Netflix's 'Siempre Bruja' is problematic but that could have been avoided
7 February 2019, 21:30
Siempre Bruja (Always A Witch) isn't a complete disaster, but it does fall down in some pretty crucial places. Here are a few of the ways Siempre Bruja could have avoided some of its more problematic elements.
The long awaited Spanish language series Siempre Bruja (Always A Witch) landed on Netflix just in time for Black History Month but the show has failed to live up to many people's expectations.
The series follows Carmen Eguiluz, a Colombian afro latina slave who is burned as a witch in the 1600s. Carmen does not die, though, and she is transported to modern Cartagenia, Colombia to fulfil a mission for a wizard from her time.
While many felt that the series had promise, elements of Siempre Bruja proved problematic or, at the very least, reductive. From the unfortunate slave romance storyline to Carmen's own character development, here are a few of the ways Siempre Bruja could have avoided some of its more problematic elements.
Siempre Bruja has the perfect opportunity to properly address slavery and, yet, it mostly glosses over the topic.
In Siempre Bruja slavery is mentioned the same way a person might mention their profession or their summer internship. In one scene, Carmen is reminded of her mother, Paula, who introduces herself as a "slave, a mother, and a wife".
Unfortunately, the institution of slavery is never discussed in any meaningful way. We don't even have an understanding of what it is about Carmen's specific circumstances as a slave (beyond her relationship with Cristobal) that make her so eager to return to the 1600s.
Carmen is burned alive, forbidden to read or write, and persecuted for loving Cristobal because she is black and a slave. Slavery, as an institution is inherently cruel and yet Carmen is more than happy to return–despite all she has seen and experienced in the modern world.
At one point, one of Carmen's friends asks why she would return to the 1600s just to be a slave again, to which Carmen replies: "No. I am no longer the same woman," as if a lack of confidence is what made her a slave in the first place.
Slavery is cruel and immoral and Carmen being happy to return to a time where this practice is commonplace effectively creates a barrier between the character and potential black viewers. Either do the due diligence on the topic or leave it alone. Slavery being used as a plot device in this superficial way is more than unfortunate.
Carmen feels like a supporting character in her own story.
Carmen arrives in 2019 and immediately begins solving other people's problems. She helps a ghost send a message to their living relative. She helps her friend stop a vengeful ex from passing around a sex tape. She even helps wake another friend from a coma. Carmen's character props up so many dramatic subplots that the framing of the young witch as a lead character feels... not entirely accurate.
While Carmen is portrayed as a naive outsider, her peers are seen as savvy and knowledgeable, despite constantly needing Carmen's help. For the first few episodes of Siempre Bruja Carmen's entire personality is "confused witch".
Giving this character more agency could have gone a long way toward crafting a true lead. Angely Gaviria brings a great deal to the role but Carmen should have been allowed to focus on developing her identity as a witch separate to Cristobal and her friends' problems.
Carmen's powers aren't explored more.
Much of the witchcraft Carmen performs in Siempre Bruja is largely in the service of others, which is not necessarily a bad thing. However, her witchcraft journey is never explained or detailed.
The specifics of her powers are never explored. Carmen has abilities but it's unclear how or when they develop.
The original Charmed series, for instance, spent a great deal of time and effort showing the three sisters studying witchcraft (traditional herbs, potion-making, writing spells etc) and developing their powers. Siempre Bruja does none of that and this huge part of Carmen's identity is never really expanded upon.
Ground Carmen's magic in something that isn't so ambiguous. Her witch "lineage" is mentioned multiple times and yet is never detailed. This could be easily explained with a few flashback scenes and lines of dialogue. Yet everything about Carmen's magic is one dimensional and situational.
The series bends over backwards to make Cristobal a "good guy".
Why does Siempre Bruja portray Cristobal as a good guy, as if falling for Carmen is a character defining achievement? The rehabilitation of Cristobal's mother, a woman who effectively condemned Carmen to death, is hard to to reconcile as well.
Siempre Bruja falls into the trap of trying to humanise slave owners and their progeny in a way that is incredibly problematic for a modern audience. It is not necessary for viewers to identify with Cristobal and his family in order to understand Carmen as a character. So, why must we endure this tired narrative?
Scrap the slave owner's son romance plot entirely. Cristobal anchors Carmen to the 1600s, but that same strong bond could have easily been established with a coven, a child, or other strong familial ties.
Siempre Bruja isn't a complete disaster, but it does fall down in some pretty crucial places. The series serves up more unnecessary slave owner/slave romance and doesn't give the lead character space to grow in her magic. Siempre Bruja might have been released in time for Black History Month but it's probably a Netflix original you can afford to skip.