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Black Conjure Women: How The White Gaze Mistreats Black Witches in Film

Along with the misuse of the erotic and demonization of our spiritual practice, Black magical identity has been used as a source of horror for white masses.

By Monika Estrella Negra 

As a filmmaker and a witch, I use film as a means of reconnecting with my roots and I believe we are currently experiencing and witnessing a major movement in the land of film and television. Marginalized voices and characters are being introduced to new audiences and there has been ground re-explored with hopes of creating authenticity within multiple genres. I want to touch base on pioneers who were among the first to create their own characters in the genre-specific film and I want to utilize a Black feminist critique in how our sisters in magic are depicted to audiences, and how it resonates within our depiction in our communities. I have often thought about how different it would be if BIPOC had control of our own narratives within this genre. 

Two characters that have always held vividly in my memory are Epiphany Proudfoot (Lisa Bonet) from Angel Heart (1987) and Marielle Duchamp (Cathy Tyson) from The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988). Both Epiphany and Marielle were limited from their potential power as earlier role models for Black witches. Having to be attached to the white, cisgender, male eye while also fighting against colonized traditionalist respectability politics have always been apart of coming out as a Black witch. 

Epiphany and Marielle are both victims of the abuse and misuse of the true power of the erotic within the colonialist patriarchal gaze. Audre Lorde once wrote that the idea of the erotic has been used as a means to justify the subordination and lack of feeling women are giving in their lives. One standing cliché has always been that of the magical conjure woman who also participates in delights of the flesh, completely uninhibited and free. Contrasted with the image of the thin, purity of witchy white femininity, it makes the Black conjure woman open to any and every type of scrutiny that exists against her being. To be comfortable in one’s body despite eurocentric beauty standards has always been at the forefront of Black women’s plight. It is also a trope that justifies acts of violence against Black women. Scrutiny turns to violence and the public forgets or condemns her for living a non-Christian lifestyle. Or being “too fass”—too confident in her power—and embracing the erotic

Angela Basset as Marie Laveau in “American Horror Story: Coven”

Film has always been a discipline capable of encapsulating social ethos within any genre. Horror is not exempt from any of the aforementioned social ills and is at times the most blatantly misinformed genre to date. Depictions of witches have always held a standard fit for the white gaze. Thin, ethereal creatures that defy their white patriarchal masters, held tightly with the flames of satanic beauty. Black conjure women have always illustrated images of Marie Laveau (most famously portrayed by Angela Bassett in American Horror Story: Coven) or Tituba—women who were rebellious and deemed more devilish than the devil himself. Women that found no need in using conjure to make a man fall to his knees—them, standing in their power would serve as the only aphrodisiac. 

Angel Heart follows Harry Angel (Mickey Rourke) at the height of his career as a conventional New York private investigator hired by the mysterious Louis Cyphre (Robert De Niro) to find an acquaintance named Johnny Favorite, a singer who was known for his activities in the occult. The search carries Angel to New Orleans, where he eventually comes across Epiphany. When we first meet Epiphany, she is traipsing through an impoverished ward in the swamp with a small child. She is soft-spoken, whimsical and highly sensualized once the camera lands on her. Her surroundings imply that she is a diamond in the rough, stopping to wash her long and curly hair with simple soap in a nearby well. Angel approaches her while she runs her fingers through her hair, water wetting her white t-shirt. It’s as pulpy as it sounds! Despite being very young, the “growness” and sexuality of Epiphany is evidenced by her toddler son and her vivacious and bloody possession at a Vodun ceremony. Angel spies on her during the sacrifice of a chicken, her breasts bloody and exposed (Did I mention that she is supposed to be 17!?). 

Lisa Bonet as Epiphany Proudfoot in “Angel Heart”

Marielle Duchamp suffers the same fate. In Wes Craven’s The Serpent and the Rainbow, very loosely based on the anthropological dissertation by Wade Davis, is a schlocky horror camp film led by Bill Pullman, an anthropologist searching for the drug used to turn people into zombies. Marielle is a Haitian born doctor/Vodun Priestess who ends up becoming the romantic interest of Pullman, only to be tragically reduced to one of the earliest known occurrences of the Manic Pixie Witch in horror films. Despite her title as a doctor, she is reduced to a tokenized prop for Pullman’s character to conquer and “fall in love” with, while putting her in harm’s way. She too is thin, light-skinned and portrayed as a walking Erzulie Freda—attractive, sensual and unknown. As with most love interests, and the history of white people picking and choosing the desirable from Black culture, it makes sense that these characters were made to fit Eurocentric beauty standards. 

Cathy Tyson as Marielle Duchamp in “The Serpent and the Rainbow”

While these two characters are different in the aspects of storylines, the synchronicity of their looks, behavior, and portrayal was all too familiar in both films and became testaments to the problem of the white gaze and the Black magical divine, specifically concerning the magical Divine Feminine and its deities. Hollywood has always had a long tradition of furthering the racist belief of the inferiority of ‘Blackness’ and has not been exempt from aiding the demonization of Black spirituality. Along with the misuse of the erotic and demonization of our spiritual practice, Black magical identity has been utilized as a source of horror for the white masses. Whether it was White Zombie in the 1930’s or American Horror Story: Coven in this century with the disrespectful treatment of Papa Legba, the “lessening” or ghettoization of the Black witches—it can be safe to assume that as long as we remain silent about who we are, we will be seen as the demon in Westernized eyes. 

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I would also be remiss to not mention the appropriation of Black magic within in non-Black covens, while negating the oppressions and social strife Black witches deal with. Our magic is desirable but our lives and who we are never are. While there have been strides in promoting positive imagery and precise representation of our faiths, it can only be certain that accurate depiction of our worlds will only be achieved if we — Black BIPOC witches, priests and spiritual leaders — have the power and are able to create our own narratives. 

Monika Estrella Negra is a queer, Black punk/goth hybrid of mystery. Her first short titled “Flesh” is about a Black femme serial killer navigating the Chicago DIY punk scene (of which was included in the ‘Horror Noire’ syllabus). She has directed three additional shorts, ‘They Will Know You By Your Fruit’, ‘Succubus’, and the in production ‘Bitten, A Tragedy’. A writer, a nomadic priestess, spiritual gangster and all around rabblerouser – Monika has written essays for Black Girl Nerds, Grimm Magazine, Black Girls Create, Black Youth Project, Rue Morgue, and is the author of a zine series (Tales From My Crypt). In addition, she is the creator of Audre’s Revenge Film and Black and Brown Punk Show Chicago, a GRRL Haus Cinema Resident Filmmaker (2019), Co-Chair of Communications for Alliance of Women Directors, a 2018 Leeway Foundation Art and Change Grantee, and is aspiring to become a Meme Lord. Hailing from the Midwest, she now resides in Philadelphia, focusing on completing her Vengeance Anthology.

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