Black History Month has begun, and many of us are awaiting the annual attempts by networks to appeal to black viewers with an overabundance of black content. We’ve mentally prepared for the yearly airing of Roots, the basic-cable double feature of Save The Last Dance and Drumline, and more of the same on other networks. But when Netflix announced that its new show Siempre Bruja—which centers on an Afro-Colombian, time-traveling witch—would premiere on the first day of Black History Month, interest was more than piqued. As live tweets were planned, Afro-Latinx viewers rejoiced in the representation that was coming their way. However, since the premiere on February 1, all we’ve really been left with are questions and concerns.
The mistakes made by Siempre Bruja, which was adapted from Isidora Chacón’s novel Yo, Bruja, start with marketing that buries the lede and extend to a creative team not equipped to do more than prop up a tired storytelling frame. When the initial trailer dropped, I will be the first to say that I wanted this more than anything. Stories about black/Latinx/Latin American witches are few and far between. The most famous witch of color, whose life has been fictionalized many times over, is Tituba; in 1692, she was accused by the people in Salem of witchcraft. Tituba’s life has been used as a tool in supernatural plots ever since, from Arthur Miller’s The Crucible and its 1996 film adaptation to her inclusion as an ancestor of Queenie’s on American Horror Story: Coven. But that’s been the extent of representation of black women and women of color. It’s far more common to have a predominantly white cast, in films like The Craft and Practical Magic, or shows like Sabrina The Teenage Witch and the original Charmed.
Netflix acquiring the rights to Siempre Bruja seemed to herald the start of an exciting new age, one in which bruja, curandera, and Creole witch stories would be told on major platforms. Still, the marketing left much to be desired. Although the series had been promoted with its original Spanish title, it was listed by the English translation, Always A Witch, on Netflix, confusing some users. The short promos, like the one above, teased the story of Carmen (Angely Gaviria), an Afro-Colombian witch from the 17th century who finds herself navigating a 21st-century Cartagena. The clips contained jokes about apps and levitation, but Carmen’s power was never in doubt. So when viewers tuned in to find that she’d only made a deal to time travel to the future to save her lover, Cristobal (Lenard Vanderaa), who happens to be her slave owner’s son, they were surprised then rightfully furious. In addition to being unimaginative, the enslaved woman/slave owner romance angle is a harmful one, as it usually presents sexual assault as a consensual relationship. The show hadn’t been promoted as extensively as others on the platform; a quick search on Twitter shows that the main accounts for the Netflix brands did not start plugging the series until the very end of January, mere days before the premiere. While viewers knew that Carmen had a relationship with what appeared to be a white Colombian man based on the trailer, the dynamics of the relationship and her death were not alluded to in promos. Which raises the question: Were the omissions of more controversial story elements intentional?
But even Siempre Bruja’s better-laid plans weren’t enough. While visually stunning with amazing use of music to capture the feel of Cartagena, the bulk of its execution is far from competent. There’s so much potential in the story of a black witch from 1646 being transported to an era of very different race relations. Instead, the series glosses over the realities of modern-day Colombia. Today black Colombians are not walking around performing degrading manual labor or wearing the slave garb that Carmen would be accustomed to, clothing that signified her status in the world. Instead, she dresses in the same clothing as her white Colombian counterparts, no questions asked. As when the hostel owner welcomes her with open arms, freely offering room and board and advice, she’s not fazed by people of a lighter complexion responding to her with kindness. Aside from the occasional crack about how “slavery has been over for hundreds of years,” there’s next to no acknowledgment of the seismic shift in Colombian politics and society. Carmen has more questions about Instagram than she does about the abolition of slavery and women’s ability to work outside of the home and even attend university.
These plot holes can happen when the people behind the scenes cannot relate to the story being told, which has the additional consequence of confusing, if not outright boring, viewers. One can’t help but wonder if this is supposed to be a story of aspiration as opposed to a story of oppression and overcoming. We have seen such an arc in the past—namely, in adaptations of the real-life story of Francisca da Silva de Oliveira. Often romanticized as Xica da Silva, she was enslaved in Brazil in the 18th century and would eventually come into wealth and power. Her story, like Tituba’s, has been fictionalized many times—through film, a telenovela, and even song. The 1976 film Xica—billed as a comedy, no less—was met with critical acclaim and even submitted for the Academy Awards considerations that year; the 1996 television adaptation starred Taís Araújo, the only black Brazilian in the country’s history to be the protagonist in a telenovela. But the romanticized versions are still comical or melodramatic, shying away from the harsh realities that enslaved people dealt with in an attempt to live a free life. Such missteps are the result of these productions being helmed by white Latin Americans: Cacá Diegues directed the 1976 film, while Walcyr Carrasco and Walter Avancini, respectively, wrote and directed the telenovela. This is also the case with Siempre Bruja, a Caracól Television production; the show’s creator and writer, Ana María Parra, is a white Colombian, as is the show’s producer, Dago García. It’s a potent reminder that when your writers room doesn’t reflect the story you’re trying to tell, there are going to be some glaring mistakes.
Stories like these, which essentially uphold inequitable racial power dynamics, have reemerged in the entertainment world as of late. Amma Asante’s Where Hands Touch caused such a stir on social media last month when the plotline—of a young black German woman falling in love with a member of the Nazi party—was discovered. Although these stories are, to an extent, rooted in history, their fetishization on screen is cause for concern. Previously, there was Marc Forster’s Monster’s Ball. Written by Will Rokos and Milo Addica (both white men), the racial power dynamic between Leticia (Halle Berry), a widowed mother, and Hank (Billy Bob Thornton), the corrections officer who oversaw the execution of Leticia’s husband, has been the subject of debate since the movie’s 2001 release. Hank is the only one aware of this connection, but withholds that information from Leticia before they have sex. Despite its prevalence, this trope has occasionally hindered the success of some films. 1994’s Corrina, Corrina, which starred Whoopi Goldberg and Ray Liotta, played on the nanny-maid/employer relationship, a power dynamic that critics felt was unnecessary to the story, and the commercial success was dampened. But beyond this troubling framing, the insistence on giving Carmen a white person to save suggests her own journey wouldn’t have been as interesting, which undermines the actual source of the series’ power.
After finishing the series, I have more questions now than when I began, the biggest being, what would it look like to have someone properly tell this story? Siempre Bruja has a more than capable cast, who do what they can with the material given. In her first lead outing, Angely Gaviria brings Carmen to life with both charisma and nuance, while Dylan Fuentes, who plays Carmen’s friend Jhony Ki, manages to steal every scene he appears in with his bad boy charm. It’s clear that when creatives attempt to occupy a space and tell a story that is not their own, they face huge obstacles. Ultimately, Siempre Bruja fails on many fronts, not just representation—the creative team does nothing to subvert a harmful trope or fully explore its most promising idea, that of an Afro-Colombian witch navigating both social and technological change. There’s a delicious irony in one of the show’s themes, an examination of what it’s like to be under the microscope of social media, taking on a life of its own outside of the show. The door to valid criticism opened the moment that first (of too few) promotional tweets went out, but unlike Carmen, Siempre Bruja can’t travel back in time to change anything.