Bizarre ‘Black Magic For White Boys’ succeeds in anti-wonder

by Jonah Desneux on July 6, 2020

in Print Reviews,Reviews

[Rating: Minor Rock Fist Up]

Magic has been intertwined with film since George Melies dazzled audiences during the age of “Cinema of Attractions.”  The french illusionist combined his on-stage performance with the unique tools of filmmaking, such as editing, creating new on-screen tricks giving audiences a new sense of wonder. Melies is the great-grandfather of special effects in cinema and his innovations have been the center point of many major films throughout the years. 

Onur Tukel’s newest feature film Black Magic for White Boys brings back the earlier sense of featuring performance magic in film, however, it is anything other than traditional. Tukel’s purposely dry, sporadic film deals with a handful of issues combined with a bland use of magical realism. Black Magic for White Boys serves as an anti-wonder film in a similar fashion that Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller is famously an anti-western Western. Though there is the presence of grandiose mysticism in the film, it is only used in disappointing and selfish ways. Tukel threads a thin line in creating enough interest amidst his drab setting and antagonizing characters. Black Magic for White Boys may not be the most groundbreaking film among its themes and ideas, but its monotonous bizarreness is ironically refreshing in a cinema landscape overflowing with bombast.

Taking place in a gloomy New York City, Black Magic for White Boys centers around the lives of a handful of eccentric and somewhat neurotic characters that all tie into one another. There is Larry (Ronald Guttman), a failing stage magician on the cusp of losing his theater until he uses his book of real dark spells to gain popularity for his show. Along with Larry, the crew of the performance each have their own distinct characteristics and story arcs. Attending the shows are Oscar, played by Tukel himself, and Carl (Matt Hopkins). Oscar is the definitive man-child archetype, who has inherited riches after a family death and only wants a stress free and simple life of never having to grow up. Carl is a landlord, who attempts to raise the rent in his predominantly black inhabited buildings. When both men face a challenge to their egocentric lifestyle, they reach out to Larry to use black magic to be a quick fix in solving their problems.

It is always exciting when a film focuses on a collective of characters as opposed to just one or two protagonists. Exciting, however, doesn’t always equate to good. It takes a lot of craftsmanship to control this complicated balancing act of caring about characters who you only get little spurts of. Tukel though, pulls it off. While it is hard to pick a character or storyline that absolutely steals the show, Tukel makes each character interesting enough to be invested while they are on the screen. The sporadic nature of Black Magic for White Boys makes it where no moments ever stand out as exceptional, yet there are no instances where the film drags. 

Similar to the pacing and the character work, the dark comedy of the film does not always work but it rarely hinders the experience. Some jokes are still questionable, even though the character saying it is intended to be a terrible person, but for the most part, the comedy helps ground the oddity of the plot. The incredibly irrational and selfish actions of the complicated characters are made tolerable by the unusual comedic style holding things together. While there are not many laugh out loud moments, the charms of the light comedy creates an enjoyable experience.

The themes of Black Magic for White Boys are never lost in the comedy. In fact, the absurdity helps highlight Tukel’s ideas on gentrification, race, and capitalism by shining a light on the absurd behavior of white people. Tukel is not subtle in hiding his message and makes his characters look ludicrous getting his point across. Casting himself in a truly despicable role, Tukel allows himself to be poked fun at, never creating the sense that he is above anything and not a part of the problem. There is humor in seeing individuals behave erratically and completely in their own self-interest and with it the film does not cast a grey area of who is in the right and who is in the wrong. This creates a rare cathartic viewing experience, where instead of relating and laughing with the characters, you get to laugh at them.

The performances in the film are nothing to go crazy over. In the same vein of the characters themselves, while there is nothing that sticks out as being bad and off-putting, no one actor puts on a show with their limited screen time. While this seems to be the point in many ways, it is disappointing that such a unique film doesn’t have a single performance to remember from it. 
Black Magic for White Boys plays upon the simplicity of magic and itself is a very simple movie. Larry’s big black magic trick is making people disappear by waving a magic cloth at them. That’s it. Just some magic words, a flick of the hand, and the trick is done. It never pretends to be more glamorous than it really is, yet it is still able to wow audiences. The film itself is very similar. Unlike big-budget blockbusters that are all about the spectacle and fooling the audience, Tukel’s film uses the same editing tricks but doesn’t hide itself by being a bigger show that it is. And while sometimes it’s great being caught up in the spectacle that is movies, sometimes it’s nice to just see something different and simple and think “well that was nice.”

Jonah Desneux

Jonah Desneux is a recent graduate from the University of Missouri with a BA in Film Studies. It’s baffling that someone who just spent four years writing film paper after film paper would immediately want to write some more, but hey, he must love it! Along with writing about film Jonah enjoys writing and performing sketch comedy in Columbia and Kansas City.

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