In “Lovecraft Country,” the monsters are both spiritual and physical. Atticus (Jonathan Majors), with the help of his Uncle George (Courtney B. Vance) and childhood friend Leti (Jurnee Smollett), must go on a quest to find his missing father and, ultimately, reclaim a mysterious birthright that he wasn’t even aware of.
Throughout the new HBO series, the characters contend with moral monsters — racist cops in sundown towns, harassment from angry white neighbors, employment discrimination — as well as actual monsters, with little distinction between the two. Or, rather, if there is any distinction, it’s that magic is in some ways easier to handle than the realities of being Black in America.
That, Majors said during a roundtable interview earlier this week, is key to all the characters’ journeys and what intrigued him the most about playing the stoic, determined Atticus Freeman. When we meet Atticus, he’s riding a segregated bus from 1950s’ Florida to Chicago, in search of answers about his missing father Montrose, a man whom he’s always had a fraught relationship with. (Montrose, portrayed by Michael K. Williams, beat Atticus when he was a child, continuing a pattern that started when Montrose was a boy and his father beat him.)
“The thing about Atticus is that fear does not bother him. He feels it. But it doesn’t fuck with him. He can move through it,” Majors said. “But he has so much emotion inside of him. He has so much hurt inside of him. So when he gets put in a place where that hurt is right in his face, that’s a different type of fear. That’s man versus self. This story is Atticus vs. Atticus. Atticus’ journey is him versus himself. He’s dealing with his own shit this entire time.”
“Dealing with your shit” is very much the theme of the series, in which every character is grappling with how to survive their past. While Atticus struggles with vivid dreams of fighting in the Korean War and his dysfunctional relationship with his dad, Leti grapples with her estranged relationship with older sister Ruby (Wunmi Mosaku) and her search for a true family. Meanwhile, there’s a mysterious secret order of powerful white men trying to destroy them and steal their power. These dual threats personify what it means to be Black in America.
The series makes the case that the only way to unpack the pervasive trauma of racism is to face it head-on. Consider H.P. Lovecraft, the horror-fantasy-sci-fi author who served as the inspiration for Matt Ruff to write his 2016 novel from which the same-named series is adapted. Some 80 years after his death, Lovecraft is one of the most influential figures in the horror genre. He was also a virulent racist. In 1912, he wrote a poem, “On the Creation of Niggers” ― which the series references in episode one ― in which he refers to Black people as beasts “in semi-human figure, filled with vice.” His racism is as important to his legacy as his creativity. This is largely what makes the show “Lovecraft Country” so brilliant: It invites us to consider the contradictions in society, in art, in ourselves.
There are interesting connective threads between “Lovecraft Country” and last year’s television event, “Watchmen.” Both shows make the intentional effort to pay homage to but also subvert genres that have traditionally excluded or ignored Black people and Black stories. Both shows use the fantastical to explore very grounded themes surrounding race and inherited family trauma. Both shows use graphic violence and terror to unpack the horrors of being Black in America. And both shows, ultimately, further the potential for deeper, more complex forms of storytelling in their respective genres.
In “Lovecraft Country,” complexity is everything. It’s what drives the narrative; the characters are constantly unveiling new layers and unlocking new doors in their journey to bring down white supremacy.
“The thing about the systemic racism that this nation is built upon is that it’s not one target,” Jurnee Smollett said at the roundtable interview.
“It’s not just the racist cop that pulls you over and it’s a danger to drive while Black,” she said. “It’s not just going to apply as a Black woman to a [white] department store. It’s not just trying to pioneer into an all-white neighborhood and dealing with the harassment, the oppression, that comes along in pursuing your place in the world. What ‘Lovecraft Country’ so beautifully explores is how complex racism is as a system. The systemic racism that’s built into the fabric of our nation kind of attacks you from all fronts. You never really know where it’s coming from. And that’s the terror of it.”
There are things not to like, or at the very least lovingly critique, about the first five episodes of the season. The treatment of a transgender character, for instance, feels superfluous and sadly in keeping with unfortunate tropes too often seen in trans lives on-screen. Also, for those who are not generally fans of gore, there is a particular moment in episode five that is brutal, and long, and very hard to watch. There’s also one scene of gore that is intentionally gratuitous.
But despite its flaws, “Lovecraft Country” provides, episode after episode, a type of storytelling that challenges, implicates, and demands that the viewer invest in what they’re watching. This type of art is usually the most engaging not merely because it “starts a conversation,” but because it invites us to truly consider the conversations we aren’t having, and why.
During the roundtable interview, series creator Misha Green talked about the necessity of this kind of internal conflict in the making of the show.
“In the writers room, to every writer that came in, I said, ‘Get prepared for therapy. It’s going to be icky. We’re gonna feel icky. We’re gonna be like, ugh, we don’t want to go there,’” she said. “But I feel like it’s important to because that’s when you’re sharing something and saying we’re not alone, we’re all fucking crazy in our own little heads. That doesn’t mean we don’t get to stand and be counted.”
The trick and ultimate appeal of horror as a genre is that terror can be transformative. Living through terror, embracing it, trying to understand what scares you and why, is part of the process of healing. It provides catharsis. In that respect, there is something deeply cathartic about “Lovecraft Country,” especially in the current cultural “moment” (which isn’t really a moment but part of an ongoing spiral) in which more and more people are paying attention to the ways systemic racism has traumatized us all.
Courtney B. Vance, who plays the studious and kind Uncle George, believes “we’re all traumatized in a real sense.”
“And it continues until we actually acknowledge our hand in it. At a certain point, something will happen that is so traumatic that we’ll join hands and go, ‘We need to come together.’ That’s what I think we’re all hoping and praying for,” he said at the roundtable. “That it won’t take the near destruction of our world, for the monsters to just overwhelm us, for us to actually have to deal with the reality — which is we need each other. That we can’t make it without each other.”
In the weeks and months since anti-racist protests spread throughout the country, there was a (brief) period in which problematic pop-cultural artifacts of the past were redacted in the spirit of atonement. The “blackface” episodes of shows like “30 Rock,” “Community” and “Scrubs” were removed from streaming. Representatives behind the Aunt Jemima food brand declared that it would be changing its name and removing its smiling Black mascot.
This is all well and good, but you cannot truly reckon with the past through erasure. Or you can, but “Lovecraft Country” offers perhaps a more productive version of reckoning. Subverting Lovecraft’s own racism through the very genre in which he espoused his racist world views, the show demands that we all collectively look back in order to look forward. It asks us to imagine a world in which genre fiction presents ideas around race, gender and identity as text and not subtext. It reminds us that racism is a ghost that haunts all of us. And it does this not by being pedantic or heavy-handed, but by refocusing the gaze of horror.
Art that forefronts Blackness, that turns its gaze toward the interior lives of Black people, invariably is discussed through the lens of representation politics. It becomes fodder for some kind of “debate” about race, as if the moral urgency of seeing “more Black stories” on-screen is the only reason to engage with Black art. Yes, “Lovecraft Country” is a stellar exploration of the metaphorical terrors of racism in America. It’s also incredibly entertaining. The series activates the viewer the way that all good horror does — when the physical and spiritual monsters come out, we are not “observing” the terror of the characters on-screen like some social exercise. We’re right there with them.
And that’s the point.
“Lovecraft Country” is available on HBO and HBO Max starting Sunday at 9 p.m. Eastern time.
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