The relatively obscure Mexican-Cuban production Yambaó seems to be lumped into the horror genre because of its elements of voodoo/Santeria and spirit possession, but frankly, it deals with those subjects in such a matter-of-fact manner (perhaps reflecting the level of cultural belief that these types of events are real and not sensational) that it plays more like a pulpy, erotic melodrama. The rebranding of the English-dubbed version as Cry of the Bewitched or Young and Evil indicates the attempt to paint the film in a horrific light, but those efforts are betrayed by the film’s tragically unscary content. And the musical numbers. Did I mention there are musical numbers?
According to Wikipedia, Yambaó was “the first Mexican film that openly referenced the Afro-Cuban culture, particularly magical and religious rituals, such as Santeria.” I have no reason to doubt that, and while it’s a cool tidbit, it means we’re subjected to countless scenes of religious chanting, gyrations and slave work songs that reinforce typical movie roles of the era for black folks — menacing voodoo mystics and happy-go-lucky slaves — while doing little to further the plot. And by “further” I mean “resuscitate.”
Really, the only things that make it bearable are the lush, candy-colored landscapes of 1950s Cuba (This film actually won the Ariel Award — Mexico’s Oscars — for Best Cinematography in 1958; just overlook all of the “night” scenes shot in glaring daylight.) and the hilariously hammy performance by Ninón Sevilla in the titular role.
Sevilla was a Cuban-born dancer and actress who was almost certainly NOT of African descent, but that didn’t prevent the filmmakers from casting her as the black granddaughter of a notorious witch named Caridad in 1850 Cuba. At least they didn’t have her in blackface, which is unfortunately not the case for the actress playing Caridad, Fedora Capdevila, who looks like a California Raisin in an afro wig:
In case you’re wondering, this is what she really looked like:
In fact, most of the primary black characters are not played by actors of African descent — a notable exception being the portly “mammy” character Yeya (Celina Reynoso), who of course is black — while most of the background slave characters are portrayed by black actors. In a weird way, it’s almost refreshing to see that the racial insensitivity of the era wasn’t restricted to American cinema.
Yambaó manages to pull off an impressive array of black stereotypes, from mammies to seductresses to primitives to the delicate balance of menacing voodoo practitioners and loyal, nonthreatening slaves. The film actually paints the slave era as a time of peace, opening with a voiceover that states, “Over a century ago, 150 years after the witch burnings in Salem, the peaceful atmosphere of our tropical island was shattered by a strange terror, unleashing excesses of hatred and love from the deepest wells of primitive feeling.”
The only person who challenges the status quo enforced by the “master,” Captain Jorge (Ramón Gay), is Caridad, but of course, she’s the bad guy. Everyone else loves him, including Caridad’s granddaughter Yambaó, who LOVES HIM loves him (‘cuz he’s so damn master-y?). Sure, she does some bad stuff, but she does so out of her love for Jorge, plus it’s implied Caridad has some control over her actions.
Although Yambaó eventually resorts to casting a love spell on Jorge, it’s clear he’s naturally drawn to her, saving her from the clutches of other slaves seeking to do her harm. Even before the spell, he smooches her, despite having a pregnant wife, whose posh, Southern belle style runs in sharp contrast to Yambaó’s wild cavewoman style (She literally lives in a cave.). Her role as exotic seductress is played up with a gratuitous nude swimming scene and countless shots of her voodoo twerking to African drums, the titillation over the miscegenetic relationship apparent in the tagline on the English-language movie poster: “Passion drove him to cross the line for his forbidden fruit! Her brown skin and his fair melt in one flame of desire!”
In the end, Jorge suffers no ill effects from the interracial affair, while Caridad is killed and the rejected Yambaó feels the need to hurl herself off a cliff because in movies, even fake black women can’t catch a break.