The Inherent Associations Between Color and Morality on Screen
The following text is a paper I wrote as part of my Conscious Allyship course at the California Institute of Integral Studies. It is a tip of the iceberg look into the moral implications of deeming something "black" as bad and something "white" as good. I used cinematic examples for this paper but, truthfully, we do this all the time. We do this in magical practices, when thinking about spirituality, and even in our daily lives. This is the very start of a much larger conversation. I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.
In 1935 the executive head of the Technicolor art department, Natalie M. Kalmus, released a document titled Color Consciousness in which she explores color theory and the use of color on screen. In Color Consciousness Kalmus presents us with color associations and instructs her readers when and how to use color to evoke a certain emotional reaction or association from audiences. On page 139 of the text she writes, “Color constitutes another step in the steady advancement of the motion picture towards realism… Psychologically, colors fall into the “warm” and “cool” groups, and each color and shade has its psychological implications… To build up personalities and to harmonize emotions and situations, these principles must apply, even to the extent of “color juxtaposition,” or the psychological relation of the various colors to each other.” Kalmus goes on to explain each color’s association and how the art department can implement the usage of color to create a more realistic worldview on screen. According to Kalmus, the onset of advanced technology in the 1930’s allowed motion pictures to duplicate auditory and visual sensations. This enhanced realism “… enables us to portray life and nature as it really is…”
This presents a problem from a twenty-first century anti-racist and feminist point of view. If, as Natalie Kalmus suggests, the usage of color and its associations represents a realistic worldview then the worldview Kalmus presents is an inherently racist one. Prior to launching into an extensive and in-depth description of both black and white, Kalmus acknowledges that the two aforementioned “colors” are technically not colors at all. Instead, the “neutrals”, as they are referred to, are hues but still stimulate definitive emotional responses. 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. It flies at the masthead of the pirate's ship. Our language is replete with references to this frightful power of black- black art, black despair, black-guard, blackmail, black hand, the black hole of Calcutta, black death black list, black-hearted, etc.” 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. Its introduction into a color sublimates that color. For example, the red of love becomes more refined and idealistic as white transforms the red to pink. 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.
We can see Kalmus’ color consciousness play out on the silver screen in a variety of ways. For this paper, I will be focusing on The Wizard of Oz (1939), Cinderella (1950), and Sleeping Beauty (1959). Later in this essay, I will discuss the Long Island Medium (TLC) and the Hollywood Medium (E!). I will use these films and television series to highlight society’s views towards “black magic” and “white magic”, the “evil witch” and the “good witch” and how these views are steeped in inherent racism and cultural bias. I will rely on the research of Rachel Ricketts, Ann Russo, and Yvonne Chireau to do so.
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 Disney’s Cinderella, the protagonist of the same name is granted assistance from her Fairy Godmother. After Cinderella’s stepmother and stepsisters rip her dress to shreds to keep her from attending the ball, her Fairy Godmother appears and magically transforms Cinderella’s dress into a beautiful ballgown. She then proceeds to use magic to transform animals and pumpkins into a horse drawn carriage and attendants. The Fairy Godmother is depicted as elderly, plump, white, and sweet-natured. She wears blue which, according to Kalmus, means she represents truth, hope, and serenity.
In another 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. This is what is referred to as a microaggression and is steeped in notions of whiteness and anti-blackness.
According to Rachel Ricketts, author of Do Better; Spiritual Activism for Fighting and Healing from White Supremacy, a microaggression can be defined as “… everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership.” Ricketts shares the words of Dr. Derald Wing Sue when she writes that microaggressions “… may invalidate the group identity or experiential reality of target persons, demean them on a personal or group level, communicate they are lesser hum[x]n beings, suggest they do not belong with the majority group, threaten and intimidate, or relegate them to inferior status and treatment.’ Microaggressions can be much more than assuming something about an individual based on their perceived ethnic or religious group. Microaggressions can be tools through which one perpetuates violence towards an individual or groups of individuals such as the continued misrepresentations of people based on the color of their skin. Classic films do a great job of highlighting and perpetuating said violence 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. Ann Russo in her book, Feminist Accountability, asks us to consider the words of Aimee Carillo Rowe who asks, “… whose survival we must overlook in order to connect to power in the ways that we do?” 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. Ricketts defines whiteness as “… an ideology rooted in belonging to a socially constructed “race” of hum[x]ns possessing the most power and privilege of any other race…” This ideology of whiteness is rooted in the notion of anti-blackness and defines itself as belonging to everything that is not black. Anti-blackness “… highlights the specific racial oppression Black people face globally…” and is inherently linked to nationalist feelings of white supremacy and privilege through its negation and relation to Blackness. Ricketts uses the following example: “… whiteness is what Blackness and Indigeneity are not (i.e., savage, criminal, dumb, ugly, lazy, etc.).” 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. Color associations as they pertain to perceived morality and “goodness” are rampant in our society today.
Doctor Yvonne Chireau is a Professor in the Department of Religion as Swarthmore College where she teaches African American Religions, Black Women and Religion, and New World African Religions. 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. Ricketts tells us that the “… construct of what is deemed white was simultaneously created through white slave traders’ construction of what is Black.” 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.
In 2010 television network TLC released a series titled Long Island Medium starring Theresa Caputo, a “… normal mom from New York who balances a full family life with her ability to communicate with the dead.” Caputo is a spiritual medium who connects people with their dead loved ones and communicates messages through spiritual channeling. Many people would argue that what Caputo does is magic. Theresa Caputo is a white, blonde-haired, blue-eyed woman from Long Island who values family and God. Her public practice of magic is not only widely accepted by society but celebrated as her show is still on the air today.
In 2016 the television network E! premiered the Hollywood Medium starring Tyler Henry. Henry “… meets with celebrities and shares messages from their departed loved ones.” Hollywood Medium is also still on the air. Like Caputo, Henry is a white, blonde-haired man who channels spirit energy and communicates with the dead. Being that both Caputo and Henry are white, society associates them with purity, cleanliness, spirit, luminosity, and peace. Instead of being perceived through the anti-blackness lens of irrational, demonic and evil, Caputo and Henry can practice their craft openly, lucratively, and relatively free from judgement. It is a white privilege to do so.
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. Rachel Ricketts gives us a spiritual call to action at the end of her chapter White Supremacy Runs the World. She asks us to do two separate exercises. First, close your eyes and bring the word “black” into your mind. When you’re done, write down all of the associations you made with it. Do the same for “white”. What do you notice? What came up for you? What are your inherent associations with both words and why might that be? It’s certainly not a solution for white supremacy, but it is a good place to begin contemplating your own contributions to it.
Chireau, Yvonne. Black Magic Matters: Hoodoo as Ancestral Religion. Harvard Divinity School, 2021. https://cswr.hds.harvard.edu/news/magic-matters/2021/11/10.
Disney, Walt. Sleeping Beauty, 1959.
Kalmus, Natalie. Color Consciousness. Hollywood, CA: Journal of the Society for Motion Picture Engineers, 1935.
Langley, Noel, Florence Ryerson, and Edgar Allen Woolf. “Wizard of Oz, the (1939).” Wizard of Oz, The (1939) movie script - Screenplays for You. Accessed March 25, 2022. https://sfy.ru/script/wizard_of_oz_1939.
Peed, William, Wilfred Jackson, Hamilton S. Luske, Clyde Geronimi, Ben Sharpsteen, Ub Iwerks, C. O. Slyfield, et al. Cinderella. United States: Distributed by RKO Radio Pictures, Inc., 1949.
“Ratings, Reviews, and Where to Watch the Best Movies & TV Shows.” IMDb. IMDb.com. Accessed March 25, 2022. https://www.imdb.com/.
Ricketts, Rachel. Do Better: Spiritual Activism for Fighting and Healing from White Supremacy. New York, NY: Atria Paperback, 2022.
Russo, Ann. Feminist Accountability: Disrupting Violence and Transforming Power. New York: New York University Press, 2019.
Whole. Hollywood Medium 1, no. 1, 2016.
Whole. Long Island Medium 1, no. 1, 2010.