Black Magic and White Guilt: Voodoo in Angel Heart

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On first viewing, Alan Parker's 1987 film Angel Heart may seem like just another in a long line of films that equate voodoo with Satanism, blacks with the black arts. However, the film also struggles toward an acknowledgment of white guilt, an admission that evil resides within the self. Evil's repression and projection onto the "black other" must be understood as a defensive strategy for denying one's own guilt. The difference between good whites and bad blacks must be redefined as a difference within, the capacity for good and evil inherent in each of us, regardless of skin color or religious faith. Angel Heart gains psychological depth and social relevance if we view it as the lead character's internal struggle with his desires and fears regarding blacks.

On first viewing, Alan Parker's 1987 film Angel Heart may seem like just another in a long line of films that equate voodoo with Satanism, blacks with the black arts. However, the film also struggles toward an acknowledgment of white guilt, an admission that evil resides within the self. Evil's repression and projection onto the "black other" must be understood as a defensive strategy for denying one's own guilt. The difference between good whites and bad blacks must be redefined as a difference within, the capacity for good and evil inherent in each of us, regardless of skin color or religious faith. Angel Heart gains psychological depth and social relevance if we view it as the lead character's internal struggle with his desires and fears regarding blacks.

Because Angel Heart has a remarkably complex plot to which I intend to refer in some detail, a summary of the film's events may help to orient the reader for the analysis which follows. The film is set in New York City in 1955. The mysterious Louis Cyphre (Robert De Niro) hires private eye Harry Angel (Mickey Rourke) to find Johnny Favorite, a singer who owes Cyphre an unpaid debt. Harry goes to a hospital where Johnny is supposed to have stayed since his injury in World War II. By withholding drugs from a junkie doctor, Harry finds out that a man and a woman secretly took Johnny from the hospital on New Year's Eve, 1943, and that his absence has been covered up by the doctor ever since. Harry pauses during his interrogation of the doctor to go out for some food, only to find the man dead upon his return-an apparent suicide who shot himself in the eye using bullets from a hollowed-out Bible. Following various leads, Harry discovers that the woman who took Johnny from the hospital was a mistress, Margaret Krusemark (Charlotte Rampling), and the man accompanying her was her father, Ethan (Stocker Fontelieu).

Harry tracks this pair to New Orleans where, after questioning Margaret, he returns later to find her dead, with her heart cut out. Further clues lead Harry to a black blues guitarist named Toots Sweet (Brownie McGhee), who once played in a band with Johnny. Toots resists Harry's persistent questioning by slashing Harry's hand with a razor, but Harry takes possession of the weapon and uses it to threaten Toots. Later, Harry is told that someone cut off Toots's genitals and stuffed them in his throat, suffocating the man to death. Using information he got from Toots, Harry discovers that Johnny had another mistress, a black voodoo queen named Evangeline Proudfoot, who died after Johnny stole her heart and left her. Harry meets and is attracted to Johnny and Evangeline's mixed-race daughter, Epiphany (Lisa Bonet), whom he witnesses dancing in a voodoo ceremony and cutting a chicken's throat.

Later, Harry tracks down Ethan Krusemark, who reveals the remainder of this complex story: Johnny had sold his soul to the Devil for stardom as a singer, then tried to evade the debt by picking up a random soldier in Times Square on New Year's Eve, 1942, and by cutting out and eating the man's heart, thus taking on his identity in order to escape the Devil. However, Johnny was then drafted, went off to war, and came back injured-a shell-shocked amnesiac. …