With Jordan St. John and Kendra James
My distaste for The Vampire Diaries and its selective racial memory are well documented. When I heard that The Vampire Diaries spinoff featuring the ancient ancient vampire family, The Originals, would be set in one of the most racially complex and interesting locals in the American south, New Orleans, I did not have high hopes. I was more intrigued when it was announced that American Horror Story: Coven, the third season of the campy horror gorefest would also be taking up residence in New Orleans Garden District. Now that both shows have a couple eps of painful exposition and audience baiting twists and turns behind them Kendra and I are sitting down to see how both are handling history, witches and race in the Big Easy.
Editor’s Note: This was finished before the 11-20-13 episode of AHS: Coven, so we know now that, yes: Queenie did the right thing. Spoilers for The Originals and American Horror Story: Coven to follow!
Jordan: Let’s start with TVD and the first thing I had an issue with upon seeing the backdoor pilot last year. TVD has very noticeably made 90% of their witches black. Supposedly they were supposed to be descendants from the Bennett line of witches but still, for several years on TVD, every time someone black showed up – good money was on them being a witch. To have the show move to New Orleans and then make African American witches so peripheral, in this setting of all settings, feels like a missed opportunity. Also, and I feel this is the hugest slap in the face, where is the African and African American culture in the series. It feels entirely absent. All that is New Orleans is simplified to mentions of non stop partying, some guy who plays a mean sax, and nice shots on the most commercial parts of the French Quarter. Really?!
Kendra: If you needed any more evidence to support the fact that Julie Plec is complete anti-Bonnie Bennett and her kin, here it is. What an odd choice, as you mention, to move the show to NOLA and then almost completely erase the presence of Black witches. What’s more, Plec and her team then make the decision to cast the witches’ biggest enemy in NOLA a Black man. As problematic as the witches’ use on TVD has been in the past, I think this is a larger flaw.
It is interesting though, knowing the canon created by TVD, that they didn’t set out to cast Black witches specifically for the show’s main roles. Check out the original casting call below:
[MARCEL] (25-32) Wicked, wild and charismatic, MARCEL calls the shots in the supernatural playground of New Orleans. The 18th Century son of an immigrant, Marcel was a street rat, tormented and kicked around. As a modern-day vampire, he’s fierce and bold, able to accomplish as much with his charm as he is with his strength. He plays as hard as he works, maybe harder. Don’t cross him. 10/13 SERIES REGULAR (PLEASE SUBMIT ALL ETHNICITIES)
[SOPHIE] (28-35) Strong and driven, SOPHIE is a warrior. A WITCH whose magic has been silenced but not snuffed, Sophie is quietly sowing the seeds of a revolution amongst her peers. She’s a leader, a sexy social force. An enormous bleeding heart that she often disguises with a sharp tongue and a glare. 10/13 SERIES REGULAR (PLEASE SUBMIT ALL ETHNICITIES)
[CAMILLE (CAMI)] (20-25) Fresh-faced and human, a calm in the supernatural storm of New Orleans. A psychology student at Tulane, Cami is fascinated by the study of Human Behavior. Though unaware of the supernatural universe that exists around her, she is nonetheless drawn to the deviance of the French Quarter, intent on answering the unanswerable question: what makes someone evil? Honest, bright and in way over her head, Cami’s greatest strength is also her Achilles Heel: she loves deeply and is unflinchingly loyal. 10/13 SERIES REGULAR (PLEASE SUBMIT ALL ETHNICITIES)
[DAVINA] (Over 18 to play 16-18) Young and troubled, DAVINA is a young WITCH who has been over-sheltered by protective caregivers. Her innocence about the way the world works makes her equal parts wondrous and dangerous. Delicate and ethereal, but not without her own demons. 10/13 SERIES REGULAR (PLEASE SUBMIT ALL ETHNICITIES)
The sceptical side of me looks at this and wonders how much of Marcel’s role was altered and jammed in there at the last minute, since he clearly wasn’t intended to be a slave in the first place. I’m not sure Plec & Co. ever actually planned on having to deal with race on this show, despite the setting– and can I just say that as a writer wouldn’t you want to create your characters with a race in mind in advance if you know that you’re going to be working in a specific historical context? If only so that you can sit down and think these things through! That may explain some of the issues I know you have with Marcel.
Jordan: I feel like it all starts with the problematic character of Marcel himself. So they decided on this premise of Klaus and family all coming back to New Orleans “the city they helped build.” They are all white, so nothing diverse there. Klaus’s baby momma is white so ship sailed on that as well. Since the witches are supposed to be against the vampires here, they didn’t want to take on having all the witches stay black and the vamps stay white although in more sensitive, hands there is a lot they could have done with that to discuss race, class, power and wealth in the city while giving it all a supernatural spin (more on that in our discussion of Coven below).
All of this leaves us with Marcel who is the current vampire king of New Orleans. Quick backstory, Klaus came upon Marcel, the illegitimate slave son of the New Orleans Governor back in the early 1800s, when he was back talking and about to get a beating. Klaus felt kinship – one mixed raced illegitimate child to another (remember Klaus is half Native American) and took the boy under his wing. Marcel took a liking to Klaus’s sister, Klaus got jealous (of who we are unsure) and put his sister into a 50 year sleep. Then their father showed up and they fled.
In typical TVD/Originals fashion there are several issues glossed over. At some point, Klaus must have bought Marcel because that is the only way he could have obtained the boy from his owner. No one talks about that unpleasantness. Also, there is no way that Marcel could have ever been with Rebecca during those times. It is remarked that Klaus let the boy grow up before turning him so at the point he making his move on Rebecca, he would have been killed for being seen alone with her. Having been born a slave, he would know that. Don’t even get me started on Marcel. Were the Mikkaelson’s slave owners? They must have been doing something to build their fortune.
That said, Marcel is played with a bit of a chip on his shoulder and something to prove. He is shown as shrewd, smart and good to his vampire people but he is completely cut off, so far, from the history of the town. How much more potent and complex would he be if we saw more of his connection to something outside of the bright lights of the quarters. He claims to be the protector of New Orleans and helper of the locals but we don’t see it.
Kendra: I think even assuming the Mikkaelsons were slave owners is giving them too much credit. Outright killing people and stealing money seems to fall more in line with their MO.
But, Marcel. You might remember that I was incredibly excited when the back door pilot aired, because in the grand scheme of all things TVD, Marcel was a breath of fresh air. Especially after having to sit through an entire season of Connor– maybe the angriest, most violent Black male trope to ever set up shop on the CW. TVD has generally made it very hard for me to root for their Black characters (nowadays I spend most episodes just shaking my head and sighing at the majority of Bonnie’s decision making), but Marcel was different. He was smart, cocky, powerful, and introduced as likeable, which is not a benefit a lot of Black people get on TVD.
Marcel is still the main reason I’m watching The Originals, but his storylines aren’t without flaw. The glossing over of the very real racial history of NOLA is huge, but my issues with Marcel/Rebecca dive a little deeper. I get that perhaps he has a type (blonde, I guess), but… will he ever have a love interest of color? Between Rebecca, Cami, and Davina (not necessary an official love interest, but she sure is around a lot), Marcel’s slate of women is very white. I’m certainly not anti-interracial relationships, but it’d be nice to see the most powerful Black man in New Orleans making out with someone who looks like 60% of the city, not to mention himself.
That 60% of the city doesn’t seem to be his focus though. Saving a teenage witch from certain death aside, Marcel’s a little more Spring Break/Girls Gone Wild, a little less Treme than I’d like to see. And that’s unfortunate, because I genuinely thought that The Originals had the opportunity to be Angel to TVD’s Buffy– a darker, grittier show where we would see more of the underbelly of the supernatural world. In a way, it wants to be that. Marcel’s attitude towards snacking on tourists and his tight grip on the city reminds me a bit of Buffy’s Spike almost, but then suddenly he’s throwing a party for the mayor with aerial acrobats and suddenly we’re back in Mystic Falls and the we-need-a-party-every-week-to-bring-the-plot-together state of mind. Ignoring not only race, but the less glitzy bits of NOLA is actually a detriment to what could be a great sort of counterpoint show to TVD.
Jordan: Agreed. I feel like it’s the equivalent of having someone born and raised in Manhattan talk about their love for the city but never mention anything outside of Times Square or Rockefeller Center. I am also very interested, when we see how Marcel came to power, how they handle the fact that it would only have been in the past 50-60 years or so that Marcel could have been acknowledged as a pillar of the integrated New Orleans empire. Currently he is shown as being a very visible leader. Vampire or not, that would not have been accepted by all members of the New Orleans elite 100 years ago.
As for Marcel’s love interests, with the exception of Mexican American actress Daniella Pineda’s Sophie Deveraux, they have definitely had a blonde haired theme. With the prominence they are giving Marcel’s relationship with Rebecca, I don’t mind that the current object of his affection looks just like her but again, let’s mention it. In a recent episode, November 5th’s “Fruit of the Poisoned Tree” (when recalling how he was punished for taking apples from his plantation as a slave) Marcel talks about wanting forbidden things. Perhaps white women still occupy that place in his mind. American Horror Story would call him out on it and I think the show would be more interesting for it but Originals is no AHS. That said, I will give Plec that we are a couple episodes into the first season.We didn’t know any about Olivia Pope’s family for two seasons and now it’s a huge part of the storyline. Perhaps they just need time. A little more annoying was when during that same episode Marcel discovers that Klaus has lied about his whereabouts and is instead living on the plantation where he was a slave. Klaus, who is hiding his knocked up werewolf baby mama, has other things to worry about and shrugs it off saying that he didn’t invite Marcel because of bad memories but Marcel’s tone alludes to the implied powerplay of this decision to move into Marcel’s owners house and remind him of his powerless roots. Instead of fleshing it out, the show drops it. Again, I believe that shutting out the complex history of New Orleans, especially for characters who have been around long enough to have actually been slaves is a disappointing choice.
Kendra: I agree that they could have dove into that one a bit, but I do think Klaus knows exactly what he’s doing in that scenario. It just shows that from the beginning Klaus had no intention of being on good terms with Marcel, which is perfectly in line with his character. But it’s calculated in a way that needs more exploration than one repeated flashback, and insight from both Klaus and Marcel’s POV. For instance, I know we’ve established that we’re meant to believe that Klaus’ connection to Marcel is forged through an abused-biracial past, but we haven’t been given much to support that. It’s fairly easy to forget about Klaus’ ethnicity, especially if you’re not an obsessive TVD viewer. It’s not really been mentioned again– if it were to matter so much to him, could we at least have a reminder?
Jordan: Contrast that with the very racially grounded American Horror Story: Coven. In an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, Ryan Murphy discusses how star Jessica Lange felt strongly about working in New Orleans and to make that work, he dove into research about the area and its history. Instead of running away from New Orleans unique historical backdrop, he has instead used race as one of the main issues of conflict this iteration of the series taking on issues of female oppression, aging, racial appropriation, and racism all with a wink and a nod. There is something disturbing about making something so painful and nuanced into horror camp but the attempt is courageous and vastly more interesting to behold than the bland watered down version of race on display in The Originals.
Kendra: Which, let’s just say I’m shocked, because genuinely I’m of the opinion that Ryan Murphy should stay far, far away from each and every one of these topics. For me, the real horror of American Horror Story is waiting for him to screw it up
But, so far it’s decent. Let’s start with the cultural appropriation, shall we? Because my favourite piece of show canon is the idea that white witches (currently of New Orleans, but originally descendants of Salem) stole the majority of their power from Tituba and others like her and then got out of dodge as fast as possible. This, along with what seems have been a few centuries of violence against each other (11-6’s episode opened with the lynching of a Black child in the 1960s that leads to an eventual truce between the two clans. It seems like something we’ll be returning to as the season winds down) means that though they cohabitate NOLA and their numbers are dwindling on both sides, they don’t get along. Things aren’t helped when the white coven’s Supreme Fiona (Jessica Lange) frees infamous slave maimer and murderer Madame LaLaurie (Kathy Bates) from her immortal imprisonment beneath the French Quarter.
Jordan: As I have said before, even if I am not in love with their choices, race is a nuanced and challenging area to portray and I give creators and producers who attempt to do it thoughtfully, even when they fail, more credit than creators who decide the better choice is to avoid race all together. Murphy and his team constantly challenge what people have become accustomed to seeing whether it is centering three seasons of a successful show around a sixty plus year old actress who is portrayed as sexually appealing and powerful to showing Gabourey Sidibe (AHS‘s Queenie) maturbating in a green house with a bullheaded beast, AHS swings for the fences but it’s portrayal of New Orleans does not exist in an idealized vacuum. The white witches in AHS live in the Garden District of New Orleans and enjoy comfort and wealth even as their coven deteriorates from the inside while Angela Bassett’s Marie Laveau, though immortal and powerful, lives with her people in one of New Orlean’s poorer black areas. As Kendra mentions, it is startling but refreshing, to see that Marie’s power and talent is not depicted as translating into material possessions and wealth. Although the reason for this is not explained, it creates a character who is very much tied to the reality of the New Orleans. Unlike the The Originals, you get the sense that immortality has not made Marie immune to the struggle of her race, if anything, the flashbacks reiterate that she feels the weight of years of oppression more than others do because she has lived through our country’s checkered past and the presence of Madame LaLaurie as well as her lover from those days keep these horrors fresh in her mind.
Kendra: Given the Ryan Murphy of it all, I was prepared to be put off by the idea that Marie’s base of operations is a braiding salon, but I get it. It’s the perfect contrast to Lange’s Fiona who occupies the stark, hospital-like white space of the school for witches in the quarter. Her claim to care about the girls in her charge is tenuous at best (since she, you know, killed one of them), and her main concern seems to be continued youth. Marie, on the other hand, doesn’t have the time of day for Fiona or her daughter, but we’ll see her shoving money into the purse of one of her Black customers at the Salon and insisting it be accepted. Her salon and its place in her Black community is literally the root of her power– see the throne located in her back room just above the floor where she raises an army of zombies from the dead to extract revenge on her enemies while surrounded by the Black witches she supports and employs. I’d like to think that it’s a true give and take for Marie– she supports and needs them as as much as they do her.
It’s a lesson I wish Plec would pick up on and transfer over to Marcel.
My only real beef with the way Coven’s been run so far is the strange redemption of Lalaurie, a real historical figure who has, well, no redeemable qualities as far as I can tell given what we’ve been shown. I’m sure there’s some endgame involved here, but the fact that she’s been portrayed as almost sympathetic and her racism campy and relatively hilarious (no one hisses like Kathy Bates), is on the surface a questionable decision. Her strange friendship (or whatever we want to call it) with Queenie makes it hard for me to reserve judgement!
Jordan: Although I wouldn’t go as far as Murphy has to call AHS: Coven a “meditation on race relations in this country.” I do think there is something intriguing about his notion of it as “an allegory for any minority group living in our country.” TVD and a lot of other supernatural shows like to create a microcosm of supernatural activity that detaches it’s characters from overarching issues like racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. I appreciate Coven’s attempt, like True Blood in its more lucid seasons, to use the supernatural as a way to comment on how just because you are a part of a certain subset of society, doesn’t mean that you aren’t influenced by the greater pressures of society.
Kendra: I appreciate it, but I always hope that when start using supernatural (or fantastical, or science fiction) creatures as allegories for people/issues, creators and viewers are remembering that these things we’re being compared to are often dangerous, violent, deadly… or otherwise pose a threat to greater society. POCs, LGBTQ people, women, etc. clearly do not. The comparisons only work to a point, which could come back to bite AHS: Coven in the end depending on where Murphy chooses to end.