‘The American Society of Magical Negroes’ Filmmaker Kobi Libii Isn’t Surprised About Sparking Internet Controversy: ‘I Understand Being Deeply Suspicious’

‘The American Society of Magical Negroes’ Filmmaker Kobi Libii Isn’t Surprised About Sparking Internet Controversy: ‘I Understand Being Deeply Suspicious’

Kobi Libii knew “The American Society of Magical Negroes” would be controversial. After all, the film is a critique of the “magical negro,” the cinematic trope where Black characters are constructed to support white protagonists without internal lives of their own.

Libii grew up in Gary, Ind. in the ’90s, during a run of those movies. “Some of them were seared in my brain,” he tells Variety, remembering a time when “The Legend of Bagger Vance” and “The Green Mile” were lauded by critics and audiences alike, even though they reinforce those tropes. (Both movies are not-so-indirectly referenced in the film.) “It really agitated me at the time but I didn’t have a language for that. I was just told that this was a great movie even though Black people are doing this.”

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Now that he’s got a foothold in Hollywood, Libii is taking that type of representation to task, asking audiences to take a deeper look at the way racism impacts our minds and the insidious qualities of racism which are more difficult to make tangible and visible.

“The subject matter I’m playing with is really sensitive and raw, and people have such strong, visceral feelings about it,” he explains. “I think means that we’re pointed in the right direction in terms of what we should be talking about. I’m genuinely excited for people to bring that same passion and political conviction into what I think is the more sophisticated and intricate and nuanced conversation that the full film is.”

When Libii sits down for our interview in early January, he’s buzzing with energy — a mix of excitement and anxiety about the world premiere of the film, in competition at the Sundance Film Festival. It’s Libii’s feature directorial debut, but as a veteran writer, actor and comedian, he doesn’t feel much like a newcomer. Then there’s the fact that the film already has distribution from Focus Features (which will release the film on March 15), so he’s not like the other filmmakers chasing a distributor. And the picture has been locked since late summer, so he’s not worried about racing against the clock before its debut at the Eccles Theater on Friday afternoon.

What Libii is eagerly anticipating, though, is the reaction from the live audience. “I love the audience reaction, especially because it’s a comedy, so people giving other people permission to laugh – especially about some of the tricker stuff — is something I’m looking forward to,” he says.

The last time Libii was at the festival was in 2019, while participating in the Sundance Institute’s screenwriting and directing lab. He was workshopping “The American Society of Magical Negroes” and connected with Justice Smith, who would go on to star in the film as Aren, a recruit to a secret society magical Black people who “dedicate their lives to a cause of utmost importance.” The cause: ensuring that white people are comfortable.

Libii began working on this idea in 2016, imagining it first as a two-and-a-half minute comedy sketch about this secret society. But as he began writing, Libii realized he was working on something bigger — and working out something deeper that he’d internalized long ago as a biracial person.

“I came up for air a couple of hours into working on it realized that really what I was writing about was a very particular defense mechanism that I was taught as a Black man growing up in America, about how to keep myself safe, and how to navigate systemic racism. And that particular defense mechanism was making sure that the powerful white people around me were comfortable.”

The example he uses to make that idea tangible for people is the direct conversation that his father had with him about how to act around cops, known for many Black people as “The Talk.”

Looking back, Libii distinctly remembers the sense of unease that his father (who is Black; Libii’s mother is white) had when it came time for him to start driving as a teenager, which often necessitates having this conversation. His father told him: “It’s not about your pride. It’s not about you looking cool or feeling good about yourself. It’s about you literally staying alive in that situation, so you just be on your best behavior.”

But what happened to Libii — and many Black people, including this writer — is that he “overlearned that lesson in terms of the way he moved through the world and related to powerful white people.”

“What I realized writing about this trope and writing about the society and depicting a group of Black people that, because of racism, were hyper-focued on serving white people, I found a trouble resonance in the lessons I’d learned about how to navigate America,” Libii says. “That’s a really challenging — and for me, a very embarrassing — conversation for people to wade into. And it provokes very strong feelings. Appropriately.”

And from the moment “The American Society of Magical Negroes” was announced, the internet discourse began. First came the educational period where cinephiles explained to everyday moviegoers that this was not a movie about a Black Harry Potter but instead referred to the trope popularized in 2001 by Spike Lee in reference to movies stereotype their Black characters into roles that purely serve the white leads. Then came the trailer, which inflamed the Fox News crowd, sparking anger for saying “white people are the most dangerous animal.”

In context, a veteran member of the society named Roger (David Alan Grier) is explaining the group’s function to Aren. “White people feeling uncomfortable preambles a lot of bad stuff for us, which is why we fight white discomfort every day,” Roger explains as he and Aren gaze upon a distressed white police officer. “The happier they are, the safer we are.”

It’s a strong statement for a springtime comedy — and he’s taking the reaction to it in stride. “It’s mixed,” Libii says, admitting that he’s definitely been surprised by the sheer volume of feedback to the project.

“We’re a small independent film, and, frankly, I’m just excited people are talking about it,” Libii says. “Many of my peers’ films land with near silence, so the fact that people are paying so much attention to this little piece that we made is a very pleasant surprise.”

It’s also a sign of the times that a movie like “The American Society of Magical Negroes” is getting a wide release from a major studio.

“How many years ago does this film not get made?” Libii wonders. “Definitely 10. Probably five. I feel like extraordinarily fortunate to be living in this time where filmmakers could tell these complex stories.”

He explains: “There’s such an appetite and a vibrant, passionate audience for Black stories about race and racism. And a passionate audience for Black stories have nothing to do with that. I’m just excited for a hopeful future day, when there are so many of us telling stories that that I don’t have that sense of scarcity. Where I don’t feel like there’s only a couple of these that get told every year. That’s the fantasy and hopefully we’ll get there.”

Here, Libii addresses some of the film’s most controversial elements and why, upon further inspection, they might not be so relatable than you’d think.

Justice workshopped this script with you during the Sundance labs. What did you two bond over?

He just really understood the defense mechanism. Being friendly, trying to assimilate — those those strategies and how seductive they can be, even if they’re not ultimately effective or positive for us. As a writer-director, when you meet someone who like instantly gets the character, you’re like, “Oh, great, this is just going to be so much easier.” You don’t have to get on the same page; you can just find by new levels to it.

The character of Aren, and Justice by proxy, essentially act as an avatar for your experience. There have been criticisms from potential audience members about you making this movie as a biracial creator. What has that experience been like?

It’s one of those things where you get the good with the bad. There’s a tremendous amount of privilege I have because of my skin. Because I had a white mother who could go into my school, and yell at the guidance counselors when they did racist shit to me. There’s a literal privilege that I have benefited from, and my peers that don’t have that privilege have not. And also it sucks to have stuff be assumed about you because of who you are.

One of the ironies is that this piece is about proximity to whiteness, and what that does to you, and the advantages and dangers of that. So I’m trying to write and make tell stories that are really incredibly specific and authentic to my experience, and part of that is trying to reflect the privilege that I have by being light-skinned and being biracial.

It’s part of why I made the choice to cast Justice specifically, to reflect that I know my relationship to whiteness and white people is different. It’s really important to be precise and not pretend that my experience moving through the world is the same as a Black person who is a different shade than I am. Mine is very much a Black experience, even if it’s a different kind of Black experience, but I want to be really authentic about that and I hope people can appreciate that.

This movie intends to be both a critical racial satire and also a love story. As you started writing and evolving this piece, how did you weave those two narratives together?

There are two answers to that. One is that it’s partially about protagonism and what it looks like in movies. The thing about protagonism for cis male characters is that it’s about “getting the girl.” That is a really potent symbol of centrality and protagonism in movie history. That’s the sort of like heavy author answer.

The heart and soul real reason I did it is that it’s a movie about being reduced and being seen as less than you are. To me, the opposite of that is being seen by someone who loves you. Because of what it means to be magical negro, what it means to live in America, seen as a stereotype, thinly-sliced, regarded as a little fraction of yourself — when someone who really loves you, they see all of you. They see details. To feel seen by a partner is one of the most beautiful experiences.

After a movie that’s so much about being reduced, to feel seen and held is really positive and nourishing going forward, but it also clarifies how troubling that white gaze is. When you put the idea of what it’s like when a person really sees and understands you right next to being stereotyped, it sharpens the critique of that reductive gaze.

Let’s talk about An-Li Bogan, who plays Lizzie, who is a relative newcomer. How did you find her?

She auditioned and was really superb. Whenever you’re casting a love story, it’s also about chemistry and when she sat down with Justice, it was like, “Oh, I believe these two characters are in love.

I wanted that character to be a non-Black woman of color. Black love stories are so beautiful and so important and I really hope I get to tell a story that centers one because I believe that there’s really crucial political work in that kind of representation.

The work that I was trying to do with this film, in part, was to quite deliberately be better than magical Negro authors. Their main failing was not really thinking about the experience of other marginalized people. A white writer is not really thinking through what it means to be a Black person; he’s just thinking about his own relationship to the idea of Blackness.

It wanted to not just think through what my experience as a Black person had been, but also about the different, but related ways that other people of color, especially women of color, are impacted by systemic racism too. And to try to have an empathy for those related but different struggles in a way that the magical Negro authors didn’t. That was a choice in support of Black people in the Black community because we have to be working together because the systemic problems we’re up against are the same — even if the way Black people suffer under white supremacy is different than the way that an Asian American woman suffers under white supremacy. That intersectional coalition of us fighting that is part of what my ambition was.

I also want to talk about colorism really explicitly. There’s a real value of portraying darker-skinned people of all races, but I deliberately cast fairer skinned people of color in Justice and An-Li for a reason, which is that this movie is about the false promise of assimilation. Casting people that should be able to quote-unquote “assimilate easier” and have that proximity to whiteness sharpens the critique of assimilation, when you watch them not be able to. That is to say, even someone as light-skinned as Justice or a woman of color like An-Li can’t assimilate in this culture. I think when you see that, there’s a power to it and it sharpens the critique of this as a survival strategy.

To put it in blunt terms: complying with the officer’s orders will not keep you safe. And that is an argument you still hear from certain segments of America. There is a suggestion that if we just behaved differently, if we just assimilated harder, all of these problems would go away for us. I just think that is a dangerous lie.

So, showing people of color with the greatest proximity to whiteness, still not being allowed into the full benefits of white privilege was a deliberate choice.

That argument doesn’t just come from white people; it comes from people of color as well.

There is that hope in some conservative corners of our community, like, “Oh, maybe we can keep ourselves safe with a survival strategies like this.” Obviously, I don’t agree with that, but it’s seductive, and I understand that.

That’s why the discourse about the movie within our community is particularly interesting. Do you hope to assuage Black people’s fears when they watch the film?

I made a movie about “magical negroes.” I also have a deep suspicion of Hollywood. I really, really understand being a Black person and seeing a trailer for a film and being deeply suspicious that there’s some more racist bullshit is coming down the pike. Of course, it’s reasonable to think that some terrible cartoon of the studio executive is doing more terrible, racist things and slapping your face on it.

Part of what you hear in this conversation is both the absolute deep hope from the Black community that there will be good Black art — there’s a real yearning for that and a palpable frustration and anger when what feels like very, the very few chances for Black art to be made at a high level aren’t handled as thoughtfully as they could be.

There’s a real passion and an appetite for that, and a real suspicion that it’s going to be mishandled, so I really do get having an eyebrow raised.

How has this project shaped this version of Kobi?

So much of this piece is about the request to be really seen and heard. That’s one of the most nourishing things when it happens to you, and it’s not as easy to do for other people as I would like to think it is. So I feel like the sort of natural extension of this piece in some ways is to try to be consider people more closely and more empathetically around me and hope that hope that I can do that and that the America can sort of increasingly do that to me in return.

Going into the Sundance screening, is there anything else you want people to know about the film?

My great hope is that people just sit down and watch it — as opposed to what they expected it to be or what they hoped it would be or what they’re afraid it’s going to be — and just see what it is. Then think whatever you think about it and feel about it. I believe there’s a lot to get out of it.

(L to R) Director of photography Doug Emmett, actor Justice Smith and writer/director Kobi Libii on the set of THE AMERICAN SOCIETY OF MAGICAL NEGROES, a Focus Features release. Credit: Tobin Yelland / Focus Features
Writer-director Kobi Libii (right) with director of photography Doug Emmett and Justice Smith on the set of “The American Society of Magical Negroes.”

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