Why Can’t Black Witches Get Some Respect in Popular Culture?

Photo-Illustration: Vulture and Photos by WGN and FX

In TV, movies, and real life, women have been at the forefront of the year’s biggest stories — so this Halloween season, we’re looking at pop culture’s most wicked depiction of female power.

You can learn a lot about the soul of a city by how it treats its dead.

New Orleans doesn’t fear death, but has it stitched into the very fabric of its identity. It’s a place where history weighs on your shoulders at every corner. It has a fatalism etched in the twilight, high-pitched revelry that defines its exuberant citizens and their fierce acknowledgment that history is not something you leave behind, but carry with you every day. It’s evident in how voodoo and folk magic aren’t just granted importance by local practitioners, but has become, for better or for worse, a valued tool to pull in tourists. In the summers I spent there as a child, I created a ritual I continue to this day: admiring the beauty and opulence of the mausoleums that pack its cemeteries. One such mausoleum was that of Marie Laveau, the famed Voodoo Queen of New Orleans, buried in Saint Louis Cemetery No. 1.

Laveau is as elusive a figure as the lineage of New Orleans voodoo itself — much that is known about her is blurred by conjecture and mythology. But what can be substantiated is how Laveau’s story has become deeply interwoven with New Orleans’ identity. Laveau’s visage can be found on murals and T-shirts, the gris-gris bags sold to tourists, and in museums meant to acknowledge the city’s importance within the folk-magic community. Her influence extends beyond the brutal beauty of the city she called home, seeping into pop culture — including Marvel comics, the Neil Gaiman novel American Gods, and the TV series Lost Girl — that’s interested in giving historical heft to its supernatural explorations, most recently with Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story: Coven, in which Angela Bassett played the revered Voodoo Queen.

Laveau encapsulates better than any other historical figure the narrow position black witches hold in the public imagination. (It’s important to note that, to examine this trend, I am using “witches” as a catch-all term for these characters, including rootworkers and voodoo priestesses.) While their practices — whether Haitian voodou or rootwork — are appropriated to add a flash of exoticism, they often remain thinly drawn figures, pushed to the margins of their respective stories. They are used to incite fear or curiosity in the white imagination, which remains deeply suspicious of black ancestral practices that don’t allow for easy translation. In pop culture, the historical underpinnings of these practices — which were brought to America by slaves trying to fiercely hold onto their own belief systems, even as colonialism tried to beat it out of them — are traded for a simpler, highly exoticized portrayal.

This is exacerbated by the fact that there is a yawning chasm in pop-culture history in which black witches are rarely explored. From Naomie Harris’s Pirates of the Caribbean character Tia Dalma to the forever-sidelined Bonnie and her brethren in The Vampire Diaries to the wry teen witch Rochelle in the beloved 1990s cult classic The Craft, the black witches we do see are predominantly sketches, not characters with interiority, despite the considerable talents of the actresses that bring them to life. Of course, it should be noted that witches need not be women: Marie Laveau was said to have studied under Dr. John, a fabled New Orleans voodoo figure; film and television history is occasionally punctuated by male practitioners, including Nelsan Ellis’s vulgar grace as Lafayette in True Blood or the folk practices exemplified by Danny Glover’s slippery performance in Charles Burnett’s To Sleep With Anger. But in real life and pop culture, witchcraft is one of the few avenues in which women are exalted and seen as powerful figures to be respected. The lack of powerful black witches in film and TV is a symptom of a larger problem that has existed in America since its very beginning: the fear of black women’s autonomy and prowess.

Nowhere are the issues with representation for black witches more stark than when considering those that practice hoodoo, voodoo, or various folk magic. Voodoo — a religion that has two primary strains in Haitian voodou and New Orleans voodoo, which melds the practice with Catholicism — has long been used in horror films to denote “the other.” Take early zombie films like White Zombie (1932), more recent fare, like the sprawling series of Chucky horror films, Lisa Bonet’s sexually overwrought turn in Angel Heart (1987), and The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988).

But despite hoodoo and voodoo’s presence in these narratives, black characters are either opaque or don’t appear at all. As Katrina Hazzard-Donald writes in her in-depth study, Mojo Workin’: The Old African Hoodoo System, “Even in the twenty-first century, unfounded prejudice, misrepresentation, and misunderstanding of traditional African religion still continue. Unfortunately, contemporary popular images, with unlimited power to capture the psyche […] have continued to be the most powerful tools in reinforcing the older misrepresentations. Where these images would be contested and challenged, the African as the human element is simply excluded from the portrayal.” In effect, the history of black witches in film and TV is less one of misrepresentation than of a stunning absence.

Of the films where black witches are actually represented, one of the earliest examples is 1934’s Drums O’ Voodoo. In it, the religion is buttressed by a primarily black cast, making it the first horror film to do so. The witch at its heart is voodoo priestess Auntie Hagar (Laura Bowman). While voodoo is somewhat criticized in the film, she proves to be the voice of reason and is blessedly not depicted as a monstrous figure. Unfortunately, since Drums O’Voodoo, voodoo priests and priestesses have mostly been evoked as figures to be scorned, or as outright villains. One of the most egregious examples of this is 2005’s The Skeleton Key.

The Skeleton Key is a deliriously ridiculous horror film that makes little use of its Louisiana setting, hoodoo, or the horror inherent to its premise. But it is a useful, modern example of how black witches are both silenced and used to exemplify the deeply white American fear of black folk magic. The Skeleton Key’s horror comes from its two hoodoo practitioners — Papa Justify (Ronald McCall) and Mama Cecile (Jeryl Prescott) — who have been using the “Conjure of Sacrifice” to possess the bodies of white people for the past 90 years in order to live eternally.  What’s frustrating about The Skeleton Key and other films that render black witches in this manner are the thorny racial dynamics the filmmakers skirt entirely. Neither Papa Justify nor Mama Cecile are seen speaking much for themselves when we see them in their original black bodies. And there is something inherently cruel, and boldly callous, about taking the black folk magic that slaves practiced to hold onto their history and twisting it into a method of horror against white people.

In American Horror Story: Coven, Bassett’s take on Marie Laveau is granted more narrative importance and deeper characterization than the hoodoo practitioners seen in The Skeleton Key, but she is ultimately a host of contradictions. She’s an immortal powerhouse, until the narrative calls for her to be easily outdone by her white counterparts. She’s respected in the community, using her abilities to fight against racist strictures, but will also sacrifice her own children and underlings if it will protect her authority. As someone who considers New Orleans my second home, there is something about the portrayal of its ancestral black folk practices, as seen through Laveau, that feels emotionally distant, like a tourist skipping through Bourbon Street at 2 a.m. and believing they have an understanding of the city in all its ragged, blistering complexity. It isn’t merely surface level, it’s a caricature. Of course, Laveau serves gumbo and speaks with an unplaceable accent. It’s an outsider’s understanding of this city and its magic — all flash and little substance.

It isn’t that reimaginings of Laveau, like the one in Coven, are bad in and of themselves. I don’t necessarily want black witches in film and TV to always cleave to realism. But what this portrayal lacks, and what ultimately undoes it, is its lack of a sense of community. Laveau’s willingness to destroy the extremely powerful “Supreme” witch Fiona Goode (Jessica Lange) and the immortal racist murderess Delphine LaLaurie (Kathy Bates) using any means necessary, even manipulating members of her own community, makes her gestures toward black political resistance hollow. Hoodoo, voodoo, and folk magic of all sorts are deeply tied to community. Trading this dimension of these practices to depict a lone figure, who uses the cover of night to hide her horrific deeds, turns beliefs meant to celebrate our ancestors into fantastical methods, solely used to bring down white people who are deemed troublesome.

Beyond Marie Laveau, the most important historical black witch in film and TV is, undoubtedly, Tituba, an enslaved woman who was accused of witchcraft during the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. Tituba has appeared in both film versions of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, Maid of Salem, and has been name-checked in countless works, most recently portrayed by Ashley Madekwe in the canceled WGN series Salem.

Tituba is crucial to understanding how black witches have been framed by pop culture, which makes it startling to learn she likely wasn’t actually a black woman. In reality, Tituba was a South American native who sailed from Barbados. There is no evidence that she even practiced voodoo. But in the wake of high-profile works like The Crucible, voodoo has been irrevocably tied to our understanding of both her and that point in history.

As Stacy Schiff writes for Smithsonian Magazine, “Described as Indian no fewer than 15 times in the court papers, she went on to shift-shape herself. As scholars have noted, falling prey to a multi-century game of telephone, Tituba evolved over two centuries from Indian to half-Indian to half-black to black, with assists from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (who seemed to have plucked her from Macbeth), historian George Bancroft and William Carlos Williams. By the time Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible, in 1952, Tituba was a ‘Negro slave.’” She further explains the reasoning for this dramatic shift, writing, “Her history was written by men, working when African voodoo was more electrifying than outmoded English witchcraft. All wrote after the Civil War, when a slave was understood to be black. Miller believed Tituba had actively engaged in devil worship; he read her confession — and the 20th-century sources — at face value.” Tituba has become an outsize figure in pop culture’s approach to black witches not because of a sincere interest in the interiority of these women, but a desire for sensationalism easily wrought by creating a simplistic portrayal of voodoo.

It shouldn’t be surprising that the black witches and priestesses who feel the most richly explored and understood are ones written by black women. In Queen Sugar, the television series brought to the screen by Ava DuVernay, Rutina Wesley plays Nova Bordelon, an activist based in New Orleans who also is a hoodoo rootworker respected by her community. Nova’s practices aren’t the center of her characterization, and Queen Sugar is steadfastly based in realism rather than the supernatural. But this quality adds dimension to Nova’s story; a tender ritual she does with her sister in the season-two episode “Caroling Dusk” is beautiful to behold for its simplicity and how carefully it is threaded into the scene. The ritual is used as both a cleansing and christening of Charley’s new home. Charley looks at Nova somewhat incredulously as she lights herbs and lets the smoke waft through the apartment, with Nova using feathers to guide the smoke into various corners. Then there’s Beyoncé, who, while not explicitly playing a priestess in her magnum opus Lemonade, used various Yoruba traditions and folk practices as visual inspiration. But you have to go back 20 years to find the most in-depth, authentic, and moving portrait of black witches: the 1997 independent film Eve’s Bayou.

Eve’s Bayou is a film I’ve cherished since childhood. It centers on a prosperous Creole community in 1960s rural Louisiana, seen from the perspective of 10-year old Eve Batiste (Jurnee Smollett) as she recounts the story of her father’s death, which she feels responsible for. The witches in the story are Eve’s aunt, Mozelle Batiste Delacroix (Debbi Morgan), and the powerful Elzora (Diahann Carroll). Eve’s Bayou gently teases the supernatural, but is remarkably accurate when it comes to its approach to rootwork. In the film, the term “voodoo” is inaccurately used, but I’ve always seen that as being due to the story being from the perspective of a 10-year-old who doesn’t know the particular grooves of these practices.

Of all the characters in the film, it’s Mozelle who proves to be the most fascinating. Mozelle is popular among locals who are looking to understand the troubles of their present or the course of their future. She advises them with various hoodoo practices and has a fascinating history of her own — every man she’s ever loved has died by violent ends. She’s quick-witted, passionate, and fiercely independent. Most importantly, she has a quality lacking in other black witches in pop culture: a sense of humanity. Mozelle’s humanity is rendered in how deeply she cares for her community and her value within it, as various people turn to her in times of need. Actress Debbi Morgan lends a quiet strength and fierce empathy to the character. But the writing also gives her great dimension: She’s witnessed watching over Eve, helping her sister-in-law, performing rootwork, and navigating the deaths of the men she’s loved.

One passage I was particularly struck by in Mojo Workin’ crystallizes what makes  Eve’s Bayou so moving compared to other depictions of black witches:

“As Hoodoo developed, it was known in all the slave community and was a part of the psychic structure of every individual enslaved there. […] It addressed the needs of the slave community and, later, the free African American community; it integrated psychological support, spiritual direction, physical strength, and medicinal treatment. It helped define the cultural uniqueness of the old black belt nation, its members, and their descendants.”

Hoodoo and (New Orleans) voodoo have been warped over time by the opportunistic confidence artists who have added it to their arsenal. But they’ve also been undermined and disrespected by one of the most powerful tools at the disposal of white patriarchal structures that continue to otherize blackness: film and TV. Writer-director Kasi Lemmons’s artistry and sincere respect for the knotted culture of black Creoles in rural Louisiana proves how rich this storytelling can be when it actually explores the interior lives of black witches in American history, rather than using them as thinly drawn vehicles for exoticism and horror.

It may very well be naïve to expect historical truths and cultural sensitivity when it comes to filmmakers approaching black witches, whether they practice Wicca, hoodoo, or New Orleans voodoo. But as black political identity has become a vital criterion for how pop culture is judged, it seems foolish to ignore this lineage. I yearn to see black witches who are bold and unyielding, venomous and tenderhearted, solemn rural practitioners and silver-tongued city dwellers. I yearn to see black witches given interiority and narrative importance like their white counterparts, whether that be in prickly dramas that acknowledge the thorny history of the South or archly constructed supernatural fare. I yearn to see the culture of my ancestors explored in all its vibrant complexity, not whittled down in order to find new ways to frighten white people about the cultures they’ve had a hand in demonizing since this country’s beginning.

Why Can’t Black Witches Get Some Respect in Popular Culture?