The Magical Negro trope is an incredibly pervasive character portrayal in many film genres. A Black character uses their efforts to guide a more privileged, white character to their goals. This comes at the expense of their own pursuits, often leading to them giving their lives for the cause. This describes many Black characters in horror, like Dick Halloran in The Shining and Jezelle Gay Hartman in Jeepers Creepers. Mysticism and Blackness typically mean stereotypes will reign supreme.
Unfortunately, the portrayal of Black witches tends to follow the stigmatizing elements of this trope. But, when you think of those who steer clear of this pitfall, one iconic character who comes to mind is Angela Bassett’s Marie Laveau from American Horror Story: Coven. The third season of Ryan Murphy’s critically acclaimed anthology series brought audiences to Louisiana with a story full of witches, ghosts, and serial killers. Viewers initially followed a private school of witches in New Orleans. But the story became entrenched in a battle of magical forces: the coven versus the voodoo practitioners of Marie Laveau.
Based on the actual Voodoo Queen of New Orleans, Bassett’s Marie Laveau was a powerful voodoo practitioner and community leader in New Orleans. A shrewd entrepreneur, her work extended beyond personal gain. From the American slavery era to Jim Crow to the present-day, she used her abilities to uplift and protect the New Orleans’ Black residents. Although not on the friendliest of terms, Marie also created a truce between her voodoo practitioners and the witches in the city.
Her focus was to protect her community and seek revenge against those who dared to threaten it. Based on how she gave multiple AHS: Coven characters a run for their money, she did a good job. Whether it was through raising hordes of zombies, creating powerful potions, or simply using her charisma, Marie Laveau was a force to be reckoned with. Interestingly, she’s often painted as a villain. But her moral compass ultimately leaned towards keeping her community safe. This is a woman who recognizes her power and intelligence and isn’t afraid to use them. Her “by any means necessary” mentality kept her and her fellow practitioners protected. In the very end, she brought hell to her enemies. And it was glorious.
Unlike many magical Black characters, she did not use her abilities at the expense of her well-being. And she certainly would not make a sacrifice for her white counterparts. In “The Replacements,” Marie is asked by Cordelia Goode (Sarah Paulson), daughter of the reigning Witch Supreme, Fiona Goode (Jessica Lange), to perform a fertility spell. Marie laughs at the thought of ever helping her or Fiona’s fellow witches.
This is a far cry from the Black witches whose narratives are built around protecting white leads. Black witch portrayals prior to and after Bassett’s award-nominated take on Marie Laveau seldom do this. Witches like Bonnie Bennett (and her grandmother) from The Vampire Diaries consistently showcase their increasingly powerful abilities. Still, they lose everything to protect mostly white protagonists.
Viola Davis’ Amarie “Amma” Treadeau in Beautiful Creatures did not have to sacrifice herself as she does in the book series; however, she’s a conduit of wisdom and guidance to the white main characters. Within the book, her character is the nanny to Ethan Wate. An amalgamation of her book character and a librarian, Amma is the keeper of caster knowledge. Unfortunately, she isn’t developed beyond fulfilling a caretaker role within the film.
The recent Chilling Adventures of Sabrina delivers a bevy of Black witches. Rosalind is a conduit for what she calls “the cunning,” Marie LaFleur is a voodoo practitioner, and Prudence and Ambrose dish out powerful spells as a witch and warlock, respectively. But even Rosalind and Ambrose fall prey to providing wisdom and sacrificing their needs for their white counterparts.
Granted, nothing is above critique. As great as Bassett’s rendition of Marie was, there is also room to explore Black witches beyond the parameters of voodoo. We see this in exceptions like Rochelle and Tabby from The Craft and The Craft: Legacy. Fringilla in The Witcher, Prudence in Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, Abigail in Motherland: Fort Salem, and even in Gabourey Sidibe’s Queenie in American Horror Story: Coven all deliver magical Black witches who aren’t aligned with voodoo.
Their sources of power vary and they do not always use it for ill intentions. It is a reflection of the multitudes that Black people can be, something we need more of in media. If only everyone could follow Kasi Lemmon’s film Eve’s Bayou, which shows witches with a wide range of personalities and motivations.
Angela Bassett’s rendition of Marie Laveau was an entryway into how we can imagine Black witches onscreen. Perhaps one day we will see them running their own covens or working solo, having flaws, and not sacrificing themselves for others’ sake. The door is wide open so let more Laveau-like witches enter.