The American Society of Magical Negroes’ Writer-Director Talks Cinematic Wizardry

An exclusive Q&A with writer-director Kobi Libii.

Part of the alchemy in writer-director Kobi Libii’s debut feature The American Society of Magical Negroes is the impressive way the film blends political satire, romantic comedy, and cinematic wizardry. Struggling artist Aren (Justice Smith) finds his life turned inside out when a stranger (David Alan Grier) invites him to become part of a secret organization set on fighting white discomfort. After being trained in the magic arts of the society, Aren is assigned to help out an ambitious tech designer (Drew Tarver). However, a budding crush on another co-worker (An-Li Bogan) distracts Aren from fulfilling his sworn duty.

As a correspondent for The Opposition With Jordan Klepper, Libii honed his skill at uncovering the absurdity of modern life and finding the comedy in it. In exploring the idea of the “Magical Negro” trope, in which a Black character’s main purpose is to help a white hero succeed, Libii creates what The Playlist calls, “a gracious work that both shows and critiques the very nature of humility.”

So we spoke with Libii about how he developed the concept into a feature film.

The American Society of Magical Negroes is playing in theaters—get your tickets now!

Official trailer for The American Society of Magical Negroes

How did you decide that you wanted to turn the concept of the “Magical Negro” into a film narrative?

I try to listen to the story and let it be what it wants to be. The concept was an idea that I scrawled in a notebook years ago. When I had some time to actually write it up, I thought it would be a short-form sketch, something that should be about two-and-a-half minutes. When I started writing it, however, I came up for air a few hours later and wondered, “What am I writing about?” I was working something out that I didn't quite realize the size of. I realized over time that what I was ultimately writing about was this very particular defense mechanism that I was taught as a Black man to survive in white America. It was the explicit lesson my father taught me about being nice to white cops. Suddenly I wasn’t writing a two-and-a-half-minute sketch anymore.

How did your time at the Sundance Screenwriters and Directors Lab help you develop the film?

The Sundance Lab is amazing in a number of ways. The Directors Lab was particularly useful, and not just because that's where I met Justice Smith. I got to workshop the screenplay. This happens in theater all the time, but you rarely get to do that in film. We shot four scenes with a skeleton crew and barely any props. It was great to try stuff out, but I also got to see what would work and what would not. There is one important scene that felt very chaotic on paper. When we tried it out at the lab, it worked like gangbusters. In fact, we felt that the way it was written was a bit underbaked.

Writer-director Kobi Libii on the set of The American Society of Magical Negroes

When did you decide that you wanted Smith to play Aren?

I always wanted him to do it. When I first met him, he was a little bit young for the role. I wondered if I should reconceive the character for a slightly younger guy. But then the pandemic happened, and by the time we were ready to shoot, he was the perfect age.

In developing the film, were there books or films that inspired you?

There were so many influences. Obviously, the “Magical Negro” movies inspired me in their dark way. Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man was useful in the way it bounces through different worlds but has a single protagonist that pulls it all together. Hal Ashby's The Landlord is a sort of spiritual ancestor of the film; it's a brilliant urban satire. I stole lots of little things from different people. There is a color I borrowed from Jacque Tati, and some sound design from Robert Altman. Sidney Lumet was helpful in seeing how to handle dialogue-heavy work. After I wrote the last version of one very meaty scene, I went home to watch Network. It’s a movie that I love that has so much language in it.

In addition to being a romantic comedy and political satire, the film borrows heavily from the fantasy genre.

Because strict reality can’t contain it. It's fantastical because the things Black people have to do to survive in America are hard to believe. Absurdity, hyperbole, fantasy—these are the best ways to talk about what's happening.

The other genre in the film is “the-world-beneath-our-world” genre. Films like the Harry Potter series or The Matrix work from the concept that there is a chosen one who is sucked into this world beneath our world. In the real world, he’s alienated or he lives beneath the stairs, but in the world beneath our world, he’s the hero. The film subverts the genre because when Aren goes into the world beneath our world, he does not become the hero but becomes, even more, a subject to white people. There is sort of a gut punch when he realizes, "I thought I could escape this, but even in the world beneath our world, Black people aren’t the heroes of their own stories.”

Justice Smith and David Alan Grier in The American Society of Magical Negroes

The Institute uses examples of “Magical Negroes” to teach members about the trope.

Those tropes are so funny and so troubling. They're parodies of real “Magical Negro” films, but we’ve toned them down from how ridiculous they are in the actual movies. The lessons are there to catch people up on the genre, asking people, “Remember this?”

Can you talk about how you use the cinematography to express the film’s central idea?

Thematically, we are talking about who is in focus and who is not. We play with that idea in the way focus is used in the cinematography. When Aren talks to a white character, and especially when he talks to Jason, their depth-of-fields do not match. The world behind Aren is always blurrier than the world behind the white person. It’s like the rest of the world falls away, and he's hyper-focused on this person. When Jason talks to Aren, however, he notices other things. It is not Jason's whole job to focus on Aren. The discrepancy in the literal focus is a subtle way we tell the story.

The two main locations in the film—the tech offices for MeetBox and the Institute for the society—have very different design styles. Can you talk about that?

For me, they speak to the discrepancy in how white and Black people move through the world. The Institute, such as places like Oxford or Hogwarts, has a deep mahogany feel of history to it that telegraphs its importance. It is almost working too hard to tell you to take it seriously. In contrast, the tech company is light and open. There are games all about. They are almost trying to pretend they're not working. For me, the contrast spells out how hard Black people have to work to be taken seriously.

Nicole Byer in The American Society of Magical Negroes

The score does an amazing job of instilling a sense of magic in the story.

The composer, Michael Abels, is so brilliant. He does such an amazing job of evoking that sense of a magical wizard movie that you almost don’t recognize what else is happening. Our main theme, “Wade in the Water,” is Black spiritual but made to sound like it is in a Harry Potter film. I love that the music would have a traditional Harry Potter score but with Black spirituals and African instrumentation added in.

What do you hope people take away?

It’s not really a question I ask myself. The way I approach making stuff is to be incredibly rigorous about two things: first, that I'm being extremely honest about my experience moving through the world; and second, that I'm being really entertaining, that if I were sitting in the theater, I would be really entertained by this.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.