The Magic of Welles in Voodoo Macbeth

February 8, 2023

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3 stars

I’ll admit, I wasn’t very psyched about watching Voodoo Macbeth for two reasons. I’ve never succumbed to the idea that Orson Welles is a genius. Maybe it’s because I’m of an age that my first impressions of the man were not as an actor or director but as a slovenly cigar-chomping pitchman trying to convince us rubes that Paul Masson wines were good because they “sold no wine before its time.” (click here)

Maybe it’s because I think Citizen Kane sucks and didn’t want to watch a film that potentially lionized the young man who made one of the most overrated “classics” known to man. (And before you get on your high horse about my opinion or worse, suggest that I haven’t seen it in the right context or with the proper background. I’ve sat through that film nine times, eight of them with friends convinced that seeing it with them would make all the difference. It did not.)

But I kept watching the trailer for Voodoo Macbeth, and something about it kept pulling me in. And I’m glad it did because it is an entertaining, thought-provoking film. It may take on too many subplots for its own good, but in this case, I guess swinging for the fences is to be expected from an indie film that has ten directors, eight writers, and three producers. 

The movie takes audiences back to 1936 when the Harlem Negro Theater Unit of the Federal Theatre Project, funded by FDR’s New Deal, decides to stage “Macbeth” with an all-Black cast. Instead of hiring a Black director for the production, a decision that isn’t fully explored in the script, they, or, more specifically, the White co-director of the unit, John Houseman, hired the spunky, if untested, Wells to helm the show. He immediately transfers the action of the “Scottish” play from Scotland to Haiti and transforms the witchcraft of the three weird sisters into voodoo.

A lot of backstage action follows as Welles casts, then rehearses the play. It’s entertaining, if chaotic, to watch. The ten directors, eight writers, and three producers do an excellent job of ensuring that all the main characters get enough screen time to make their presence felt, even if their individual stories get lost along the way. Gary McDonald is a force of nature as the drunken actor who would be the king, but his character isn’t fleshed out enough to be more than a distraction. The same goes for the forbidden romance between heavyweight champ Cuba Johnson (Wreckless Watson) and hotel elevator operator Maurice (Jeremy Tardy). It’s compelling and well-acted but stops short of being an integral part of the film.

And that’s because Voodoo Macbeth is, first and foremost, a film about Orson Welles, the boy genius. Or, at least in this instance, the genius in training. And kudos to Jewell Wilson Bridges for making his feature film debut so memorable by foregoing even the hint of an Orson Welles imitation to create a complex and compelling character. Portraying a ‘genius” would be challenging enough, but Bridges gives us a look at a man struggling with the enormous talent that possesses him. When it works, we celebrate with him. When that talent fails, we feel bad for him. And when his passion for his art (and maybe for himself) causes him to make the horrendous mistake of trying to join the cast and play the lead in the all-Black cast, we are as stunned/appalled at his hubris as he eventually becomes. 

At the end of Voodoo Macbeth, the credits tell us how successful the play went on to be, both in Harlem and through all the sites it toured. It’s almost anti-climactic because after being there with the cast and its director through the creation of the show, you know in your heart that it couldn’t be anything but a hit. Instead of watching the fullt realized play, you want to follow these characters to see what they will do next. And for any, like me, who fear the next step in Orson Welles’ career will involve the mystery of “Rosebud,” rest easy that Citizen Kane is still five years away for the Welles’ who directed Voodoo Macbeth on stage. 

First, he has to scare the crap out of the entire country with an infamous radio broadcast.


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