How Afrofuturism makes space for Black women to shine on screen
'What really sets Afrofuturism apart is its astute attention to the representation of women'
In case you hadn't heard, Afrofuturism is what's up right now.
Afrofuturism, a term coined in the early 1990s, looks at sociopolitical issues through an Afrocentric, futuristic and science fiction lens. In essence, Afrofuturism is Black people's response to largely white (sub)genres such as sci-fi, fantasy and all things supernatural. And it's been around for decades. Musician Sun Ra was one of the first to explore it through music, combining themes of hard bop, outer space and Egyptian culture in his music videos (and whose influence could later be seen in artists like Janelle Monae, Erykah Badu and Janet Jackson). Authors like Samuel R. Delaney and Octavia Butler bore contemporary Afro-mysticist writers like Nigerian-American Nnedi Okorafor. And with the highly anticipated release of Marvel's Black Panther this week, it's hard not to get caught up in all the excitement.
Afrofuturism largely reimagines a Black future, but it's also rooted in a supernatural Black past.- Lindsey Addawoo, writer
But what really sets Afrofuturism apart from the rest of the speculative fiction world is its astute attention to the representation of women — particularly Black women — throughout the ages. From shapeshifting omnipotent beings in Octavia Butler anthologies to the sexually diverse and technologically-advanced Dora Milaje in Black Panther, we've been blessed with different representations of Black women with strong agency in the supernatural realm.
Afrofuturism has provided room for a wide range of roles and purposes for Black women on screen that draw from African diasporic cultures. Whether we're bald-headed, spear-wielding female warriors or magical witches from the bayou, some of the most complex representations of Black women have come in the form of witches, Voodoo priestesses and freedom fighters. And with each iteration of Black women in Afrofuturist settings, there's one thing they and their abilities all share in common: a profound, intrinsic tie to culture.
Afrofuturism largely reimagines a Black future, but it's also rooted in a supernatural Black past.
We've come a long way from simplistic — and sometimes demonized — representations of Black magic. Gone are the days where we relied on white narratives depicting voiceless, one-dimensional Black slaves "corrupting" innocent children with evil magic. We've moved on from not knowing who they were, where they came from or what they were capable of to characters like Tia Dalma of Pirates of the Caribbean, who uses resurrecting magic and forces Jack Sparrow to look within. We've evolved to Bonnie Bennett of The Vampire Diaries, who continually uses healing magic to help vampire friends. And we've reached our final form with Marie Laveau of American Horror Story: Coven, the all-powerful 18th century immortal priestess from the French Quarter of New Orleans, who can pretty much do anything.
Whether we're bald-headed, spear-wielding female warriors or magical witches from the bayou, some of the most complex representations of Black women have come in the form of witches, Voodoo priestesses and freedom fighters.- Lindsey Addawoo, writer
And yet, despite all the literal Black girl magic, there are still remnants of familiar tropes that mainstream pop culture has a hard time leaving behind. Afrofuturist Black women who are part of mixed casts are still, to an extent, subjugated to a lesser supernatural "mammy" archetype: to aid with the betterment of their white counterparts.
One thing many of these Black women share in common in pop culture is their antiheroism. In many of these works, they're demonized for their beliefs from outer society, ostracized for their disbelief from their own colonized communities and are still tasked with keeping people safe. They're often nudged to use their magic in compromising ways despite the consequences that come with evoking spells and changing nature. Sometimes their very existence is a complication of both good and evil.
In the cases of more popular, supplementary characters like Tia Dalma, Bonnie Bennett and Marie Laveau, the women are sought out and asked for some level of sacrifice in order to assist white protagonists. It isn't until an iconic showdown in AHS: Coven that we see a powerful Black priestess boldly stand up to her adversary and inform her of the true origins of her magic: Africa.
A lot of supernaturalism seen in older Black American works — such as Eve's Bayou, Daughters of the Dust, and Beloved — centre around Black community, family and tradition. Much of this stems from historical cultural traditions with religious roots in Haitian Vodou and West African mysticism. But unlike Haitian Vodou, Louisiana Voodoo lays a heavy emphasis on specificities like gris-gris — protective amulets originating in Ghana and tied to Senegal — and the role of Voodoo queens leading ceremonial rituals, for example.
In Eve's Bayou, Mozelle (Debbi Morgan) and Elzora (Diahan Carroll) evoke southern gothic mysticism and cultural supernaturalism from deep in the bayous of Louisiana for a number of reasons: to predict the future, to find lost loved ones and, yes, to curse the soon-to-be damned.
In Canada, works from Caribbean-Canadian author Nalo Hopkins' Brown Girl in The Ring (now adapted to film as Brown Girl Begins) have laid the groundwork for Black Canadian women in Afrofuturist settings. And while it's set a heavy precedent for Black Caribbean women at the centre of their own heroic tales, it most certainly won't be the last.
Black women in Afrofuturism are here to stay — and we're all better for it.