lovecraft country

Prejudice and the Paranormal in HBO Thriller ‘Lovecraft Country’

In HBO’s ‘Lovecraft Country’, the story of an African-American family navigating loss, secrets, and redemption is also a request for interrogation of what we find truly terrifying.

There are leagues of people raving about HBO’s Lovecraft Country, an American television series adapted from Matt Rusk’s dark fantasy horror novel of the same title set in 1950s Jim Crow America. The book borrows heavily from the fictional universe of horror author H.P. Lovecraft for the purpose of turning his notoriously bigoted themes and “monsters” on their heads.  In the telling of the story of an African-American family navigating loss, secrets, and redemption is also a request for interrogation of what we find truly terrifying in its juxtaposition of hideous Lovecraftian creatures (yes, there are monsters!) with the run-of-the-mill racial prejudice experienced by Black people navigating a pre-Civil Rights Movement America. 

The Lovecraft Country adaptation (written and produced by Underground executive producer Misha Green with Jordan Peele as executive producer) brings to life the twisted adventuring of Atticus “Tic” Freeman (Jonathan Majors) — a Black bibliophile and Korean War veteran who ventures out from his Midwest hometown of Chicago with his uncle, George Freeman (Courtney B. Vance), and childhood friend, Leticia “Leti” Lewis (Jurnee Smollett-Bell). We find our protagonist on a search for his estranged and mysteriously missing father, Montrose Freeman (Michael K. Williams), and for answers about his lineage when he stumbles into a world right out of the pulp fiction novels he has always loved. 

The show has already amassed a huge following with hundreds of hours of dedicated podcasts and YouTube reviews; and with only two episodes aired of the 10-episode season, it’s definitely not too late to see what the fuss is about. 

First, props have to go to the execution of the set designs for the series, the most compelling of which pay homage to Gordon Parks’ iconic photography of Black life in this period. The costumes from the series are getting a lot of love as well — both the blue taffeta stunner worn by Leticia’s sister Ruby (Wunmi Mosaka) in Episode 1 and Smollett-Bell’s riding outfit and red lip in Episode 2 are standouts in what has been complete perfection in capturing the essence of this beloved fashion era with a few modern twists. Add to this the number of shots we’ve gotten of Jonathan Major’s semi-dressed body and it becomes evident there is a diversity of influence behind the camera and in the writers’ room. Whatever the list of complaints about the show so far, that detail hasn’t been one of them. 

Viewers have also praised Vance’s portrayal of George Freeman, Atticus’ doting uncle and editor of the Safe Negro Travel Guide — a callout to the real Negro Motorist Green Book published by Victor Hugo Green.

Most rave-worthy of all is that the show wastes no time in getting Lovecraft enthusiasts to the really good stuff — menacing monsters and a mystery to solve.

While Lovecraft Country has been met with great reception since its August 16th release, not all of the feedback is glowing. Some critics, especially mid-20th century car aficionados, take issue with the repeated and obvious anachronisms on screen, such as the presence of vintage cars that weren’t actually yet in production or the inclusion of music and readings recorded well after the period in the plot. 

“Clones” by Tierra Whack plays as Tic strides through his South Side, Chicago neighborhood searching for clues of his father’s whereabouts — a soundtrack choice that some viewers found random and distracting for a show set in the ‘50s. Others expressed concerns about whether the pacing of each episode is sustainable for the whole series, especially that of the second episode; in which the action is so rapid that the actors and viewers barely have space to react to the most jaw-dropping reveals to date. 

Heavy-handedness with the visual and audio anachronisms may be jarring for those looking to fully escape to Lovecraft Country; but it may be intentional in the way it prevents the viewer from missing the direct links between what they are watching in a segregated Americana and issues that still negatively impact Black lives — policing, white supremacy, and capitalism.

The audio of James Baldwin’s 1965 debate on segregation and the American Dream layered over a reel of the start of the central characters’ journey from one sundown town to another, and a scene from Episode 2 that featured Gil Scott-Heron’s “Whitey’s on the Moon” help to provide the proper context and mood of the series’ most critical moments; forcefully bathing them in the light of the present. 

The production takes the same liberties with the music throughout each episode, not in an attempt at edginess; but because of what Marilyn Manson’s “Killing Strangers” does to set the tone of the scene it’s introduced in without the assistance of overt dialogue. The interpolation between past and present themes through sound adds richness to the series that’s not achievable in the musical score alone.

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On one of the central themes — white American racism — the show is accused of being too direct in its delivery.

Lovecraft Country’s white cast member’s depictions of racial prejudice are described as “cartoonish”, exaggerated; and only for the benefit of non-Black viewers who might otherwise miss more subtle bigotries without explanation from the script. While the assistance is more forgivable in the narration of a novel, on screen the writing is described as clumsy and “weighted down” with the work it believes it must do in immediately bringing each viewer up to speed on the significance of every slightly obscure element; robbing the show of the melodrama and innuendo that’s true to the source genre. Alternatively, most of the elements of Lovecraft Country that are quirky and exaggerated are as intentional as can be expected in a dark horror mystery trying to achieve the occasional comedic moment on a TV series replete with racists and monsters.

What may be more concerning is how or if Lovecraft Country will handle Atticus’ veteran status as an African-American man of this period; and if a series that says so much on racism might be tasked by itself and others to achieve too much in ten hour-long episodes. Was the writers’ room that has been successful thus far in painting the dangers of Jim Crow for Black people on screen also equitable in its truth-telling of the complexities of American presence in Korea and the Korean War? Does the writing and production (which wrapped ahead of coronavirus and all of the global disasters of 2020) age well as we are engaging with it in this present moment? 

For viewers that are looking to Lovecraft Country to “accomplish” something major, it is important to ground in the reality that the story starts and will end in a segregated America.

Likely no issue, not even the colorful and complex personal dramas that ensue for each character, can be resolved so much as they can be thoughtfully examined. That may be a better place to lay our hopes for a single series on a major network with fairly fresh commitments to providing a better platform for Black stories to be told. It is in good keeping with the impact of the star power behind the show, including Misha Green’s track record in handling heavy dramas about race, that many are ecstatic with the show’s handling of its heavy themes thus far.

Lovecraft Country follows up Watchmen in HBO’s run of high-action shows with Black leads and intricate plots unfolding beneath the looming specter of racism. In all, viewers may still be in for a treat with this series; even if it fails to be perfect from every angle. As Atticus states early in episode one, “Stories are like people. Loving them doesn’t make them perfect. You just try and cherish them, overlook their flaws.” 

So far, Lovecraft Country has delivered on drama, thrills, and its exploration of the supernatural; promising to maintain speed (and a killer wardrobe and soundtrack) as it digs deeper into the complicated lives of the lead and supporting cast. Whatever one’s critique of what Lovecraft Country has offered viewers to date, they’ll likely still be tuning in for what’s to come.

Header: Lovecraft Country (HBO)

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