In Season 3 of ‘The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina’, the show’s tendency to use Black characters as sacrifices is very apparent.
By Nylah Burton
Full disclosure: I absolutely adore Netflix’s The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, despite it teeming with white nonsense and cultural appropriation. I have many weaknesses, and one of them is that I can’t resist campy, deliciously dark teen dramas — especially ones that feature the Great Deceiver (Luke Cook). It’s also got a pretty cool portrayal of a Black pansexual man (Chance Perdomo as Ambrose Spellman), which I love.
Still, my biggest issue is how the show forces almost all of its Black characters to fulfill the gothic horror trope of “The Human Sacrifice.” They’re used either to appease the gods — in this case, the “gods” are usually represented by Lucifer Morningstar, aka Satan and Sabrina’s (Kiernan Shipka) biological father — or as a tool to allow the white characters to live, thrive, or attain power.
In Season 3, the show’s tendency to use Black characters as sacrifices is very apparent. The evil and white Faustus Blackwood (Richard Coyle) — although isn’t almost everyone on this show technically evil? Confused — sacrifices his two Black children, twins Judas and Judith, in exchange for some strange time egg/lizard fetus. He literally says to his children, “Come here, my sacrifices,” as he prepares to give them to what is surely the fish monster that white lady f*cked in The Shape of Water.
Speaking of Judas and Judith, their mother Constance Blackwood (Alvina August) dies giving birth to them. Her husband Faustus doesn’t really give a damn about it though because Constance’s main purpose was serving as a vessel for the babies. I know this show is gonna have some messed up stuff, because it’s about servants of The Father of Lies, but it’s pretty jarring to see a pregnant Black woman discarded like that, especially when real-life maternal mortality rates for Black women are so high. Another instance of this disposability occurred when Faustus’s previous Black woman love interest, Prudence Night/Blackwood’s (Tati Gabrielle) late mother, threw herself into a river because Faustus refused to marry her.
In Season 1, Prudence is “The Queen” at The Feast of Feasts. Translation? She’s all gussied up before she’s killed as a sacrifice so the entire coven can eat her flesh and become part of the Church of Night forever, eventually serving The Prince of Darkness as he ushers in the apocalypse. It’s all just… a whole lot.
If that wasn’t disturbing enough, Faustus also uses Sabrina’s cousin Ambrose to his own ends. He becomes close to him, exploiting his need for a father figure, just so he can condemn the innocent Ambrose to death for the murder of the Antipope (Ray Wise). Spoiler alert: Faustus is actually the one who murdered the Antipope.
It’s troubling how Faustus just goes around killing or discarding his Black family members and/or love interests, and the show never takes a beat to examine how race might factor into this. Why does Faustus seem to prey on Black people, specifically? What about the racial dynamics within the Church of Night make him think he can get away with it? Why are the Black characters particularly susceptible to his mind control? There are some deep, dark topics to explore here, but the show just… ignores it.
But The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina has been a hot mess for a long time. In Season 1, Sarbina hung Prudence from a tree. Which is, you know, a fucking lynching. Sabrina uses a Native American dreamcatcher to ensnare a demon and she summons the power of Tituba — a slave accused of witchcraft — to exorcise a flesh-eating demon. The show appropriates Roma cultural traditions as well.
A lot of this would be fine, even exciting, if characters from those cultures were actually allowed to wield that power. But so often, Sabrina and other white characters are the conduits and masters of these various traditions. They are superior in every way, including magical arts that have nothing to do with their own backgrounds.
Even the inclusion of those faith/cultural traditions is suspect. The show loves to bang on about its resistance to the widespread male supremacy in Satan’s brood, conflating that oppression with the (mostly) gendered “witch hunts” in Europe and the Americas during the 18th and 19th centuries.
But those “witch hunts” weren’t just based on gender oppression. As I wrote for Alma in November 2018, “[Witch hunts] were stoked by fear of African and Indigenous [and Jewish] religion, and facilitated by the intentional casting of those religions as being demonic and evil when they were not.” So, it’s kind of counterproductive to now bring them under the umbrella of Beelzebub himself.
Even though it may seem like my main critique is that the show is “too white,” it’s actually not the unbearable whiteness of Sabrina Edwina Diana Spellman-Morningstar — her bleached blond hair, her constant whining, her cheerleading outfit, or her Girl Boss quips — that irritates me. I love these things about her, because that kind of irreverence is delightful in teen dramas. It makes Sabrina, for better or for worse, a fully-formed character that we are free to love or to hate.
What does irritate me, however, is that the Black characters aren’t given that same freedom. For most of the series, Ambrose and Prudence absorb the whiteness of their New England coven with very little resistance. Ambrose spends most of the show imprisoned in their home, as a punishment for some unknown “crime” he committed in England. Judas and Judith spend most of Season 3 locked in a doll house.
And when Prudence and Ambrose finally start exploring African spiritual traditions, their very apparent Blackness and inherent connection to these traditions isn’t even discussed. Season 3’s “Mambo Michele Marie Le Fleur, Priestess of High Haiti, Daughter of the Tiano people, faithful to Guinee” is the one character on the show who does embrace her Blackness, but through a distorted lens of what Voodoo actually is. Mambo Marie’s portrayal of Caribbean religious traditions is weak, and watered down, and inaccurate. And one can’t help but feel its inclusion is just to add some spice to the show, or as a premature mea culpa, to say, “We’re not racist, we have Black characters and African religion.”
Juju Web Series director and screenwriter Moon Ferguson wrote, “I wanted to experience supernatural beings who look like me. Blacks and people of color are very underrepresented in the fantasy genre. I think it’s time to start writing our stories in the fantasy realm. We are long overdue for Black witches, vampires, werewolves, sirens, soothsayers, fauns, etc. We hold an abundance of history which includes magic stemming back to Africa.”
The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina seems like it’s trying to hold space for that history, at least. But it’s not enough and it’s so often offensive. It may be unrealistic of me, but I just want more from my campy, escapist entertainment. I deserve more. I deserve intention, and thoughtfulness, and excitement, and creativity. I don’t deserve lazy narratives or a shock of melanin and a djembe thrust at me in Season 3, at the twilight hour of the show.
The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is a fun time, but we’ll only improve this problem is we diversify (diverse perspectives, as well as identities) the writer’s rooms and the casting crews of these shows. Until then, it just won’t be quite right.
Nylah Burton is a DC-based writer with bylines in New York Magazine, ESSENCE, Bustle, and The Nation. You can follow her on Twitter, at @yumcoconutmilk.