Lucinda’s Spell (dir. Jon Jacobs, 1998) is a cult classic centering Celtic, New-Orleans-based witches. It’s a kooky retelling of Cinderella with queer and blaxploitative tastes, but I don’t want to focus on its campiness (which may be better to watch without dissection). I’m interested in how the film’s domestic space is altered by social performances.
Sinful proclivities withstanding, Lucinda’s Spell is about home-making. Yes, it has a long stretch of jokes about vaginal infections, but the main characters ultimately want to forge family lineages. The movie’s director (Jon Jacobs) plays First Horn, a bad-boy archwizard who returns to Earth in search of a child-bearing companion. As he seeks a partner, he doesn’t realize he’s already fathered a son. He had an affair with a witch and sex worker named Lucinda (Christina Fulton) before he left Earth eight years ago, unaware that he’d also left behind a new life. Lucinda didn’t want to raise a child alone, so she gave up the son she conceived with First Horn. This was revealed through a flashback, which showed a saddened Lucinda finalizing the transfer of custody.
In the film’s present-day, Lucinda sells sex out of her apartment. Dressing up is what transforms her home from a shrine for her missing son to a place of work. She has an extensive costume collection; in her opening scene she wears yellow-face (shiny black wig, nón lá, silk robe, fake accent) to perform as a comfort woman for one of her clients — a homeless Vietnam vet named George (John El) who wants to relive his wartime fantasies of Vietnamese women.
Racial cross-dressing allows both Lucinda and her apartment to become new, undomestic places — it recasts her simple furniture as exotic sex props, and recasts her oft timid body as a fearless source of pleasure. Her sex costumes are warped versions of Cinderella’s magic ball gown. Before Lucinda answered the door for George, she rushed around like she had somewhere to be before midnight. She got there by getting into character, and returned to herself when her work was done — like a carriage reverting to a pumpkin (or vice-versa).
At the end of a session with George, Lucinda had a vision of First Horn’s return. In her excitement, the first thing she did was remove her Orientalist costume. The next thing she did was deliver a picture of their son to First Horn’s hotel. Like Cinderella when she learned the prince was scouring the kingdom for her, the arrival of her baby’s father marked her transition into a domesticable woman. In his own scenes, First Horn began looking more and more like a husband-material Prince Charming (even breaking out into song). Lucinda was so discouraged when First Horn didn’t recognize her — due to a curse her rival Beatrice (Shana Betz) placed on her — that it triggered an emotional spiral.
When Lucinda returned home after a day of rejection, she was vulnerable — dejected by how the outside world failed to see her as more than ‘just’ a sex worker. She slumped tiredly. She drank liquor straight from the bottle. She spoke softly to her pet parrot. She sang ‘Hush, Little Baby’ to her teddy bear (a stand-in for her lost son). Lucinda’s apartment transitioned to a space that was not only for race-play and sex-play, but child-play. When Lucinda was lonely from missing her son, she imagined his presence.
As her one private space, Lucinda’s home was where hidden desires — her own desire for family life, and other people’s desires for exotic bodies — played most freely. The group spaces she visited were far more discriminating. At her former coven’s lair, mean-girl Beatrice regarded her with disgust, telling her she wasn’t welcome because she sold sex. In hotel lobbies, she was profiled and kicked out for her sexy attire. Lucinda’s apartment was the primary place where weakness and power could occur on her own terms. Even if she didn’t have what she truly wanted, once she closed her front door, she could decide when and where she’d crumble, cry, or dominate a client.
Touched by sweetness and vulgarity, Lucinda’s Spell made me rethink the limits of fairytale revisions. The tale of Cinderella was always ripe with sympathy for downtrodden women, but Jon Jacobs’ playful version suggests a Cinderella who is not innocent, who is not a damsel, and escapes the sadness of her life autonomously.
‘The stigma of sex work comes with a high cost’ (The Conversation)
‘Sex Trafficking and the Social Construction of Race’ by Brian Donovan