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Remember the time Ms Angela cast a spell on us in AHS?

Angela Bassett's portrayal of the prolific Voodoo queen Marie Laveau in American Horror Story highlighted issues of sexism and racism through gruesome violence on black bodies
Thu, Mar 25, 2021

With the title of American Horror Story season 10 finally being revealed after months of teasing (it's Double Feature), I've been reminded of one of my favourite seasons of the horror-drama series that follows different themes of paranormal activities with each season.

I thought I would take us back to the legendary time of Marie Laveau of New Orleans. Although widely criticised for its portrayal of witchcraft and black magic, the third season (American Horror Story: Coven) fully immersed strong black female characters in its world at the height of inclusivity being addressed in Hollywood and more than that, it made them the most powerful women you could imagine.

AHS: Coven (the eight-season collection of AHS is available on Showmax until 31 March) is premised around witches in a postfeminist era. The story takes us on a journey to New Orleans where a secret school of modern-day witches operates to strengthen their powers and defend themselves against the horrors of what modern society could do to them in their natural element.

The opening scene in the first episode shows us a ritual being performed by Madame Delphine LaLaurie (Kathy Bates) which foreshadows the major theme of the season – the all-pervasive presence of racism and the horrors that come with it. Madame LaLaurie gets off on slave torture and performing magic on them to practice transforming them into beasts.

As with every villain, there will always be a match out there and that match is none other than Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau, played by Angela Bassett. In her youth, Laveau was expecting a baby with her lover Bastien, but the birth of that child would result in her death.

At this point Papa Legba (Lance Reddick), the mighty god, appears to her. He acts as the bridge between gods and humans and he is the gatekeeper of the spirit world.

He offers her immortality with the condition that she performs a service for him once a year. Believing the act of service to be sexual, Laveau agrees to the exchange only to realise the service is to sacrifice the soul of an innocent to him. As such, when she gives birth, he takes her baby from her as part of their agreement.

Following on from her story, Marie arrives at Madame LaLaurie's residence to carry out a revenge plot against one of the slaves she tortured. That slave turns out to be Bastien – the father of the child she lost. His corpse is discovered with the head of a bull attached to his body.

Fast forward to 1961 and Marie is the manager of a hair salon called Cornrow City. One of her employees expresses that her son is attending an integrated school and Marie is absolutely right to have her doubts given the historical racial context. When Cora's son is then lynched by white men, Marie performs magic to raise an army from the dead to kill his murderers.

Marie represents postfeminist aspects that are often presented in pop culture, particularly where black women are concerned. She is stereotypically strong and at the same time, she is feared – using themes of witchcraft to anchor the idea that we constantly question the source of empowerment where such women are concerned.

The supernatural plot coupled with Marie's storyline (much like her assuming that the service she would perform for Papa was sexual) reinforces the stereotype of a woman's power being rooted in sexuality and beauty.

Bassett really leans into racial, feminist and cultural themes in her portrayal of Marie Laveau, who is based on the 19th century figure of the same name known for her practice of Voodoo. The role earned her an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Limited Series or Movie.

This season was a fan favourite because as much as the show is riveting and each season can stand alone, it manages to place issues like sexism and racism at the forefront by creating memorable characters like Laveau.

Through graphic portrayals of the rituals as well as the gruesome violence on black bodies, AHS: Coven calls out issues of racism and sexism historically while pointing out that it just takes on a various forms as we are taken through so many different time periods.

  • The eight-season American Horror Story collection is available on Showmax until 31 March. Catch it while you can!