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‘The American Society of Magical Negroes’ Star Justice Smith on His Bold New Film, D&D and PokemonGo

Upon his 2013 graduation from the Orange County School of the Arts, Justice Smith assumed he would spend some time “waiting tables and doing small roles in indie films here and there.” Instead, he found himself working the blockbuster space fairly quickly, booking roles in “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” and its sequel “Jurassic World Dominion.” He stood out opposite a fuzzy creature voiced by Ryan Reynolds in “Pokémon: Detective Pikachu” and as a half-elf sorcerer in “Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves.” (It’s intended as a compliment to say both films have no right being as good as they are, considering their origins.)

Though it was a crash course in big-budget filmmaking, the 28-year-old actor notes that he wouldn’t have had it any other way. “I’m blessed because those experiences were also highly technical environments that challenged me,” he says. “It strengthened my ability and gave me a more well-rounded arsenal of tools. While doing the thing I love.”

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And while he’s happy to dabble in big studios hits, Smith is still embracing the independent scene wholeheartedly with two films that debuted at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. First up is “The American Society of Magical Negroes,” hitting theaters March 15. Kobi Libii’s satirical comedy skewers the “Magical Negro” tropes perpetuated by media, with Smith portraying Aaron, a young artist brought into a hidden world where Black people learn to placate “clients” (a.k.a. white people) by playing off those very tropes. David Alan Grier co-stars as his mentor and “The Other Two” actor Drew Tarver plays the client.

That will be followed by the May 3 release of “I Saw the TV Glow,” a surreal thriller from Jane Schoenbrun in which Smith plays Owen, a high school outcast in the 1990s who becomes obsessed with a cult television show. His love for the program is shared by Maddy (Brigette Lundy-Paine) also struggling with their identity, who goes missing. Smith plays Owen over a period of decades in a bravura performance.

I’m a big fan of both “Dungeons & Dragons” and “Detective Pikachu,” despite not being at all familiar with either world.
I always wanted to learn D&D growing up, but I couldn’t find anyone to teach me. The first time I played was with the cast and my work was sort of done for me because we were playing our characters from the movie. It’s really about creating and improvisation and it’s so interesting. But I love that the filmmakers were able to make a movie that appealed to non-fans.

As for Pokémon, I just remember that during the height of Pokémon Go, my sister was delivering pizzas, and she would drive 10 minutes out of her way to catch certain Pokémon. And she’d be late in getting back from her deliveries. She was like, “Oh, sorry, there was a lot of traffic.”

How did you first become involved with “Society”? It’s such a great premise and the title alone piques interest.

I love the title, too. I mean, I knew what the Magical Negro trope was because I took a single semester of film literature in high school where I did an essay on Magical Negroes. In addition to, obviously, seeing the trope in movies.

Kobi actually invited me to the Sundance Labs years prior to the film being made. We workshopped scenes there and over the years I would go to his house and improvise and help him flesh the ideas out further. And then I think it was 2021 he called me and said, “We’re greenlit — you want to do it?” And I was like, “Fuck yes, I want to do it!” And honestly, I think the timing was right because I was a bit too young when we first started workshopping it.

When you started on the movie, did you go back and revisit certain films to familiarize yourself with these tropes or are they so prevalent it wasn’t necessary?

It’s interesting because me and Kobi wanted to get the right texture for the character and how he does this work. There’s a scene where he tries to mirror the accent or the voice of others and it doesn’t work because it’s not contemporary. So we found our own route into it. Aaron is more like the Black best friend. It’s an evolution of the stereotype. We talked about performances from Cuba Gooding Jr. — how he has so much charisma and influences people by being so open and likable. Or Mahershala Ali, who is so profound and direct. Not to say those two actors have played the Magical Negro trope, just that we were trying to draw upon what’s in the Black character zeitgeist and how would Aaron use that to appeal to his client?

Speaking of, Drew Tarver is so fantastic as the client. As an actor, he’s obviously in on the joke, but when you were on set how did you and Kobi work to identify the micro- or macro-aggressions in his performance that could really fuel your character?
The beauty of Drew was there in the first read. When we were doing chemistry read, there was this interesting phenomenon that happened where a lot of the white actors came in and their interpretation of the character was a caricature of a racist. I think it was a way they would distance themselves, like they were hyper judgmental of the character in order to showcase their own morality and progressive nature.

But Drew came in and played it honestly. He understood the blind spots of the character, but he didn’t judge him. All of the white people in the movie had to have a certain quality to them. Because it’s about a more insidious racism — most of the racism I’ve experienced has been from well-intentioned white people who just have a blind spot. It was important audiences didn’t just go, “Oh, Black protagonists good and white antagonists bad.” Because you need to be able to identify with people in the movie. The movie is really focusing on the neglect of black people in white spaces — the way people can be negligent of some of the things they say or the ways they take up space at the expense of people of color. And Drew understood that quality perfectly.

In addition to being so clever and emotional, I want to stress that this movie is really, really funny. I would think one of the hardest parts of the job would not be laughing opposite David Alan Grier.

It’s really hard! David is so funny on screen and off. And there are so many funny moments in the film. It’s funny because talking about it you want to be somewhat serious about these topics, but you also want to remind people it’s funny, too. It’s a comedy. It’s poignant but you’ll have a good time, I promise.

I saw “Society” within hours of “I Saw the TV Glow” and it’s fascinating to me because you seem able to play ages 15 to 50. That gives you a wide range of opportunities.
I think I’m a little too old to play teenagers now; I felt in “I Saw the TV Glow” I was just on the edge but that’s probably the last teenage role I’ll play — unless it’s a character that spans multiple years. As an actor, I try to be open to how a character is going to show up in my body. There’s research and taking notes, but it all comes down to being present. And I find when you’re in the costume and you’re carrying a backpack or whatever, it just naturally makes you feel more youthful versus when I’m in a suit with a beard. It really helps, especially when you have to play several different ages on the same day, as I did in “I Saw the TV Glow.”

I don’t want to give too much away, but when you were given the script for “I Saw the TV Glow” were you given any context or notes on the subtext of the film?
The first time I read it I said, “I have no idea what the hell I just read. And I have to do this movie.” I said that to Jane when we had our first meeting. It’s such a mindfuck of a film but it wasn’t something I needed to understand logically because I could feel it off the page. Which is why I wanted to do it so bad. It stays with you in a visceral way — you don’t have to understand it to feel it. That’s so exciting to me. And I’m so grateful to be a part of it.

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