Film Review: In search of Voodoo – Roots to Heaven

Djimon Hounsou will be forever remembered in the 1998 Steven Spielberg film, Amistad. Most especially for his performance as Cinque, the young African slave in the tear-jerking courtroom scene, as he forcefully proclaimed the words “Give us, us free!”. 

It is only befitting then, for it to be Djimon who takes us back to Africa, starting at his homeland of Benin Republic, in an attempt to rewrite some of the common misconceptions of Voodoo, which also came about as a part of the injustice of slavery and colonization, to portray all things African as wild and primitive.   

To understand just how much connection Africans still have to Voodoo, Djimon proudly reveals the meaning of his last name, Hounsou as, “one born in the Voodoo shrine”. 

In this 2018 documentary, written, directed and narrated by Djimon, we are taken on a journey of the different deities that exists in Voodoo and how they are worshipped or placated. 

One of the most common narratives about voodoo is in its use in evil witchcraft and of sticking pins in the infamous ‘Voodoo dolls’ to cause harm. By shedding light on some of the more peaceful parts of Voodoo, including telling a tale of 7 main gods/deities, and their control over different aspects of nature, Djimon tries to show us Voodoo in a more positive light and as something deeply spiritual.  

While I expected to see usual comparisons to the sacrifices in other cultures and religions, I was really looking forward to discovering new information that shows just how much Voodoo has evolved as a  cultural practice over the years.

Sadly though, all we see is some of the same old gory images of bloody sacrifices.

Even still, all but one of the interviewees passionately try to defend voodoo and portray it as a peaceful practice, yet, the often graphic visuals of slaughtered animals and bloody rituals often tell a starkly different story.

I had attempted to watch this with my children as a cultural education tool but had to stop them from watching any more of it mid-way through because some of the scenes were just too graphic.

Shot by famous photographer, Kwaku Alston, known for his work with Essence magazine – In search of Voodoo manages to capture some really good and detailed images. At times all we see are powerful visuals telling the story even as Djimon tries to guide us through with his booming baritone voice.  The visuals overpower any argument that is presented in the film.

In search of Voodoo doesn’t do enough to change the narrative in my opinion, I really liked the overall stories and while Djimon’s star power will appeal to a wider audience, the colorful visuals and graphic killings might just have contributed to the negative narrative of portraying Voodoo as a dark art.  

If Voodoo is to be widely accepted as a ‘good’ thing,  just as Djimon and others intend, then we need to be more creative and sensitive in the way we portray graphic images on screen to a wider audience.   

The scene below, from the Vikings TV series, although just a dramatization, shows how other cultures have been successful in normalizing sacrifices, even human ones, in their cultures. Storytelling is an artform as they say.

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