The creators of Juju: The Web Series: (L to R) Moon Ferguson, Kiara Diana, Janeen Talbott, and Belle Brooks
'Juju: The Web Series' Imagines a World Where Black Witches Aren't Vilified
We spoke with the writers and creators of the supernatural web series Juju, who talked about the landscape of the fantasy and sci-fi genre when it comes to Black representation.
Witches, vampires, sirens, werewolves, ghosts. It’s Halloween and all the spooks and scares are in full effect. For writer and director Moon Ferguson, October also represents that one year anniversary of her fantasy creation, Juju: The Web Series, which you can stream on Amazon Prime. The show follows three friends, Ally, Gigi, and Yaya, as they discover they are witches and journey to accept their newfound powers. After a mysterious visit from their ancestor reveals they have magical powers, the trio of eclectic friends must balance their gifts with the millennial qualms of career woes, romantic entanglements, and identity while evil lurks closer than they know.
The one year anniversary of the show's release was October 29th. And over the month, Ferguson has been celebrating the show. This will conclude with a free Black Witch watch party on kweliTV tonight, where the short Vow of Silence, from Be Steadwell, and three episodes of Juju: The Web Series will be played.
As for Juju, this isn't the end. Ferguson confirms that the second season will be in the form of a narrative fictional podcast. The team of four writers also just wrapped a supernatural short film called Dark Before Dawn. Ferguson describes the project as being, "Matilda meets Raising Deon."
With Halloween here, we spoke with Ferguson, along with her team of writers, Belle Brooks, Kiara Diana, and Neen Talbott to discuss their inspiration and process for creating Juju, as well as their shared their thoughts on the current landscape of the fantasy and sci-fi genre when it comes to Black representation.
Moon I know this is your baby so I wanted to start with you and ask how you came up with this idea of three Black witches coming into their power and finding out they are witches?
Moon Ferguson: My inspiration came out of frustration. I was binge-watching Vampire Diaries. I had just moved to [New York City], and I didn’t have a job. And it was overcast and it was just depression all around. So Vampire Diaries, I just sunk into. Bonnie [Bennett] got the shit end of the stick after all she was put through from these vampires. I was just like pacing around, already frustrated about not knowing what else to write. That whole creative self-doubt thing. So I was just really down in myself about that. And then the idea popped up — "let me write a witch story." I love fantasy but it is a daunting genre. As a kid, my writing was off the chain with it. As a kid your imagination is expansive and you don’t care what anyone thinks. But as an adult, I was just like I don’t think I got it still.
I wanted to explore one witch, but I began to learn more about Obeah — because I’m Jamaican and Cuban. I’ve seen it practiced but as a child I just thought, "Oh that’s just what we do." Grandma puts salt in the door corners. She says, "it keep the Duppie away." Ok cool, that keeps Duppie away. It wasn’t until I saw it on Charmed, I was like wait, hold on.
I’m from Ft. Lauderdale [Florida] so there’s heavy Haitian culture there, everyone down here has a Haitian best friend. Everyone is Haitian by association down here because they are so rich [as a culture] down here. Then I started thinking about Santeria and how I could explore that. I started thinking about how I grew up in the Catholic church. Everything from childhood just started to click for me and I felt like one witch wouldn’t have been able to show all of that and how they are all connected.
For some people who don’t know what Obeah or Santeria is or what Duppies are, could you explain those terms and the history of brujas and Black witches within Caribbean and Black American cultures?
As far as Obeah — they call it Jamaican voodoo — it was used for healing properties. So anytime you had to go to an Obeah man or Obeah woman, you are sick. It’s kind of like a witch doctor. They practice other spells, manifestations and other rituals, but from my perspective and how my family used it, that is what we turned to for healing. I would say it is one of our original religions. Black people’s original religion and connection to the ancestors, and a way that God speaks to you versus you speaking to him. It’s the way you feel him through you and hear his thoughts. It’s something that opens up your eyes to his messages, whether that be through numbers or signs or colors.
Kiara Diana: This project is special to me for the fact that I am practicing. Around the time that Moon posted she "was looking for writers," I was going through what I call the decolonizing of my spirituality phase. I removed myself from my Christian upbringing. I grew up Baptist and I removed myself from that framework completely. It was after how some of my friends came out, how they were treated by their own home churches. And these are churches that they were baptized in and christened in as babies. Just people I’ve known my entire life through my church community and then suddenly I was being told don’t talk to them anymore, or you can’t see them anymore. That was jarring for me. It was also something I was dealing with at the time so it was scary. I didn’t know if my church was going to throw me away too. So I was like let me step away and see what else is out there. But also wanting to tap into something that reflected people that looked like me. I started as an eclectic witch and started reading tarot. That’s where my journey with traditional African faiths began. From there I did a deep dive into what they all look like.
Neen Talbott: I would say Obeah, Santeria, all of these practices are a finding of God in natural elements as well as yourself and the people that came before you and using that to guide you in your life path. It is separating spiritually from being with just one particular entity and seeing that in everything around you. It’s using rituals and everything around you in nature and Earth to manifest what you want and also to protect you, comfort you, guide you, and all of these things. That’s how I would define it. It’s also something that you can make your own. It’s not something that you can take lightly or play around with, it’s just as serious as the rules and order of the Christian faith and other religions. But I feel there is more freedom to ask questions and receive the answers. Unlike some Christian practices where it’s just like, ‘This is what it is," and there’s no stepping outside of those lines. There’s no asking questions. Someone is just telling you what it is and you’re just supposed to take it.
Belle Brooks: I walked into this with no real background actually. At least not knowingly. In my family, my mother’s side is Jamaican, my father’s side is from the Dutch West Indies, Aruba. In my family, I hadn’t noticed or it’s never been blatantly any other practices outside of Christianity. But through this, I learned more about these different religions and practices and was able to learn different aspects of my own culture that my family maybe just didn’t give voice to because maybe they weren’t around it or didn’t find it important. Little things like when I moved somewhere new like my dorm room or an apartment, she would bless the house with holy water. Which is not something too much different, so this what I think this project taught me. That the religion that I grew up in, there’s not as much of a separation as they teach you there is between these cultural Black religions and practices.
Moon you said Vampire Diaries was kind of your inspiration for creating Juju, but what are some of your other favorite fantasy genre films or TV shows that made you become interested in this genre?
Ferguson: I was interested in this genre since I was a kid. Of course like cartoons and Disney. I’m a big Disney freak. I know Disney gets a lot of slack, but I love Sleeping Beauty. It’s so vintage, it’s so elegant, it’s so regal, it’s such a great story. It’s a masterpiece, however old it is. When we are kids we are so used to cartoons, so we just see magic. But when I saw it in live-action in Teen Witch, it was different. I come from a young mom so I was lucky to be introduced to pop culture early. I was watching X-Files. I was watching Tales of the Crypt. I was watching Candy Man. My mom always jokes that she almost had to call the priest over because we were Catholic to do an exorcism because I was so obsessed with Chuckie in Child’s Play. Then I started seeing The Neverending Story, and my mom even fed into it because she showed me Serpent of the Rainbow, which introduced me to Haitian voodoo. As I got older Buffy The Vampire Slayer came and I started seeing younger people in those roles. Like Buffy and Sabrina and Eve’s Bayou, Harry Potter. The element of just like escaping Earth, it’s something I just grew up loving. It felt like I was traveling.
Diana: My first influences weren’t witches, it was actually vampires. I loved Lost Boys and it turned me out. Everything was in it, it was gory, it was vampires. They were not hot, they were grody and nasty. True Blood in high school set my brain on fire. I’m also a big anime kid, so Toonami was big for me. I would be up all night watching Toonami. It would be just me and Dragon Ball Z to Samurai Jack. The line up was beautiful.
Anime really did it for me. Fantasy was cool with like American TV. But there’s like a level of limitation when real people are cast. With anime, we can go dark, we can go super magic, there’s no limit. And I can’t even begin to tell you which one did it for me, but I think at the time when Moon was looking for writers I was big into The Lost Girls, which actually isn’t an anime it’s real live motion. And it’s Canadian. I was just enrolling back into [New York University] at the time and it was my inspiration for everything. It’s like the mythical Bible of every mythical creature possible and all of the different mythologies and all of the different folklore. It’s all in that one series. And right now I’m really into Kipoand the Age of Wonderbeasts on Netflix.
It’s Black girl magic! Like they’re Black and it’s two of them! And there’s a boy and he’s gay!
Talbott: [Kipoand the Age of Wonderbeasts is] so cute. I love it. I loved The Wizard of Oz. I loved The Neverending Story and The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. I love Disney as well, so like when Hook came out with Robin Williams and I saw Peter Pan flying around and stuff, I loved it. But I think I noticed that Black people weren’t really in those things from a young age, so I was always kind of searching for myself in those characters. But I was still so entranced with how beautiful and how visually arresting everything was. As I got older, I started to find myself in books like Kindred. Binti by Nnedi Okorafor. When I did find myself, I think that is what inspired me to bring those things to the big screen because I felt like that was something that was definitely missing. When you did see Black people in these films, if they weren’t starring in them, they were usually Black savior tropes. And I hated that. We always have to save white people or be sacrificed for white people or make a potion for white people or warn white people not to do something stupid. Like why can’t we be Matilda? Why can’t we go on these adventures and have these wild rides or have these epic sagas?
Brooks: The earliest thing I can remember is being mildly obsessed with Xena [: Warrior Princess] and Hercules. Growing up in the ‘90s there’s Buffy [the Vampire Slayer], there’s Angel and Charmed. All these shows and they had spinoffs. Once you get into one, you get wrapped up in the next. I didn’t consider myself to be super into sci-fi or fantasy, per se, but what I really enjoyed about them was anything that showed complex human emotion really well within the world they were in. I was all about that. Because if I could see relationships that I could see in real life.
The second season of 'Juju' will be in the form of a narrative fictional podcast. Photo Credit: Ferguson
What are some of the critiques that you have of the current representation of Black witchcraft or the fantasy, sci-fi genre in general?
Ferguson: They just get it wrong. I feel like they just don’t care to do the research. That they are lazy. It’s like they have no shame in it being wrong, they just don’t care. They have no interest in researching this magic. When you show white witches you show them using good magic. But you also show them using bad magic for evil purposes. When it comes to African spirituality we only see one side of it. We only see it as a savior trope. Even with Angela Bassett in American Horror Story, her character Marie Laveau, her whole thing was revenge. She used her magic for bad. Until she became the savior trope and the witch hunters were coming and the girls at the school came to her because her magic is supposedly stronger, but here goes another Black character saving the white folks again. And forgiving the white folks. Not to say that Black characters can’t be evil or can’t be villains that are evil. I felt that if they would have just left Marie at that it would have been fine, but they had to make her a Black savior trope. The same with Bonnie (the Vampire Diaries), she was the savior. She lost everything, she had to sacrifice her whole family, her lineage, her magic. So I personally just want to see a little more care and nurturing. Do the research and show intention.
Talbott: I would also add that a lot of the times what I will see is, even within Black narrative storytelling, our magic will be demonized. Like, don’t go down that road and interact with that woman who makes the potions because it is seen as a negative. It’s never seen as a service to the community, which it usually is. Brujas, Black witches that practice, are usually serving their greater community in some way by either making tinctures or doing healing rituals or providing a reading for people. When you see it in films, it’s more so this woman might hex you or she might do this bad thing to you. I think that is inaccurate. I think that it is a way to pit us against ourselves, and a way to keep some cultural dialogue that could be happening in Black spaces from happening because people are fearful of things from their own culture that they don’t understand.
How do Ally, Gigi, and Yaya as characters add to the canon of Black witches as characters in a progressive way?
Ferguson: I allow them space to fuck up. To fuck up with themselves and fuck up with their magic. I wanted it to be a mixture of coming of age as a human, as a woman and then as a witch. They have parallel coming of age stories. I always say they have their humanity storyline and then their magical storyline. They are allowed this space to make mistakes. And when you watch you see that they all handle the news that they are witches differently. You have one who goes head first, you have one that’s like OK let’s all calm down, and then you have another one who is just like, "both of y’all are stupid and crazy." Them coming into their magic is not just their active powers but who they are as spiritual beings. I wanted to show that compassion in them. Yes, they are going to use their magic for personal or evil intention. Yes, they are going to have a little power trip and go rogue. But give them space to do that because this is new to them. It’s magical hormones! And it’s not because Obeah is evil or Santeria is evil, but because they are just feeling themselves and want to push the limits of their power.
I remember seeing on Twitter that each character was written by one person, and I really enjoyed each of them having their own episode as they journey and come to terms with their power. What was the thought process behind that?
When I first presented to the writers, I already had the witches and the powers they would have decided. I literally just broke the three witches into myself or the three parts of me. Their personality is their magic, your ego is your magic. So let’s say I can get men to do whatever I want in real life, no powers no nothing. And then I become a witch tomorrow, my power would be mind control of men, but more active and mystical in a sense. A little more subconscious for them.
Neen pitched the idea to me that each witch be written by one writer. I knew I wanted three episodes for each character because I was watching Dear White People at the time and thought that was cool. Since it was a web series, I also wanted the audience to have some alone time with each character to see who they are and what their world is and their real problems. Like for Yaya she likes Coop, but Coop doesn’t like her. That’s her human problem, but her witch problem is she can’t control these voices she hears and she doesn’t want to hear them. So they all have these parallel stories.
In the story, I noticed men were somewhat used as distractions. Even the main villain, Chelsea, would use men as weapons against Ally, Gigi, and Yaya, so I wanted to know if that was intentional?
Yes, it was intentional. Men are distractions in our lives. No matter how we want to say it, at the end of the day we all want love. I don’t want people to think that their whole life is around men. It just happened to be that whatever man they were dealing with was used as a tool. As far as Chelsea using men, yeah she uses them because she feeds off them. I love stuff like Jennifer’s Body and the idea of women sucking men dry. I’m not that person in real life. I just love the mystical theme of it. The bad bitchness of it.
We kind of talked about ancestry a bit already, because I noticed there was a theme of having knowledge of and reconnectong with generations past. Was this an overarching statement about how so many Black people within the Diaspora share culture and are connected through common ancestry?
We wanted to educate. I didn’t want it to be this hotep thing, I just wanted to show them having fun with it and learning about it. I grew up in three different sacred houses: Catholic church, Seventh Day Adventist, and Buddhist, depending on which relative I was with that weekend or what side of the family. So growing up I was very well versed in religion and Sunday School. And my stepfather was a Rasta, and then punishment in eighth grade for getting detention was to read the Torah and the Quran. I already knew all these things, and I knew they tied in. I read the Bible five times already — the first time as a kid because it was such a great story to me. My message is basically to show you can be both. You can have your Christian faith, your religious faith and values while also being spiritual. I read my Bible with my crystals. I listen to Gospel music while holding my fluorite. My message is that it is okay to connect and you’re not betraying God or your religion. You’re not betraying anyone, you’re just tapping in. God is covering you with ancestors, so just tap in.
Morgan Grain is an LA-based writer and producer with southern Atlanta roots whose work focuses on Black women’s contribution to entertainment, media, visual arts and culture.