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American Fiction, The Society of Magical Negroes, and Satirizing Blackness

In an attempt to keep up with one of my favorite podcasts of all time, (shout out Black Men Can’t Jump in Hollywood), I managed to watch two movies satirizing Black stereotypes/Black people’s treatment in media in the last two weeks: The American Society of Magical Negroes and American Fiction. Both movies are incredibly similar in both nomenclature and in commentary while also being wildly different in quality and general reception, and while I have my own opinions about which movie is ultimately better I think both serve as an interesting look into how difficult it is to pull off successful contemporary racial commentary.

We all know Get Out completely reshaped the cultural zeitgeist and forever changed the way people make movies examining racial dynamics. In the aftermath of Jordan Peele’s debut film creatives have been clamoring to create the next Big Movie that turns audience expectations on their heads, including Peele himself. Something that Black people find relatable and cathartic, something that white people are forced to digest and reckon with.

It’s because of this we’ve been inundated with projects like Queen and Slim and Them; tired, tepid critiques of systems Black people have been speaking on for years, films that make ignorant white people go “ohhhh” and offer little more than shock and awe.

I suppose it’s because we are so many years removed from Get Out that I’m shocked somehow two of these films were released within a year of one another and is why I have such strong feelings about whether or not they succeeded in the story they wanted to tell.

Let me start off by saying the American Society of Magical Negroes was bad. Like really bad. The film was really set up to fail as soon as the trailer was released, which is kind of tragic because the original premise was almost interesting. A people pleasing Black artist, Aren, is recruited by a society of magical negroes. Just like the trope, his job is to assist white people in a way that makes him disposable for the “betterment of society” until he decides that he’s meant for more.

The idea of rebelling against this extremely limiting and dehumanizing trope is one that should be freeing, but the film completely misses the mark when they make Aren’s self actualization almost completely tied to falling in love with a woman. Stealing some points from the Black Men podcast, (thanks guys), it could’ve been interesting if Aren gained some sort of confidence from his relationship but ultimately decided to be the arbiter of his own fate after having realizations about his Blackness in relation to the society. In the end, it t reads very much as “appeasing white people is bad because I want to date this girl” instead of “appeasing white people is bad because it makes me feel like less of a person with autonomy.”

I said in my Letterboxd review, I think the fact that the movie spent most of it’s runtime being a pretty good romcom forced them to shoehorn in the last twenty-ish minutes it spends being a clunky racial commentary. It all feels random and forced with no build and Justice Smith, bless their soul, is trying but Aren’s pro-Black rants toward the end come out of nowhere and are incredibly cringy. It was like the screenwriter spent the first three quarters of the film rambling and had to fit the entire message of the movie in the last fourth rather than sprinkling that meaning throughout.

The romance was actually cute as hell, they had incredible chemistry

American Fiction suffers from similar structural issues but overall out performs the Society of Magical Negroes in both watchability and effective storytelling. American Fiction is a film based off the 2001 novel Erasure by Percival Everett. The story is a meta narrative following a writer, Thelonious "Monk" Ellison, struggling to get his work published in a world that seems to love a specific kind of Black person. In retaliation he publishes a work poking fun at popular books and is shocked when it is received with acclaim.

American Fiction I think does two things correctly that were the downfall of ASOMN. Firstly the entire story is grounded by our main character. We see his professional life and him having to navigate white people in order to get ahead, but we also get a solid look at his family life. We see him fall in love. Learn little bits about his past. In Magical Negroes, it’s actually rare we see Aren interact with any Black people at all, other than David Alan Grier who plays his mentor, we never get to see his relationships with any of the Black people he works with in order to contextualize his behavior around white people. In fact, to me it feels like Aren has no inner life and he reads incredibly flat as a result.

The family element really allows the story to humanize Monk, we know who he is as a son, a brother, and a lover

Secondly, Amercian Fiction shrinks the scope of the issue it wishes to tackle. While there is obvious critque of both the literary world and Hollywood and their handling of Black stories, the film is strictly following Monk in his journey. Instead of attempting to attack an entire trope, the movie picks one specific instance where aspects of the trope can be explored and that allows it to be more nuaced and particular in the satire.

I will concede and agree with critics and lovers of the film alike that American Fiction still manages to bite off more than it can chew and is by no means a perfect movie. While there is a lot more depth to Monk's character in comparison to Aren's, all the different plots that are set up and need resolution within its two hour runtime mean some elements of the story get the short end of the stick.

Adam Brody was also kind of a scene stealer as a sleazy Hollywood exec. he can do it all

I watched the film with my parents and in our ritual post viewing discussion my mom remarked that a lot of the supporting Black women lacked depth in their characterization, specifically Erika Alexander's Coraline. Coraline is Monk's love interest and by the end of the film we don't know much about her except that she's an attorney (we caught that Maxine Shaw nod), she has a strained relationship with her ex, and that she enjoyed the joke novel Thelonious publishes. Part of me understood what she was getting at, I could see how she could feel like there was something lacking from the screenplay and even wished myself that we heard a little more from Coraline about exactly why she enjoyed the novel.

But the thing is, when so much of your satire is poignant and makes the audience think, things like loose ends and extra questions spark a conversation. As I thought more and more about the story's treatment of some of its Black women I wondered if it was all intetnional. If this was the meta commentary: Monk, a privleged college educated Black man, looks down on stories and authors depiciting a specific type of Black person believing his work is somehow better than theirs. He then publishes an entire novel documenting his journey and how quick white people were to eat up such a stereotypic story, only to still do a disservice to Black women in the process. He is not better than these people, he's not exempt. In fact, because of his ego (which he wrestles with for much of the movie) he is blind to the fact that he's part of the problem. In my opinion that reading only makes the ending of the film more powerful.

Maybe my favorite scene of the film, second only to Jeffery's scene with Issa Rae

Satire has existed forever, and I've been a lover of it since I learned about it in school. I am also a firm believer that most things deemed "satirical," especially today, suck. Especially these new slew of racial satires/commentaries that try to balance differentr genres and subject matters the way Jordan Peele so expertly blended horror and social mores in Get Out. I think we need to admit that he truly captured lightning in a bottle. I think it's incredibly important to be critical of movies like The American Society of Magical Negroes, I think it's important that we ask for more from the people that want to tell our stories. And while I don't think American Fiction is perfect, I think it's a step away from some of the weaker cultural commentaries we've been served the last few years and a step in the right direction.


I'm trying to write more this year! In the spirit of that I've created a substack where I wrote about a good movie Justice Smith starred in that was released this year, I Saw the TV Glow. These posts are going to be more informal and personal so if you have any interest, feel free to check it out and subscribe :)

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Jun 16

“Cultural zeitgeist”—you sound like your dad, who I have always joked is a couch-side Rolling Stone reviewer. ☺️

Thanks for giving us something to think about and for sharing my concerns about the female characterization. 😬😊🙌🏾

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