As the demand for entertainment that tells personal and realistic stories is growing, so is the desire for this entertainment to be created by, produced by, and directed by the communities they claim to represent. Chicago directors Ricardo Gamboa and Reshmi Hazra Rustebakke hope their new web series, Brujos, can be a guide to escaping systems of white supremacy and the white gaze. Brujos wonders: What does it look like when artists create entertainment for mass consumption outside of systems of white privilege?
In order to create highly politicized, radical, and entertaining art, the duo have taken advantage of the age of binge television and self-produced web series. Brujos is produced by Open.TV (beta), a Chicago-based platform for original series that's open to people who identify as queer, trans, or persons of color. Open.TV recently premiered the hit series Brown Girls, which focuses on the friendship of two women of color, and Afternoon Snatch, which looks at the aftermath of a queer relationship's demise. Gamboa and Rustebakke's series, Brujos, follows the story of four gay Latino doctoral candidates who happen to be witches. The group is forced to navigate their place in a world with inherent racial and homophobic power structures, all while fighting a secret society of white male witch hunters.
The co-directors worked with Open.TV to ensure their vision for the show. They largely wanted to focus on creating a show with positive political intentions at every point in the production process, starting from location. Brujos is actually filmed in the Southside Chicago neighborhoods they wanted to portray. To add to this, the crew used neighborhood businesses for craft services and hired a mix of local talent that included many newcomers.
"I've been steadfast in doing this the right way," director, actor, and creator Ricardo Gamboa explained as we sat together at 5 Rabanitos, a restaurant in Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood. Gamboa lives in the neighborhood and knew everyone by name—the owner even greeted him as we waited for a table. "If you are not just a radically politicized artist, but radically political about your process and principles, there's so little space to do things the right way."
Brujos took Gamboa eight years to create and produce. He refused to whitewash his vision of the series. In terms of content, he wanted to tell the stories of queer people of color while also paying respect to the brujeria traditions of his culture—without creating a voyeuristic window for the white gaze. In the show, subtitles are used as characters speak their native language. Characters are openly gay without their homosexuality—or insecurity around it—taking over as the dominant narrative. These characters know who they are: They just so happen to have witch hunters to fight and dudes to fuck.
"I'm not compromising the explicit sexual content. I'm not compromising the politics of critiquing white supremacy and heteropatriarchy," Gamboa said. "I've been through too much in my life, and the people who came before me have been through too much for me to sell out."
This is what motivates Gamboa's work. Born and raised on the Southside of Chicago, Gamboa was inspired by the stories around him: He saw his mother's friend die of AIDS, and he saw his family members suffer against systems of racial injustice. He didn't just want to tell these stories; he wanted to change these systems. Gamboa started creating radically politicized theater with, by, and for communities in Chicago. He was able to refine his voice and message by "pivoting away from the objective of recognition."
"I don't give a fuck about what reviews it gets," said Gamboa. "I want Brujos to be a contagion. When we talk about things going viral—can we make the unlearning go viral? Or the tools to develop a critical praxis for this historical moment and galvanize people?"
If any show can do it, it's Brujos. Described as "half allegory, half creating a mythology, and half documentary," each episode offers twists, humor, and history lessons. "It's like Sesame Street for radical queer people of color," Gamboa explained. It's a perfect description. Much like modern network TV shows like Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat have combined hilarious, realistic stories with educational moments, so too does Brujos. While completing their doctoral program, the characters gather in classrooms where they openly discuss systems of white supremacy, and the political is made blunt while never losing sight of the characters' humanity.
"What drew me to Brujos was that people who are never heard from are allowed voices—and not just voices, but they're talking about the systems of oppression that they're navigating through constantly," co-director Reshmi Hazra Rustebakke explained over the phone. As a child, Rustebakke's father produced plays in the local Indian community. In her mostly white town, these were the few plays where Rustebakke, and people like her, were given lead roles. This motivated her to create work that centered on people of color: "We have to acknowledge that these are the worlds we walk through. Hiring an actor of color can be a very revolutionary act, but working with Ricky has deepened my understanding of how to push that even farther. How do you create an entire actual microcosm. It's not just about swapping out brown faces for white faces, but building the world that we're all walking through at this moment? Whenever there's an opportunity to highlight injustice, it's important as an artist to take it."
But make no mistake: Brujos isn't all serious. "It's also a really fun show. I mean, I grew up loving Buffy. This is the kind of shit I love," added Rustebakke. Even while taking politics seriously, Brujos has a dedication to the classic campiness of horror shows like X-Files, and the mystery of the magic and mythology is intriguing.
The show also never falls into the stereotypes of campy gay humor that plague most mainstream representations. Rustebakke explains, "It's not just about celebrating joy, because that's not realistic, and nobody lives in that place. These four students, they're navigating between love and joy and sex and fear and terror and complete devastation, and that's what life is. The only real addition is the magical powers, but everything else is about how we actually live our lives."
Gamboa understands the necessity of magic to understanding the experience of people of color. If Get Out can use horror to make people understand racism, Brujos uses magic to help viewers understand the extra capacities required to exist as a black, brown, or queer person in this world. "You hear phrases like 'black girl magic' and it's more than just a hashtag. It's intrinsic to who we are. White supremacy is super nurtured and what we have to be is super natural."
Brujos premieres at 6 PM on Friday at brujostv.com and at OUTFest Fusion in Los Angeles the same night.
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