch material. So, almost immediately, I had to step back and ask myself, ‘What am I writing about?’ And I realized that I was writing about this trope, this magical Negro trope. I wanted to criticize that, but I was also writing about the very particular defense mechanisms that I’ve been taught to survive as a black man in America, my ambivalence about them, and the work I’ve had to do to sort of get past some of them.”

Aren (played by Justice Smith), the lead character in the film, is a bi-racial ( half Black and half white) man who is a struggling and starving artist who embodies the essence of what a magical negro, which is the ability to deescalate issues that arise with the white counterpart. What is interesting about the Aren character is that his race was essential to the character’s growth and story development in the film.  

DDF: How important was Aren’s race to the story’s development? 

KL:  “Yeah, well, I believe there are two crucial aspects to Erin’s biraciality and light-skinnedness, and they’re closely intertwined. On one hand, I am biracial and light-skinned, and this film delves into a character’s dynamic with whiteness. My skin tone and ancestry significantly shape my relationship with whiteness. While I have darker-skinned friends who share similar relationships with whiteness, I also acknowledge the privilege I possess and how it has influenced my experiences navigating the world. It’s essential for me to capture these nuances in my portrayal authentically.

Moreover, the film delves into the false promise of assimilation. It challenges the notion that palatability alone can shield you from the harsh realities of racial dynamics. Even if one is perceived as ‘closer to white’ or ‘more acceptable’ as a black person due to their light skin, they are still denied full access to the privileges of whiteness.

Portraying a character who is deemed ‘acceptable’ by societal standards, yet is ultimately rejected by their white peers and remains uncomfortable in white spaces, underscores the critique of assimilation’s empty promises. It’s a sobering reminder that compliance with authority figures won’t necessarily guarantee safety or acceptance, despite what some may believe.

KL: I reflected on what would resonate with me, what would uplift and inspire me. For me, I’m far more drawn to creating films that advocate for something positive rather than against something negative.

There’s an alternate version of this film that could have been more about railing against the system and venting anger toward white people. While there’s certainly a significant amount of anger and pain portrayed in this film, at its core, it’s a story about the toll of being stereotyped and coerced into conforming.

As an audience member, I believe the antidote to this is being seen through the eyes of someone who genuinely cares about you. It’s about experiencing a gentle, wholehearted love that, in my opinion, is not contradictory to the critique presented in the film. It’s not opposed to the political message.

For me, part of the political statement is not solely focusing on centering white people by directing anger at them. While I want to express my anger, I also want to envision a world where I am treated with greater respect and dignity. This fantasy, to me, is more fulfilling than just dwelling in anger.

ASMN features a host of easter eggs and tributes to Black culture. From the historical figures that Libii chose to be magical negroes of the past to the art in the film. Almost all aspects of the film have recognizable Black items in the film. Lobii explained the purpose of the decision and his intention. 

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

DDF: The film features historical Black figures in a fantastical context. Can you share your thought process behind this decision and how it contributes to the film’s message?

KL:  First off, good for you for noticing that they were historical figures! There are a couple, you know, what? We imagine this, you know, the secret society is the secret wing of Monticello, which is obviously Thomas Jefferson’s house. The sort of famous irony of him being a founding father and writing these soaring words about freedom while keeping and raping slaves, right?

That is the reality of what that individual did, and the irony of that juxtaposition is so painful. I think to an understanding of American freedom, which has always been conditional for us, has not really meant us for much of American history.

The idea that we’re not just talking about this contemporary problem. We’re talking about this thing that has come up from the history of America, this sort of dark symbiosis. You know, of black people serving white people, centering white people, needing to make white people comfortable to stay alive with various degrees of stakes at various points in history.

That connection to history felt important to me, in part because that is the history, but also in part because it just speaks to this invisible quality of Black servitude in the foundation of America. This is the labor of enslaved Black people. It’s almost invisible being underneath American productivity and American greatness.

Linking this secret society back to that kind of invisible labor, and I’m saying invisible in quotes, invisible in the historical, in a lot of mainstream historiography of America. Tracing that line is very meaningful to me. Then some of the other ones are just like real figures.

Like Crispus Attucks, the first black man to die in the Revolutionary War. Black men who died for this America, the America of Thomas Jefferson at the time. Then there’s the other woman that we mentioned, Rosie, the Riveter’s nanny. That’s just a joke, but the other woman there is the real model who modeled for Aunt Jemima.

So she was a woman who was probably extraordinarily underpaid given how much her image has floated around in the years since, but that was a real woman. That Aunt Jemima was based on a real Black woman. I liked the idea of just tipping a hat to her because she had a life and was a person.

Then the James Vanderveer, all those pictures. Certainly, all the pictures we center on, but most of the pictures of Black people are James Van Der Zee’s portraits of real black people, which I think are just stunning, and he’s a beautiful photographer. I love the idea of in a film about not being seen to sort of center these portraits of real black people by this black artist who really deeply saw people as a little nugget. Those portraits so move me in part, because I think for a lot of those Black people, given the time they were taken, they might’ve been the only picture of that person that exists. In the notion that it’s like an encapsulation of you. There’s something so striking about having a document like that, especially in an era where I have like 3000 pictures of my son on my phone.

DDF: Can you go into the creative process behind the conversation between Aren and Roger, particularly when Roger recounts the story of his father and emphasizes the importance of smiling and surviving in the face of racist remarks?

KL: Yeah. I found writing these magical Negroes, I wanted to condemn them because it’s not a way I want to move through the world. It’s not a way I would encourage other black people to move through the world. It’s a way I had to work to get over moving through the world. But, when I tried to condemn them harder than I ultimately did in the film. I kept returning to the sentiment I expressed in that scene, which is that they just did what they had to do to stay alive, you know? I think there is such strength in that because that must have been so hard but so much courage in that.

One of the things that I’m interested in doing with this film is conveying that it is about protagonism and who’s centered and who’s not centered. We often center black people who resist and who don’t give up their seats on the bus, as it were, right? Those people were heroes, obviously, but I think there is heroism in just getting through the day as a black person in America, certainly in those eras.

And, and I wanted to center those peoples and really respect that quality, you know, um, about it. And, and I would say that, and it’s funny, David, this just happened today, and both David and I have.  For me, in the writing process of that scene and for him in the playing of it and preparing for a process of that scene, we’ve both remembered stuff like that, know I was literally writing a letter to David I was writing my letter to David, and I just remembered You know, you know, a time when my dad got us out of trouble, you know, at a baseball game when I was a kid, we got, you know, cornered by some, some drunk white dudes and, and I was like, “Oh my God,” you know, and I remembered my dad getting us out of that spot.

I know I’d written four drafts of that scene and had no memory of it. And, you know, David’s stories are his to tell, but David’s also talked about memories of his parents and stories that they told coming back to him in this process. So that’s all to say that I think that there is some real sort of generational trauma around this kind of stuff for us as a community.

I’m very grateful to have had a space to work out some of mine, and I hope that this can be a space for other black people to do the same because it’s under-discussed how the cost of some of this stuff to us.  

(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

DDF: I talked to Justice Smith, and he mentioned wanting to play a villain. Can we get a story written about where he is?

KL: You know, I would love to portray him as a villain. He’s such a nice guy—incredibly kind and generous. But he’s also such a talented actor that the idea of letting him embody a truly despicable character sounds like a lot of fun.

So, here it is: I’m publicly committing to writing something truly sinister for Justice. Maybe a morally ambiguous character involved in espionage or a dark conspiracy. Yeah, that sounds exciting. You heard it here first.

Of course, the challenge is making the character believable. What motivates him to be evil? That’s something we’ll have to figure out. But I’m up for the challenge. We’ll figure it out together.

 Although the film “American Society of Magical Negroes” may not meet some viewers’ expectations of being a bold art piece, in my opinion, it still carries bold and thought-provoking elements in its own right. I see it as a satirical exploration of a young man’s journey to find himself and his role in the world. After speaking with Lobii and gaining more insight into his vision for the film, I’ve reached this conclusion. While it could have leaned more into themes of rebellion or subversion, navigating one’s identity amid societal distractions, especially as a young Black man, is no easy feat. I encourage you to experience the movie firsthand and form your own interpretation. It’s currently playing in theaters.

Dapper Dr Feel

Felipe Patterson aka Dapper Dr. Feel, #BlackLoveConvo & Entertainment | @fdapperdr Dapper Dr. Feel is a Entertainment journalist and member of the Critics Choice Association and African American Film Association.

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