Producers: Julia Lebedev, Eddie Vaisman, Angel Lopez and Kobi Libii   Director: Kobi Libii   Screenplay: Kobi Libii   Cast: Justice Smith, David Alan Grier, An-Li Bogan, Drew Tarver, Michaela Watkins, Aisha Hinds, Nicole Byer, Rupert Friend and Tim Baltz   Distributor: Focus Features

Grade: C

Kobi Libii attempts a delicate balancing act in his feature debut, a satirical poke at race relations in America, and though he lacks the finesse to pull it off, one can respect the intent.  Aiming to ridicule both the innate fear of blacks among whites and the inclination of some blacks to deflect it with deference, “The American Society of Magical Negroes” is ambitious but too soft-grained to leave much of an impact.

The magical Negro, in succinct terms, is a stock character in American literature and film—the folksy, unthreatening black who steps forward at a crucial moment to assist a white protagonist with his pure, wise advice and magically defuse a difficult situation. The premise of Libii’s script is that there exists a society of such figures who have been recruited because of their natural character to fulfill this function, are taught the tactics of the trade by example of their experienced colleagues, and then are assigned to specific whites in need of their services.  By assuaging their clients’ egos, they will make the world safer for everyone, especially African-Americans.

The narrative is centered on Aren (Justice Smith), a sculptor whose works in fabric are dismissed in gallery showings and who is virtually ignored by white patrons, who are more likely to treat him as a waiter than an artist.  He’s observed by Roger (David Alan Grier), the bartender at his latest unsuccessful showing, who deftly handles a situation at an ATM where Aren’s wrongly accused of theft on his way home and then introduces him to the Society, centered in a secret headquarters behind a storefront, as a potential recruit.

Despite his reservations Aren accepts the invitation and assists his sponsor Roger in addressing the case of Miller (Tim Baltz), a cop who feels socially inadequate.  Afterward, armed with some magical tools—an ability to teleport and a device by which he can gauge a person’s emotional temperature—he’s assigned his first solo mission: to play the part of helpful pal to Jason (Drew Tarver), a software designer at a tech company called MeetBox who thinks his talents aren’t sufficiently appreciated.  Taking a cubicle next to Jason’s, Aren easily becomes his chief confidant, praising his talent and insights even as the company, headed by Mick (Rupert Friend), an insufferably confident Australian mogul who offers uplifting spiels to his employees as the need arises, is roiled in a scandal involving its face-recognition program’s inability to deal with Black visages.

A romantic element intrudes when Aren recognizes Jason’s co-designer Lizzie (An-Li Bogan) as a girl he’d recently met at a coffee shop and is interested in.  As part of his effort to make Jason feel better about himself, Aren encourages him to notice Lizzie, unintentionally setting the stage for a romantic triangle in which he’ll be expected to suppress his own chances with her in order to do his job.  That problem is exacerbated by Mick’s sexist decision to choose Jason, rather than Lizzie, as the spokesperson for a new product announcement.  Will Aren be able to restrain himself, holding to his assigned position of subservience as the preening Jason, who’s oblivious to his sense of male privilege as well as his racism, takes credit that he should share with Lizzie?  Aren has, after all, been taught the rules he must follow not only by Roger, but by head trainer Gabbard (Aisha Hinds) and the imperious chief of the entire Society, Dede (Nicole Byer).  Will he break them? 

The eventual self-liberation of Aren from the strictures of the peculiar group he’s joined is pretty much a foregone conclusion, but as presented here it’s a pretty tame rebellion; and it doesn’t affect the existence of the Society, which presumably continues its activities. The message would seem to be that the racial reality in the United States is pretty much unchangeable, and that the need for “magical Negroes” will never disappear, no matter how many blacks might refuse to accept the role. 

And in any event Smith, as the messenger of liberation in this case, is so low-key even in rebellion that the impact is muted.  But then he’s been a sort of sad sack throughout, so perhaps one shouldn’t expect more, especially since Libii’s direction is also so laid-back and Brian Scott Olds’s editing is equally lackadaisical.  Bogan is pleasant enough and Taver convincingly obtuse, and Hinds and Byer cut imposing figures (the former the more amusing of the two, since Byer comes off too one-note).  But the cast member one’s most likely to appreciate is Grier, a master of bemused astonishment who puts that talent to good use here.  Laura Fox’s production design is solid, especially in the MeetBox and Society headquarters scenes, as are Derica Cole Washington’s costumes; and Doug Emmett’s widescreen cinematography is fine if unexceptional.  The same can be said of Emilien Lazaron’s visual effects and Michael Abels’ score.

In the end one can admire what Libii wants to achieve in “The American Society of Magical Negroes” more than what he actually accomplishes.