A New Black Magic: How 'The Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina’s Black Protagonists Get Free
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A New Black Magic: How 'The Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina’s Black Protagonists Get Free

The first season of The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, the Netflix reimagining of the Archie Comics’ teen witch, garnished praise and criticism alike. While heralded as a progressive and unabashedly feminist narrative, the series left many Black viewers frustrated. Although Ambrose—Sabrina Spellman’s cousin—is a powerful pansexual warlock and necromancer, his freedom is muzzled by the terms of his house arrest, essentially making him a prisoner in his own home. Prudence (Tati Gabrielle), one of the three Weird Sisters, is well-versed in divination, an influential member of her coven, and a top student at the Academy of the Dark Arts. She is the Queen of the Feast and leads the harrowing, but she still yearns for validation from Father Blackwood, the tyrannical patriarch who refuses to publicly claim her. Rosalind (also known as Roz) is a dedicated friend, an advocate for justice, and possess the ability to see what others overlook (literally and figuratively), but she (like all the women in her family) is forced to reckon with the curse of the cunning, premonitions, and the looming threat of blindness.

After Sabrina’s debut, many fans felt that the series treatment of its Black protagonists was problematic due to Ambrose’s imprisonment, the noose placed around Prudence’s neck, and Roz’s curse. It's no wonder.

Since the beginning of cinema, the representation of Blackness has oftentimes coincided with the perpetuation of dehumanizing tropes, oppressive misconceptions, and problematic stereotypes, particularly so when it comes to Black witches. For decades, Hollywood has limited Black witchcraft and supernatural abilities to the role of villain, spectacle, or guide. Rarely have these characters been given the space to cultivate a path of their own and foster change for the sake of themselves.

But after years of on-screen Black witches like The Vampire Diaries' criminally underused and perpetually sacrificed Bonnie Bennett, viewers are given the chance to watch Black witches and seers manifest their desires on their own terms through the characters on Sabrina. To reduce these Black characters' identities solely to their suffering on the show is to dismiss the complexity of their humanity and respective journeys. Despite the weight of history and Hollywood’s oftentimes cringe-worthy depiction of Black embodiment, viewers must remember to be human—mortal, witch, or warlock—is to suffer, endure, resist, and grow. What might look like a trope at first glance is something much more complex.

Already renewed for two more seasons, the latest installment of the series proves that Sabrina’s Black characters are so much more than just white-adjacent. Each episode allows Ambrose, Roz, and Prudence to each have a destiny independent of Sabrina Spellman. When viewers are willing to scratch beneath the surface, their depth is inarguably revealed.

Though initially portrayed in the series as a disempowered warlock, Ambrose’s independence fully emerges as season two progresses. As Sabrina finds her footing at the Academy of Dark Arts and within her coven, Ambrose—now free from house arrest per Father Blackwood’s request—quickly acclimates to his new role within the Church of Night and reintegrates himself into the social fabric of the coven. He becomes a part of Blackwood’s inner circle, and simultaneously deepens his relationships with Prudence and his boyfriend Luke. When Luke scoffs at Sabrina’s desire to become Top Boy, Ambrose supports his cousin’s efforts while also calling her out on her contradictions. During a tarot reading at Doctor Ceberus’ shop, Ambrose is given a disturbing glimpse into a possible future and demands to see the final card in his reading. Once he obtains it, he rushes out the door, determined to counterbalance the tarot reader’s predictions by enacting his free will.

While talking to Sabrina about the task that the Dark Lord asked him to complete, Ambrose recounts the story of a letter he sent a former classmate who had feelings for him. When Sabrina asks him what he wrote in the letter, Ambrose responds by telling her that he’d rather not say, erecting a boundary between himself and his cousin, a reminder that she, his aunts, nor Father Blackwood have complete mastery over him and that despite his allegiance to the Dark Lord and the Church of Night, Ambrose is not an open book. Even with Leviathan (his familiar) unknowingly burrowed inside him, Ambrose’s ethos and his integrity guides him further and further away from Blackwood’s tyranny. Like the marionettes and masks that hang from the walls of his bedroom, Ambrose’s skepticism towards Blackwood keeps him from being fully controlled by the wayward High Priest who weaponized Ambrose’s trauma—the lingering shadow of his parents’ deaths and the more recent loss of Luke—against him. Despite being accused of the assassination of the Anti-Pope and imprisoned, Ambrose continues to pursue the path aligned with his ethics and when he comes face-to-face with the evangelical witch hunters, he alerts his fellow witches, which proves to be vital to the ultimate survival of the coven.

Reminiscent of the three cards in his tarot reading in Chapter 15, Ambrose embodies a trinity of sorts: The Hierophant, the Devil, and Death. Like the Hierophant, Ambrose possesses the ability to interpret and exhume what is hidden. Like Christ in the New Testament, he holds the metaphorical keys of heaven and hell—of freedom and self-mastery—within him. Illustrated by Leviathan (whom Ambrose later regurgitates), the key of bone that Ambrose pulls from his mouth while held prisoner at the Academy, and the tarot card that he takes with him while fleeing from his ominous reading, all enable Ambrose to further free himself from the vicious grip of Blackwood’s heretical ideologies in addition to the weight of his past. Just as the figures on the card of the Devil are able to slip from the chains that bind them, Ambrose can choose to reclaim his power and autonomy. Once he does so, he is able to resurrect his selfhood. Like Death, he marches forward, possessing the power to reanimate what others cannot. As an advocate for himself and others—Luke, Prudence, the Spellmans, and the coven—Ambrose embraces his freedom.

Like Ambrose, Prudence’s path towards liberation is paved in the wake of loss and a series of illuminating revelations. At the end of Season One, she finds out that she is Father Blackwood’s daughter (thanks to Aunt Hilda’s enchanted truth cake), a discovery that initially gives her what she’s always yearned for: legitimacy, institutional power, and a father figure. No longer an orphan, Prudence’s identity shifts as she acclimates herself to the legacy and the new destiny that lies before her. Yet despite being a daughter of the High Priest, she still chooses to keep Aunt Zelda’s secret about baby Leticia and continues to confront her father’s hesitation to officially claim her as a Blackwood. As a result, the Prudence viewers see in Season Two is caught between her conscience and the expectations that go hand in hand with being a Blackwood. As the reality of her father’s demands begin to sink in Prudence starts to see the hypocrisy that lies beneath Blackwood’s performative piety. In “The Epiphany” she snaps back at her father when he asks her to calm Baby Judas, reminding him that she is not a wet nurse, even though he treats her like one. Later in the episode, she further asserts her freewill and utilizes her divinatory powers to support Sabrina’s efforts to become Top Boy, to best her “snob father who treats his own daughter like a child woman.” With a smile, Prudence assures Sabrina, “he won’t keep us both down…” Though her relationship with Sabrina is fraught and far from a genuine friendship, the two become a united front when it comes to undermining the authority of Father Blackwood, which fosters a coalition of sorts between the two witches, laying the framework for what later becomes Prudence’s mission.

As she weathers the unpredictability of Blackwood’s gradual destruction of the Church of Night, Prudence deliberately positions herself in a way that allows her to enact her privilege as Blackwood’s daughter without disavowing her allegiance as a Weird Sister and coven member. Even after Ambrose is charged with the murder of the Anti Pope, Prudence’s allegiances shift between the authority of her father and her own sense of truth. She returns baby Leticia to her father, but also frees Aunt Zelda from her cell. She torments Ambrose, yet later calls him honorable and embarks on an armed mission to destroy her father with him by her side. She chastises and bullies the other Weird Sisters Agnes and Dorcas but turns her back on Blackwood when she realizes she could lose her sisters forever. In the end, Prudence chooses her truth over the false promises of her father. It takes time, and comes at a high cost, but ultimately, Prudence is a witch whose power, intuition, and community empowers her to take hold of her autonomy.

Once the blindfold of Blackwood’s lies is removed, the limitations of her power as a witch and a woman dissolve. No longer bound by her allegiance to a manipulative and untrustworthy father, she is free to wield her power as she sees fit. Although Prudence doesn’t cross paths with the tarot reader at Doctor Cerberus’ shop, her journey in season two embodies the tarot card Two of Swords. Like the figure on the card, she is initially blindfolded until she aligns her actions with what her intuition (her heart) urges her to do. In the final scenes of “Mephisto Waltz,” a self-possessed Prudence stands in the shadow of Blackwood’s statue. Before leaving the Academy of Dark Arts, she draws two swords, holds them high in the air, and with a swift and masterful swoop, she beheads the beast that kept her and her coven from their freedom. Only then can she turn her back and face her future. Armed and ready for whatever lies ahead, Prudence joins hands with Ambrose. Together they will right Blackwood’s wrongs and embrace their “true destiny” as witches. Unafraid of the unknown, Prudence’s is “limitless and free.” It becomes clear that whatever trials lie ahead, she has everything she needs to not only survive, but thrive. Prudence at last emerges, her actions finally in alignment with her inner truth.

Although Rosalind's route toward self-possession occurs outside the world of Greendale's coven, she too (like Ambrose and Prudence) is forced to reckon with her father’s hypocrisy, alongside Harvey Kinkle’s carelessness, Sabrina’s absence at Baxter High, and the decades-old witch’s curse that ultimately blinds her. As a Walker, Roz inherits “the cunning,” a form of second sight that manifests as visceral premonitions, allowing the women in her family to see what others cannot. As her eyesight worsens, her intuition grows, and despite what she knows about “the cunning,” she gradually learns to trust her visions and uses them as a way to protect and empower herself and her friends. By doing so, Roz like an alchemist, turns her curse into a tool for survival.

Even though she doesn’t identify as a witch, her premonitions, intuition, and power are rooted in the supernatural and the unseen. While the gospel that her father preaches fails to bring her solace, the cunning helps Roz find comfort and agency by embracing a theology of her own making, one that doesn’t rely on shame, guilt, or an adherence to patriarchal hierarchies. As reflected in Roz’s tarot reading at Doctor Cerberus’ shop, her gradual awakening as a self possessed intuitive not only aids her in saving Sabrina from being slaughtered by a witch-hunting missionary and keeps the gates of hell from opening, but also helps her finally denounce her father Reverend Walker’s manipulation of his congregation and hypocrisy. During her tarot reading, Roz receives the Justice card. Like her, the figure at the card’s center is unable to see in the physical sense. Although blindfolded (an addition to the traditional Rider-Waite version of the card), the figure holds a sword pointed upwards in one hand and balanced scales in the other as a vibrant sun shines in the background. In the tarot reader’s prediction, Roz is given a glimpse at what her life could be like if she allows her father to use the congregation’s money to pay for the surgery to restore her eyesight. Although the surgery has a positive outcome in the prediction, Roz realizes that using the church’s money for the surgery would be a breach of her own ethics and would allow her father’s unjust abuse of the church’s trust to continue.

Though Roz is shaken by the implications of her reading, the Justice card is merely a confirmation of what she already knew: she must trust her moral compass and act accordingly, even if it means delaying the restoration of her vision. This choice alongside her transparency about her anger about the witch’s curse on her family, Harvey’s selfishness during the onset of their romance, and her efforts to combat misogyny and censorship at Baxter High, prove that Roz has at last learned to look within for guidance and clarity. Rather than relying solely on her father, Harvey, or even Sabrina, Roz at last learns how to fully trust her intuition. Although Sabrina’s messianic powers help cure Roz’s blindness, it is her faith and her humility (which Reverend Walker and many of the man in her life gravely lack) that ultimately restores her sight. Like Justice, Roz’s foresight gives her the strength to advocate for herself and others in a balanced and life affirming way.

Each of these characters and their journeys reinforce the idea that to be a Black witch—onscreen or off—is to challenge the persistence and centrality of the white patriarchy. As Luisah Teish writes in her quintessential book Jambalaya, Black witchcraft is “a rejection of patriarchal religion and the rebirth… of a movement.” Throughout the African diaspora, the legacy of spiritual and religious traditions that predate colonization continue to live on. Whether coupled with Western religion or observed separately, people are reclaiming what was once labeled “pagan.” People are embracing the ways of their ancestors as a form of resistance and survival.

By resisting the once dominant narrative that Black witches can only be “evil,” we are beginning to understand that the Black witch is an embodiment of what Teish best summarizes as “a self-confident freedom fighter, defending her right to own her sexuality, and her right to govern her life and community.” When the Black witch or seer is self-aware and self-possessed, they speak truth to power and conjure progress. Iterations of the empowered Black witch—Rochelle, Ceilie, Nana Peazant, Marie Laveau, and Queenie—have continued to center what was once pushed to the margins. A slow, yet steady evolution, the Black witch has finally been given the space to be fully self-actualized. Audiences can watch Black witches and seers like Rosalind Walker, Prudence Night, and Ambrose Spellman use their power in the mainstream.

In The Source of Self-Regard, Toni Morrison (whose debut novel makes an appearance in both season one and two of CAOS) writes that the “future… will be shaped by those who have been pressed to the margins, by those who have been dismissed as irrelevant…” The future that Morrison speaks of is still forming, but the change she foretells is already happening on screen and off. Glimpses of it can be found in contemporary literature, our forever changing political landscape, and through narratives that honor the autonomy, agency, and power of Black protagonists. Embodied by characters like Ambrose, Prudence, and Roz, the future where Black protagonists are no longer limited to merely being magical negroes is crystalized. No longer trapped in the margins, Black witches and seers of truth are finally taking center stage. At last, audiences can watch in awe as they use their power to save themselves and set others free.

READ MORE:

13 Black Witches in On-Screen History

6 Black Warlocks On Screen

Chance Perdomo Speaks On His 'Gratifying' Role As A Pansexual Black Warlock On 'Sabrina'

Tati Gabrielle on Why Her 'Sabrina' Character Is Not The 'Regina George Of Witches'

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