Stories about enslaved women are not new. Films like Beloved and TV series like Underground have brought these accounts to the forefront of popular culture. However, these critical narratives centering enslaved women are often painful to watch. Rape, terror, and devastation are themes that typically overwhelm these stories. Also, more often than not, the experiences of those enslaved in the United States are typically in focus, erasing those who were enslaved in different areas of the world.
With their new witch-centric series, Siempre Bruja— which is loosely translated to “Always a Witch,” Netflix appeared to do something different with both the enslaved woman’s narrative and stories about magic. Set in Cartagena, Colombia — also known as The Magic City— Siempre Bruja follows Carmen Eguiluz (Angely Gaviria), a woman enslaved in the 17th century who travels to the future. Unfortunately, that’s when the narrative begins to crumble. We soon learn that Carmen goes to the 21st century at the bidding of a wizard who promises to help her save her lover— who also happens to be her slave owner’s son.
Siempre Bruja’s foundation is trite and repetitive. It has become exhausting to see enslaved women in these alleged “love stories” with slave owners, or in Carmen’s case, her slave owner’s son, Cristobal. Accused of seducing the young man with magic and using animals to antagonize slave owners, Carmen is sentenced to burn at the stake. In an attempt to save her. Cristobal is killed in the chaos of it all.
Before she’s burned alive, Carmen strikes a deal with Aldemar, an immortal wizard, who promises to undo the events of the past if Carmen delivers something for him in the future. Though Siempre Bruja desperately tries to make Cristobal the kindest man ever, it seems baffling that Carmen would choose to return to a time where she was enslaved and forced to keep her romance a secret instead of just making a life for herself in the modern day world. It made the entire pilot of the series unnerving to watch. Quite frankly, the slave owner/enslaved lover plotline makes the series as a whole suffer.
Still, when Carmen does land on the shores of the Caribbean Sea in 2019, Siempre Bruja begins to take an interesting turn. Her magic becomes more powerful. Despite her fears and uncertainty, she’s also cunning and quick, able to outsmart the police and the doctors who try and help her. These very traits along with her ability to read and write are what got her branded a witch in 1646.
Siempre Bruja also succeeds in unpacking the sexism and persecution that Carmen and the other women around her face. In the present day, she connects with Alicia, a woman she suspects of being a witch who is also being blackmailed by an ex-boyfriend who is threatening her with revenge porn. The women bond together using a little bit of magic hoping to outsmart him. Also, the police in the 21st century are on the hunt for “The Bonfire Killer,” a person they suspect of burning women alive, which is a haunting echo to the witch trials of the past.
It was also intriguing to watch Carmen navigate the 21st century. Gaviria is endearing as a young woman trying to wrap her mind around social media, riding in an automobile for the first time or even trying to grasp the lingo of the modern day world. Siempre Bruja is stunning, From the opening credits to the very first shot—with its palm trees, blue waters and stone buildings in the backdrop—the audience gets transported into Cartagena from their screens.
As the series presses forward, Carmen forms new bonds, utilizes her abilities as a curandera (or healer) and discovers just how powerful she really is. However, these actions are tied to her love for Cristobal. Furthermore, as one of the sole Black characters on the series, she spends a great deal of time helping everyone else instead of completing her mission or saving herself.
With a great cast and a stellar promise, Siempre Bruja had a lot to live up to and an audience hungry to see stories of Black brujas on screen. Unfortunately, the show’s creators and producers keep their lead actress —a stunning dark-skinned Afro-Colombian woman—caged into an absurd love-conquers-all storyline with a man whose family literally owns her. This puts a dark cloud on what would have been a refreshing and magical show about feminism, magic, and sisterhood. Angely Gaviria deserves better, and so do we.
Season 1 of Siempre Bruja is now streaming on Netflix.
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 or A Word With Aramide or tweet her @wordwitharamide