For years, witchcraft has had a traditional look in popular entertainment — pointy hats, broomsticks, spells and potions — and usually white. Aside from a few supporting character examples, Black witchcraft has remained a blind spot in this witchy narrative. There’s no version of “Sabrina the Teenage Witch” for Black witches. So we asked the real members of this varied spiritual practice today how Hollywood can do better for Black witchcraft.
N’ganga Makhosi has been practicing hoodoo in Los Angeles her entire life, a tradition she learned from her grandmother, but says she’s never felt her practice was accurately represented in the media.
“It’s always either someone using curses, sacrificial animals, or calling on evil spirits,” she says.
Hoodoo, also known as conjuring or rootwork, is a cultural tradition practiced largely in the southern United States with ties to Yoruba religious spirits and deities, similar to voodoo and Santeria. As someone who’s active in community and spiritual healing, Makhosi finds a number of flaws in her culture’s presentation on the big and small screens.
“I would like to see more community” she tells Variety. “The [characters] are always a lone wolf, plotting somewhere in silence. I wish they would show the doctors, the teachers, the preachers. I wish there were more involvement from Black witches in the creation of these shows.”
When speaking specifically about Black witches being shown alongside white counterparts, Makhosi doesn’t mince words when she echoes a decades-long critique: Black witches are usually shown with evil tendencies and rarely get happy endings. She cites multiple examples — “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina’s” Rosalind Walker, “The Vampire Diaries’” Bonnie Bennett, “American Horror Story: Coven’s” Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau and Queenie — all of whom were left without a happy ending or whose storyline was wrought with racist plot lines. Even the CW’s “Charmed” reboot, which now follows the story of three Latinx sisters, falls short of the progressive light it aimed for, as Macy Vaughn (Madeleine Mantock) becomes an evil witch.
We deserve a series about black witches but without the intense racist elements to overshadow the curiosity and excitement around magic and African spirituality. Sabrina got to have her fun carefree I want the same for a black witch with her own story line and family, it's time
— Hê§†wï¢k👼🏿 𝕭𝖆𝖙𝖙𝖑𝖊 𝕬𝖓𝖌𝖊𝖑 (@HESTWlCK) October 15, 2020
One film that serves as a slight reprieve from the racist storylines is Paramount Pictures’ “Spell.” Featuring a predominantly Black cast, the thriller still showcases Black witchcraft but without demonizing hoodoo as a whole. While it’s hoodoo that traps the main character Marquis Woods (Omari Hardwick) in a centuries-old attic of a witch (played by Loretta Devine), the hoodoo lessons he learned from his father as a child help save him and his family.
Nevertheless — even in fictional stories — Hollywood’s minority witch characters are unable to escape the grasp of racism and its many branches. The characters are either expected to rise above racist microaggressions and attacks or demonized for seeking retribution. Black witches have a tendency to fall into two categories — supportive friends to the more powerful and popular protagonist or a witch with some malevolent quality.
“It’s almost like Black women have to give up their power no matter what,” Makhosi says.
Historically speaking, today’s representations are a continuation of the stereotypical black characters: Zip Coon and Jim Crow, according to UCLA’s Professor of Culture and Performance Donald Cosentino. As the editor and chief writer of “The Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou,” he’s worked on a number of shows as a consultant to help create characters that dabble in the complicated religion, most recently on Marvel’s “Cloak & Dagger.”
“If you think back to America and the minstrel shows, you’ve either got the gullible, subservient, kind or else you’ve got the brilliant and malign…. One is just laughable and the other scares the s–t out of you,” he says. “Either this magic is real and you just better get out of the way or it’s just all childish and you should just laugh. Those are the extremes, but they’re real and they continue.”
New Orleans voodoo and American hoodoo are both derived from Haitian vodou, which is being represented more often on TV of late. But unlike its representations, Professor Cosentino explains there’s really not much evil to these sacred religions.
“It goes back to the Haitian revolution,” he tells Variety. “Which actually scared the s–t out of America because it was the first and only successful national slave revolution in world history. And of course, what America saw was that the vast slave population in the United States could do this too and so there was the immediate beginning of this degradation of Haiti and of Haiti’s religion, which is vodou.”
One reason why vodou is portrayed as evil is because of zombie movies. A zombie craze was sparked in the 1980s after Harvard scientist Wade Davis traveled to Haiti to investigate two documented cases of zombies and wrote about his experience with vodou in “The Serpent and the Rainbow,” which inspired the 1988 film. Coincidentally, the United States also experienced a large migration of Black Cubans into the U.S. around the same time, Cosentino says, “making this religion, not just an artifact of history, but something which is becoming more and more visible in the streets of the big cities.”
Already aware of the many issues in Black witch stories, writer Moon Ferguson found a solution with her web series, “JuJu.” Available on Amazon Prime Video, the series follows three friends (a nod to the original “Charmed”) who, after realizing they suddenly have witchy powers tied to Santeria and voodoo, must learn to juggle their mundane millennial issues as well as their new magical ones.
After a 10-year journey from concept to full product, Ferguson says she was surprised when she found strong interest on social media in her vision that was so different from the typical witch stories.
“I don’t know if I was blind to it or ignorant to it, but I just started to see a lot of tweets and Facebook posts like, ‘Oh my God, when are we going to get a show about Black witches?’ So I just took that as a sign,” she says.
And from many tweets to the spirits’ ears, the show took flight on YouTube. Its first season currently sits with over 100,000 views. But she never foresaw the overflowing support she would receive when she began to write. Ferguson’s lifetime interest in the supernatural elements of these religions due to her West Indian/Cuban upbringing, along with her own disappointment surrounding various witch characters, inspired her to birth the series.
A sci-fi and fantasy fan, Ferguson had done her fair share of research to also know that the genre didn’t typically tell stories from a minority perspective. Along with taking a risk as a new filmmaker and concerns over production costs, she took yet another risk: She chose to right a Hollywood wrong by using authentic casting and telling her tale through a predominantly Black cast
“It’s so Black. Even in the little roles, like being an extra in the restaurant or the work best friend like Jama in Episode 2. She’s the work best friend, but it’s not like she’s the token Black girl, best friend to boost and uplift her white coworker. It’s literally just a sisterhood within the workplace.”
When asked why she would choose to bet on telling this story from a Black perspective, she says, “My hope was ‘they’re gonna see the Black people, Hispanic people, Latinx people and they’re going to see that we like this genre too and we can make it our own.”