Black horror narratives that encompass the supernatural and the paranormal haven’t yet found solid footing on television. With his new series Superstition, celebrated filmmaker Mario Van Peebles is changing the landscape. In the show, Van Peebles turns his lens on the Hastings family. Residents of the fictional town of La Rochelle, Georgia, they live amongst graveyards, strange townsfolk, and rich history of odd phenomena. Van Peebles' Issac and Robinne Lee’s Bea run a funeral home during the day, but their nighttime activities involve battling the evil the constantly infiltrates the town.
With the New Jack City auteur at the helm as the writer/director and House M.D’s Joel Anderson Thompson as showrunner, Superstition's impressive cast also includes Brad James, Demetria McKinney and the legendary Jasmine Guy as Aunt Nancy. Recently, I sat down to speak with Van Peebles, Anderson and Guy about the series, why they were inspired to dive into the genre, and why it was so important to tell these types of stories.
“Some of the folks at Syfy had identified that there was big unserved demographic of folks that were interested in seeing more multicultural reflections of Americana in these horrors/thriller spaces,” Van Peebles explained about the series conception. “They talked to Barry [Gordon] and myself and brother Joel, and it just continued to grow and evolve. Early on, while I was still filming Roots, I started going over to explore funeral homes. One of the funeral homes that I was looking at in New Orleans was a little mom and pop funeral home owned by folks of color, and they were doing specialty services. There was a couple of cases where they actually buried people -- if you could call it burying them -- standing up. So some of those stories made their way into what became our show. This is a family run business and [the Hastings] are still trying to make it work as a business. Then Joel kept bringing in all the dope folklore and gothic Americana that is so rich."
For Anderson, the pull towards the series was about the storytelling -- the folklore and supernatural components was simply as a bonus. “Mario, Barry, and myself, all three of us have this drive to want to tell stories that are not reliant specifically on killing demons, so we're not relying specifically on supernatural," he stated. “We got to distinguish ourselves and provide an interesting story. We wanted to feel that we constructed a world and we contrasted characters that had compelling dramatic challenges happening, whether or not there were demons on the screen. What that meant was trying to make sure that their lives were complicated. Their lives had very hard choices or the consequences of hard choices being made in the past which all three of us felt reflected who we are as people. We just had great synergy from the beginning."
For the legendary Jasmine Guy who has worked on everything from A Different World to The Vampire Diaries and BET’s The Quad, the opportunity to return to a mystical, magical set as Aunt Nancy in Superstition was a no-brainer. “I didn't realize what a sci-fi fan I was until I did this show on Showtime called Dead Like Me," Guy said laughing. “The show had created its own parameters, its own consistent rules for the place that we lived in. We were caught between earth and wherever you go after you die. What I love about Superstition is the specificity of the boundaries and the realm that they have created, and that's very difficult to do because you can break a rule in one episode and all the fans will be like, ‘Uh-uh(negative).’ So not only are they true to the world that they have created, Mario is there for everything. He's acting in it, directing it, editing it, and with that kind of consistency, I feel like we can bring the audience in. They'll go with us now because we've established this as our reality.”
Guy’s character Aunt Nancy – a reiteration of the infamous Anansi the spider appears a few episodes into the series, and she isn’t exactly a welcome visitor to the Hasting family home. Aunt Nancy may actually be stirring up even more drama for them. “My character is very interesting,” Guy proclaimed. “The more I get to know her the more I’m like, ‘Okay, how old am I?’ I know the first day I went into makeup and hair, I was so panicked that I was gonna look like some kind of witch. I don't know if Anansi is a God, but he's often seen in Haitian and African folklore. So I got in there, and I found out that Mario's [character] was 500 and I was like, ‘Oh.’ Because, I was like, 'Damn, Mario looks good.’ He really looks good. And I found out I was like a hundred and something, I was like, ‘I'm set. Y'all can do whatever you want.’ And I love working with the cast. There's a wonderful energy on a new show. Everybody wants it to work. From the crew to our DP, lighting, the energy on that show makes us fly, and it makes it a wonderful place to go."
With Van Peebles so intricately involved in the series, he has the opportunity to showcase a different aspect of Black American history. His unique perspective is the thing Guy has come to appreciate most about working on Superstition. “We have this wonderful opportunity to show our history in another way, “ she reflected. Mario and I have a flashback to the Civil War and they put horses on me, and a hoop skirt, and a big curly wig. I was like, ‘I’ve never been in a Civil War movie when I wasn't a slave.’ I never dressed up like that. I have done many films where I've had to go back and be a slave, it's not an easy job, but I was like, ‘Wow, I've never played an upper-middle-class progressive Black person, (though) they certainly existed, and they certainly were there."
Anderson and Van Peebles were only willing to do the series if diversity was at its core, and that included those working behind the camera. “Joel, Barry and I tried to be as multicultural as we are in front of the camera, behind the camera," Van Peebles stated. “You look at our crew -- you see every race and every gender. We look like America on both sides. I think it makes it a richer project. Joel has created an environment where people feel they can do their best work and collaborate and bring in stuff. It often comes to a suggestion, and we are open to it, and we will think about it, and if it's good, me and Joel pretend it's our idea, and we move on.” (laughing)
Bringing Guy on in such a pivotal role was a dream come true for Anderson and the writer’s room. "I’ve got to tell you, and I'm speaking on behalf of the writers as well, to have Mario and Jasmine and Demetria and Robinne and Brad to write for, it's a real treat,” he gushed. “For Jasmine to be available and for her to be interested and coming and gracing us, it was like, ‘We're not worthy.’ It was so serendipitous to be able to have her and Mario in our universe."
Headed into its sixth episode, Superstition is off to a solid start. It’s a striking change from the typical monster-of-the-week formula that often bogs down series with similar tropes and themes. However, a more poignant type of storytelling isn’t the only thing the cast and crew want viewers to experience. “I would love for people to walk away with the idea that Black in and of itself is not a genre, “ Guy expressed. “We can have a Black family drama, but it's always having that Black in it that separated that universal message to me. The more specific we are, the more universal we are. This is a very specific show that rings truer because all Black people aren't the same and that means that the monolithic view of our culture has been a disservice until recently when we've started to see a variety of types of shows.”
For Anderson, the series has also been about reflecting society and all of its nuances as a whole. “Mario and I have felt it was vital to be inclusive,” he emphasized. “We wanted to make sure that while we might have characters in our world driving a story that might have a certain cultural representation, we want Superstition to reflect as much as we could of the fabric of our society. It wasn't just a Black show with Black issues. Even considering what Jasmine said about the Civil War thing, we didn't want to just reach for the low hanging fruit. The easiest thing to do is, 'Oh, Superstition -- Black people in the South. Naturally, they're gonna have a slavery episode.' We thought, 'What's another way to approach this from another angle and capture something of that period?' That's going to be an ongoing goal for the show as well as we go forward.”
Van Peebles’ goal is even more complex. “We wanted to show that we work on multiple levels,” he expressed. “If you were just watching it as some fun kickass thrilling entertainment, then it would work for you. If you were watching it and are political or socially aware, you would get that. So some real conversations come up and depending on where you're at, you'll witness it differently, and I think that's exciting to see that people get those details and go, ‘Wow, I got that.’"
Superstition airs Thursdays at 11 p.m. ET/10 CT.
Aramide A Tinubu is a film critic and entertainment writer. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her Master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, read her blog at: www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami