Casting a Spell With Design and Decor in The American Society of Magical Negroes

An exclusive Q&A with production designer Laura Fox.

While writer-director Kobi Libii’s The American Society of Magical Negroes takes place in contemporary Los Angeles, the story moves through different worlds and genres. When a stranger, Roger (David Alan Grier), invites Aren (Justice Smith), a struggling artist, to join a secret society in which Black members attempt to lessen white discomfort, both his world and worldview open up. For his first assignment, Aren is placed in a high-tech internet company called MeetBox in order to assist an anxious designer, Jason (Drew Tarver), regain his confidence. The only problem is that Lizzie (An-Li Bogan), a woman Aren has feelings for, also works there.

The story offers a satirical twist on the "Magical Negro" trope, in which a Black character's main purpose is to help a white hero succeed. To bring that idea to life, the filmmakers tapped production designer Laura Fox. Having expertly captured the mood of distinct stories—from the film The Eyes of Tammy Faye to the TV series The White Lotus—through design, Fox knew how to make the world of the film feel magical. Talking about her work in creating the Institute, Libii says in the production notes, “It was incredible for the cast and crew to literally walk into this magical space that she created.”

We spoke with Fox about what she loved about the movie, finding the right location for the Institute, and one of her favorite spots in the film.

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

Official trailer for The American Society of Magical Negroes

How did you get involved in doing the production design for The American Society of Magical Negroes?

Your normal agency setup. They sent me the script, and I read it and fell in love with it. I got on a call with the director, and then after I hung up, I thought, “I'm never getting this movie.” I laughed too much. I wanted it too badly. I was too wacky. But obviously, Kobi thought I was the right type of wacky since he hired me.

When you read the script, did you have an image of the production design?

Kobi had some descriptions in the script that helped. There was a hallway in the Institute with portraits of the past members. As I read it, I imagined the Los Angeles Theater right away. I’d shot an Aerosmith video there many years ago, and I remembered all the rooms and dark wood. Of course, when I thought of the design, there was a bit of Hogwarts thrown in. For the Institute, we wanted to create something that was old so we could contrast it with the new, high-tech MeetBox location.

The film takes place in the real world. How did you sprinkle a little magic into it with the production design?

Once you have a magical society in the movie, you feel the leash is off. If there's a shark poster, it can be the most ridiculous shark poster you have ever seen. If your offices are in the Google style, you can go so far that your juice bar only has green drinks. I felt the permission to push everything a little bit more and make it a bit more whimsical and magical.

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

What sort of references did you have for the film’s look?

I love art and photography, but here it felt like the design had to come from your imagination, playing off our locations. But there was one thing that was a big inspiration. Early on, I saw this old photograph of a Black magician. I found out that the photographer, James Van Der Zee, had been photographing Black life since 1908. We got in touch with his wife, and his photographs were used as the artwork in the Institute. We had his photographs before we had our location. His work became our guide.

How did you find the location for the Institute?

Although I originally thought of the Los Angeles Theater, we considered other locations, like the Bradbury Building and the old libraries of USC. Ultimately, the Los Angeles Theater worked best. We got to build off its existing architecture, creating hallways between different spaces. We developed a series of pocket doors that could magically open. The Help Desk we created from a space we repurposed three stories down by dressing rooms.

Drew Tarver and Justice Smith in The American Society of Magical Negroes

What was the design concept for MeetBox?

In the script, there is a nautical theme that comes from the company’s head. We first played with that. But then we did a deep dive into Google’s offices, like the new one they built in the gigantic Spruce Goose hangar near LAX, and other high-tech offices. The truth is that there is not a comfortable chair in those places. Everyone sits on stools next to tables that are too low. We also came up with this idea of these motivational posters everywhere that said things like “meet, greet, work, laugh, work.” They all ended with “work,” as a reminder that no matter what it looks like, that is what you are there to do. What we wanted to create was this fake good place to work.

What does the contrast between the dark, wooded spaces of the Institute and the light, airy spaces of MeetBox say?

It’s really all your interpretation. I hope that you feel a real warmth and history at the Institute. We wanted that space to feel like it had real depth and weight since it represents the idea the movie is dealing with. Meetbox, on the other hand, should feel as phony as can be. A place filled with fake fun.

Is there a particular element of the design that you felt worked particularly well?

I liked the barber shop we found a lot. We needed the barber shop to magically open up and create an entrance into the Institute. We found this barber shop in Pacoima, which was so long that you could basically build a set behind it. Even better, it was the first Black-owned barber shop in the San Fernando Valley.

What do you hope audiences take away?

I love this film so much. I loved working on it. I love that it deals with a real and important issue that affects everyone. So I hope audiences will allow themselves a bit of self-reflection, and then I hope they just have a great time. The film is so funny and charming.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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