We have to thank a woman named Natalie M. Kalmus for her contributions to the development of color on screen. Being a woman and the executive head of the Technicolor art department in the 1930’s was nothing short of extraordinary, and, in 1935 she released a document titled Color Consciousness in which she explored color theory and the use of color on screen. And, while this was illuminating and groundbreaking at a time, we also have some serious problems with the document that need to be re-examined from an anti-racist and feminist perspective.
Kalmus tells us how and when to use color given that particular color’s moral and psychological associations. She tells us that different colors evoke emotional reactions from the audience because these colors paint a realistic worldview. This presents a problem because, if, as Kalmus suggests, the usage of color and its associations represent a realistic worldview then the worldview Kalmus presents is an inherently racist one. Kalmus writes that black “… has a distinctly negative and destructive aspect. Black instinctively recalls night, fear, darkness, crime. It suggests funerals, mourning. It is impenetrable, comfortless, secretive.” In stark contrast to the color black, Kalmus writes that white “… reflects the greatest amount of light, it emanates a luminosity which symbolizes spirit. White represents purity, cleanliness, peace, marriage… White uplifts and ennobles, while black lowers and renders more base and evil any color.” To put it simply: black is evil and white is good. What does any of this have to do with spirituality? Well, the way we think and feel about color and how characters are depicted on screen taps into our psychological understanding of how “good” or “bad” a color is. This trickles over into our magical and spiritual practices with the notions of “Black Magic” vs. “White Magic.” We often associate someone who practices black magic as someone who works with dark or evil forces, and white magic with someone who practices magic for the good of others.
In the screenplay for The Wizard of Oz, Glinda the Good Witch tells Dorothy that “Only bad witches are ugly.” This comes after an exchange between Dorothy and Glinda where Dorothy exclaims that she cannot be a witch since witches are old and ugly. Dorothy declares that Glinda is beautiful. In the movie, Glinda is portrayed by a white, blonde-haired, blue-eyed woman and is dressed in a magnificent pink sparkly gown. She wears a beautiful crown and carries a star-shaped sparkly wand. She is sweet, charismatic, and quickly earns Dorothy’s trust. On the other hand, the Wicked Witch of the West is dressed in all black rags and cloak, a black pointed hat, painted green skin and a long, hooked nose and long gnarly fingers. Throughout the film, the Wicked Witch attempts to kill Dorothy and her companions. Eventually, she meets her demise, and everyone rejoices.
In the Disney classic, Sleeping Beauty, we can see the moral associations with color juxtaposed to one another through the characters of the good fairies and the evil fairy, Maleficent. The good-natured and jolly fairies, Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather, are dressed in shades of red, green, and blue respectively. Color Consciousness tells us that the good fairies represent love, vigor, and truth. The evil fairy Maleficent, on the other hand, is cloaked in robes of purple and black meaning that she is vain, dangerous, and secretive. Throughout the film, Maleficent is depicted as scary, evil, and is constantly attempting to harm Aurora by tricking her into an everlasting sleep.
The depictions, wardrobe, and character traits of all said characters represent a much bigger problem. If our color associations are meant to reflect a realistic representation of the world in which we live, then black equates to someone who is an evil and dangerous criminal while white reflects a person who is pure, peaceful, and uplifting. Classic films do a great job of highlighting and perpetuating the violence of microaggressions through their use of color-coded morality and ‘goodness’ associations. However, these notions of good and evil as they pertain to white and black don’t stop at the borders of color consciousness. The root of such an issue runs much deeper than Hollywood.
Racism is about power. When perpetuating anti-blackness, we are upholding notions of white supremacy and white supremacist culture. By perpetuating blackness as “other”, we are overlooking the ways in which we contribute to harm and violence within our communities and on a global scale. This is clearly depicted in Color Consciousness through Kalmus’ definitions of color, but it doesn’t stop there. The ways in which we view black magic as evil and white magic as good can be traced back to colonialism, slavery, and beyond.
Doctor Yvonne Chireau is a Professor in the Department of Religion as Swarthmore College. She is also the author of Black Magic: Religion and the African American Conjuring Tradition (2003). In November of 2021, Professor Chireau sat down with the Harvard Divinity School to present a talk on the topic of Hoodoo titled Black Magic Matters: Hoodoo as Ancestral Religion. In her discussion, Professor Chireau talked at length about the origins of magic in the specific context of slavery in the United States and implored us to consider the “… meaning of black magic in the present day.” Throughout history, in folktales and children’s stories, and on the silver screen, we see ‘white witches’ performing magic that is good, helpful, and safe for practitioners and those who seek their services. In the same vein, we see ‘evil witches’ practicing ‘black magic’ whose goal is to gain wealth, power, and cause harm. Professor Chireau states that black people and their collective practices and religion, especially during slavery, were seen as “… irrational, demonic, primitive, [a] strange spirituality…” and a “spiritual other”. African and African diaspora religions and cultural practices were viewed through the lens of fetishism and were deemed to be demonic witchcraft. These assumptions were used as weapons during slavery and helped to cement notions of whiteness. If blackness and black cultural and religious practices are deemed as demonic and ‘other’, then blackness, in turn, will be viewed and is viewed as such. This is solidified in the way we perceive white magic on screen.
The injustice of white privilege in today’s society is rampant and widespread and cannot be confined to the depiction of magic, witchcraft, and color on screen. It penetrates all borders and all avenues and leaves no stone unturned. But there are some things we can do about it. The first thing to do in regard to color association is to explore your own.
BIO: Freia Serafina (M.A. in Theatre, M.F.A. in Film, current PhD in Religion student with a focus in Women’s Spirituality) is an adjunct professor who is currently focusing on the intersection between ritual and the performing arts. She is also the founder of a virtual women’s spirituality institute, Dance of the Seventh Daughter, and the Divine Feminine Film Festival. Freia is a Priestess of Inanna-Ishtar and Red Tent facilitator. Learn more: www.seventhdaughter.org