Listen to Black Women! A Review of ‘The Exorcist: Believer’

In the new Exorcist film, Haiti’s Vodou becomes a spiritual source of strength and survival, rather than a curse of poverty, natural disasters and evil—new territory for American horror.

(Universal / Courtesy Everett Collection)

Spoilers to follow.

The Exorcist: Believer is a new horror directed by David Gordon Green. Its opening scene parallels the original 1973 horror classic by transferring audiences to a faraway distant land. As such, we are primed to expect demonization of the foreign “other”—this time, Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in contrast to the Middle Eastern location of Iraq in the original, where an ancient demonic spirit is unearthed and later battled in a home in Washington, D.C., by the titular exorciser portrayed by Max von Sydow. 

Imagine my pleasant surprise, then, that the current film—in its depiction of a multiracial, interfaith community with sufficient global memory of the horrific images of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti—employs its Caribbean-based opening scene, not to locate an “origin” for demonic possession, but to follow an actual blessing, in the form of a protection spell over an unborn child. Given how Haiti has been traditionally demonized in Western culture, this representation already elevates this film as a counter-narrative.

Think of the racist stereotypes of the island: from tales of “zombies” to their misunderstood “Vodou” religion, especially by such evangelical talking heads as the late Pat Robertson who once infamously suggested their tragic 2010 earthquake was a result of the “pact they made with the devil.” (This was a reference to the 1791 Haitian slave uprising, which allegedly began with a Vodou ceremony before leading to its independence in 1804 as the first free Black republic in the world, as well as the first nation to abolish slavery permanently.)

In the new Exorcist film, Haiti’s Vodou becomes a spiritual source of strength and survival, rather than a curse of poverty, natural disasters and evil. This is new territory for American horror.

The Haitian setting introduces us to an African American photographer, Victor Fielding (played by Leslie Odom, Jr.), vacationing with his pregnant wife (Tracey Graves)—the latter who is fatally injured during said earthquake, as Victor is presented with the choice of choosing to save either his wife or their unborn child.

Years later, we believe Victor, now a single father, had chosen his daughter, Angela (played by Lydia Jewett), who is now 13 and bonding with her white best friend Katherine (played by Olivia O’Neill). They live in suburban Georgia and seem to have a healthy father-daughter relationship … until Angela and Katherine run off into the woods after school to perform a ritual that would allow Angela to communicate with her dead mother. 

Knowing the horrors that await us in a movie like The Exorcist, this bit of adolescent mischief conveys an unspoken trauma in this single-father household, while little is revealed about why Katherine—raised in a supposedly idyllic two-parent white Christian home—would go on this venture with Angela. 

Before long, the two girls go missing and do not appear again until three days later, when they are found barefoot and in states of shock in a barn full of goats (but of course! Elements of Robert Eggers’ The Witch abound with this particular association with demons). There is something to be said of these horror tropes that envision young girls as the perfect prey to evil spirits, often invoked through either playful adolescence – like Regan’s Ouija board in the original—or through wicca/witchcraft and other gynocentric/nature-based spiritual practices often dismissed by “Church” fathers. Even here, The Exorcist: Believer offers some interesting twists to the narrative.

While this film is not nearly as terrifying as the original, it engages in significant portrayals of race, gender and sexuality. Perhaps the most horrifying scene is the clinical aspects of the story, rather than the supernatural gore elements. What is more visceral than witnessing 13-year-old catatonic girls being tested with rape kits? Indeed, this scene invites us to make concrete connections between sexual abuse and the physicality of demonic possession, which blatantly alludes to when Regan stabs her netherparts with a crucifix in the 1973 movie. 

While the original Exorcist already grappled with loss of faith in the Catholic Church, the church’s authority is thoroughly undermined in the new movie. How much of this is based on a global movie audience being privy to allegations of child sexual abuse by Catholic priests? And, in an interfaith exorcism ritual in which the rules dictate that no one touches the possessed girls, was the one Catholic priest being fatally punished for doing just that: “touching” adolescent girls? 

This priest is far from the only patriarch to lose his authority. There is the Baptist preacher Katherine openly mocks by “misbehaving” in his well-mannered church (both verbally and sexually). Her father (played by Norbert Leo Butz) refuses to submit to the community rules of the interfaith exorcism rituals and also allows the devil to trick him into selfishly “choosing” his daughter to live over Victor’s daughter, when the other parents (including Katherine’s mother Miranda, played by Jennifer Nettles) understood such a “choice” was already diabolical (literally!) in nature. 

Of course, fathers are not the only ones to suffer. There is Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn, reprising her role from the original Exorcist), who boldly confronts demonic possession by giving herself the authority to do so, since the original church “patriarchy” shut her out of her daughter’s ritual. However, she is violently harmed by the devil’s trickery.

In contrast, Ann, a medical nurse who also dares to perform exorcism rites through her authority, is confronted with her secret abortion that derailed her plans of becoming a Catholic nun. Regardless of whether such a “secret” posits the film as being “anti-abortion,” it highlights how both women overcome blatant misogyny spouting from demonic mouths to save young girls. 

There is a certain irony that women and girls are often not listened to—but oh, when the devil gets into them, even the Church fathers tune in, if only to battle with Satan!

There is the interesting historical case of Nicole Aubrey of France in the 16th century, who once commanded an audience of competing Catholics and Protestant Huguenots while engaging in profound theological debates when a demon possessed her. Similarly, in the movie, our demon-possessed girls are having some hard conversations with the members of their community. 

It’s a reminder of what Andi Zeisler has called the “feminist power” of the supernatural feminine figure. This subversive power contrasts the typical demonization of women and girls, especially girls at the cusp of puberty, as the original Exorcist created through the iconic demonic figure, Regan MacNeil

But what does it mean when such girls are listened to because they speak with a masculine, rather than a feminine, voice? Moreover, do these rhetorical engagements become racialized? Katherine’s demon outright lies and then turns on her innocent “white girl tears” as suddenly as she delivers a violent attack. At the same time, Angela’s demon comes off as a “sassy Black girl” who will throw hurtful truths in people’s faces because she’s adept at reading folks for filth. 

The one character who seems above all the hocus pocus elements of the supernatural is the root-working therapist Doctor Beehibe (played by Okwui Okpokwasili), who reminds Victor of how their enslaved ancestors worked with the land to find their roots and rituals as they learned to survive. She is the one who lays the foundation—literally drawing a Kongo cosmogram on a floor to create a portal between material and spiritual planes—as well as the ground rules for the community exorcism ritual, an essential inclusion of Black women’s spiritual authority when such authority is typically dismissed as “superstition.” 

It is not just this literal rootedness that helps Victor to find his faith and save his daughter, but also his willingness to listen to his demon-possessed daughter when she confronts him with the unspoken trauma between them: He had initially chosen to save his wife over his unborn child. This simple commitment to listen to his daughter with love, no matter how terrifying, and the women in his life—Dr. Beehibe, Ann, Chris MacNeil, and the memory of his wife who believed in the protective spell of those Haitian Vodou priestesses—made all the difference. 

Given how the other daughter suffered the fate of eternal damnation—caused by a father who refused to engage in community or to see or listen to his transformed daughter (not even seeking appropriate medical or spiritual care for her)—the lesson is made clear: Men who listen to women and girls will survive and thrive!

No wonder some critics and moviegoers fear this movie is “woke.” It reflects the word’s original meaning—a political awakening and renewed social consciousness. 

This latest installment of The Exorcist does much to alter Black representations in the horror genre, giving them due reverence and centrality in a mainstream movie while also allowing them to survive.

However, the reliance on scary adolescent girls is par for the course of horror. Hopefully, this, too, will get a movie makeover that flips the scripts of gendered expectations, just as we have learned to do with racially progressive stories. 

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Janell Hobson is professor of women's, gender and sexuality studies at the University at Albany. She is the author of When God Lost Her Tongue: Historical Consciousness and the Black Feminist Imagination. She is also the editor of Tubman 200: The Harriet Tubman Bicentennial Project.