Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

A “Holy Ghost” finds salvation in Lovecraft Country

Jurnee Smollett
Jurnee Smollett
Photo: Eli Joshua Ade
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This week’s episode, “Holy Ghost,” finds Leti as a homeowner of a rundown boarding house in an all-white neighborhood. On the North Side of Chicago, Leti stands alone. She fights off cops, disgruntled neighbors, and a series of ghosts. She both suffers the consequences of her defiant actions and the confidence that comes with standing up for one’s self. A goat, some ancestors, and touch of mental torture give the first Leti-led episode a unique flavor, and an exciting twist ending.

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Discovery plays a role in the enjoyability of reading H.P. Lovecraft’s original works. Brilliant scientific minds slowly unearth the magical elements of an old object or discarded book. The details of how an unaging man built his castle, weaves together with real American history to set the reader on the edge of their seat as the impossible suddenly seems horrifically possible. In Lovecraft’s “The Outsider,” a man tries to escape his home, where he’s dwelled in isolation for as long as he can remember. When he approaches a gathering of people, they shriek in fear and run from him. He believes there must be something near him, and tries to see what they’re seeing. It isn’t until he faces a mirror, that he realizes he is the horror from which the people run. He senses a presence, touches it, and must spend eternity with them, now an outsider.

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Lovecraft claimed “The Outsider” represented his closest attempt to mimic his hero, Edgar Allen Poe. Gothic and horror historians also point to Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein as a possible inspiration, where feelings of isolation and inhumanity culminate in the lead character’s destruction. “Holy Ghost,” directed by Daniel Sackheim, shows an emotional parallel to a monstrous-looking figure with a human heart. Instead, Leti feels like a monster on the inside and represents as a gorgeous, care-free woman on the outside.

In the opening scene, Leti sits in church and watches a member of the congregation catch the holy ghost—a moment a parishioner feels the presence of their god sweep through them, often manifesting as dance or speaking in tongues. Everyone claps, rejoicing in the Lord, as a poem read about Leti being an angel on Earth, guided to heaven to fly higher than the rest. Leti can neither feel the holy ghost, nor hear the loving words spoken about her. As she’s encouraged to fly, she cries.

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Self-isolation can become a defense tactic for the depressed. Leti tries to isolate herself inside groups of people. When surrounded by laughter and booze, bad feelings have to work harder to touch the soul. First, she invites her sister to see the house. In one of the most uncomfortable walks in history, they pass neighbors spying on them from windows, too scared to address the newcomers. To walk into an inhospitable space incites revolution both for the inhabitants and the invading individual. Leti creates an artistic utopia filled with dancers, a piano, and her photography. Craftily, Leti dodges any explanation about where she acquired the money to purchase the house.

Of course, 10 new Black people in the dilapidated house down the street stirs a sense of white nationalism amongst the neighbors. So, while the women clutch their pearls, the men-folk park three automobiles outside the home and attach heavy bricks to the horns. Thus begins the first wave of torture; the wet, saturated heat of a Chicago summer launches the second. The noise and heat begin to break the fierce Leti, who outran vampires and mentally prepared to kill a white sheriff in the Jim Crow South. Exhausted and still feeling distanced from her sister, she pushes straight into a block party where she invites all of her Black friends to drown out the horns of hate and laugh.

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No matter how Ruby (Wunmi Mosaku) persists that these white folks were going to be unhappy, Leti needs a win. So she chooses to see the bright possibility the housing unit holds. Not even the mention of the Trumbull Park Homes Race Riots of 1953 and 1954, which saw hundreds of white Chicagoans gather outside an accidentally segregated public housing building, could bring Leti down from the clouds. Nor does a near decapitation by elevator deter her.

Meanwhile, Tic’s been helping out Hippolyta and Diana after the death of George. He cooks, cleans, helps the family publishing business, and plays with Diana, but none of his good deeds can assuage his guilt. Hippolyta can smell it all over him. Atticus and Montrose agree not to tell the family about the white wizards they met. Instead, they attribute George’s mortal wound to a gunshot, telling half-truths and burying the past behind them. Or so they think…

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Naomi Mack (left) Jurnee Smollett (center left), Wunmi Mosaku (center), Keon Mitchell (center right), Jonathan Majors (right)
Naomi Mack (left) Jurnee Smollett (center left), Wunmi Mosaku (center), Keon Mitchell (center right), Jonathan Majors (right)
Photo: Eli Joshua Ade

The house party reveals a lot. First, Ruby will not be satisfied until she gets this job as a counter girl. She’s convinced hard work and determination will pay off. More importantly, she finds those two attributes missing from the larger Black population. Perhaps shaped by her sister’s and mother’s care-free attitude about life, Ruby believes herself to be better than her people. How deep this belief goes and how impacted by whiteness it is, remains to be seen. But it’s disheartening to see. Unlike her sister Leti, Ruby disrupts to adhere to the ideal. A counter-girl was the standard of grace and beauty in the ’50s. Being gorgeous and graceful, it’s not difficult to see why Ruby would want the rest of the world to acknowledge those ideals in her. But thinking that these things can come to her through anything other than structural change is difficult to watch. If you’ve walked those roads, I don’t need to explain the hardship and disappointment waiting at the end.

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It’s also revealed at the house party that Leti is a virgin. Her outfits, which we might revere as cute and freeing today, were provocative and showy during Leti’s time. Some might even say the short skirts and hotpants were dangerous or inviting (we were still so far away from understanding the root causes of sexual assault.) Leti flirts and dances with the best of them. She’s alive, free, and disconnected from just about everyone. She wears her sadness only in her eyes, and just for a second. You have to be looking for it. She needs something to give her life meaning.

What young woman can’t identify with Leti’s struggle? Behind her back, the men, including our beloved Atticus, discuss who can partner with her. One stranger even claims to have slept with her back in high school. But Leti’s biggest fear is becoming her mother. Mentioned in every episode so far as being cruel, absent, and flirtatious, Leti’s mama didn’t give her the time and love a mother should. For any number of reasons, Leti chose to run from all of that. After almost being lynched in the forest and escaping a racist wizard, Leti came to this house to build a life. Her first time with Atticus isn’t idyllic. It’s an experience she wants, but without the whole truth, the experience can’t be everything it should have been. Atticus is a gentleman. The heat and jealousy get the best of him, and he doesn’t stop to do a proper check-in or aftercare. While not a fan-pleasing coming together of this couple, the moment does feel authentic to the chaotic nature of their lives. Still, there’s a flash of regret in Leti’s eyes as she is further isolated when Atticus walks out.

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Wunmi Mosaku (left), Jurnee Smollett (right)
Wunmi Mosaku (left), Jurnee Smollett (right)
Photo: Eli Joshua Ade

The house party elicits the last action a white citizen can take before calling the police, a burning cross on the lawn. Usually, when this symbol pops up in film or television, the cross is filmed from a low angle, emphasizing the horror of a holy symbol turned ominous warning. The family inside the home almost always flees that night or the following morning in the movies. It is the ultimate sin. But here, it’s another day as a Black American. A plan forms without words amongst the party-goers. Ruby first checks on the children, then runs to her car to take the guns as far away as possible. But Leti doesn’t follow plans. After the night she’s had, she cannot sit still, nor be quiet. So she rages. Like everything Leti does, she destroys beautifully; throwing back the straps of her dress on her shoulder so she can get a better swing at the car window, her years on the softball team showing in her familiarity with a bat.

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Of course, destruction of property gives the police all the probable cause they need to arrest Leti and take her for a ride. They think someone must have given her the money to buy the house. Perhaps a powerful political figure is trying to ignite a cause for segregation. Leti’s tiny body slams against the walls of the van. The way Misca Green builds up the action to this scene, one cannot help but think of Freddie Gray, who died in police custody on April 15, 2015, after a suspected “rough ride.” He lived in a housing project, which recently saw calls from the mayor to have more police officers stationed around the site. Luckily, Leti survives. But the police won’t acknowledge that she complained about the harassment. Once again, Leti stands alone.

When she returns home, most of her tenants have fled, not wanting to be on the receiving end of any more violent acts of prejudice. Leti clings to the hope her new home brings at a start over. She’s already given her virginity to the man she loves, but he isn’t in a state to return that love. The fear of becoming her mother permeates every interaction she has. In her best acting in the series so far, Jurnee Smollett, as Leti, must stand in front of her sister and listen to the long list of misdeeds, broken hearts, and character flaws that outline her character. Mosaku is right there with her, matching each flinch with a desperate plea to be heard after years of being jerked around. The emotional pain felt physical to me as Smollett flinches and deflates under Mosaku’s earned resentment. Leti took all the money their mother, the mother Leti readily admonishes, whose funeral Leti did not attend, had and kept it for herself.

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Remember that poem from the opening scene:

“Hey, Leti. What did you do to mak/e a mark on this world? What mountains did you climb? Which angels gave you their wings? Which skys have you flown? And when you reach the heavens, who was there to catch you when you fell? And did they tell you that you saved them, too, like you saved me?Like they’re mending your wings and holding them up to the sun, just to step back, and watch you fly? So go head Leti. Fly.”

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It’s a powerful and arresting poem narrated by Precious Angel Ramirez. Originally, I heard this poem in a Nike commercial that celebrated trans artist Leiomy Maldonado and the art of voguing. At first glance, this seems a strange fit for the scene. The poem uplifts a trans icon for her ability to pave paths for others to make it in an exceedingly cruel world. To give this moment to a cis woman give me great pause. The poem itself is trans art. The conclusion of this episode sees Leti use the house the way her sister would use it. Housing-insecure families receive a beautiful place to live. Using Leiomy’s influence in her community to inspire others to do better initially feels like a good use of the poem. But I’m looking forward to hearing trans women speak about this scene.

The ghost in Leti’s home makes itself known in the emulsion layer of her photography. Cracks appear that, when lined up, form a face of the deceased doctor who performed horrible experiments on Black people he captured. One woman’s baby was pulled from her stomach. An elderly woman had the top of her head cut off. A baby’s head was sewn on a grown man’s body, and one man seemed to have pipes driven through his limbs and chest. This scene stands in for all the doctors who performed medical torture, disguised as scientific experimentation, on Black Americans. They harvested Henrietta Lacks’ cells just five years earlier.

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Jurnee Smollett
Jurnee Smollett
Photo: Eli Joshua Ade

Leti decides to stake her claim in this new world and calls an Orisha. The Orisha is an African priestess who aligns their study with a specific god. This Orisha calls on Mama Oya, an orisha of winds, lightning, and violent storms, death, and rebirth. When her protection of goat blood washes away, Leti and Atticus join forces with the ghosts who didn’t survive the doctor’s experiments. It’s only after saying their names that the ghosts feel empowered to cast out the doctor. “You are not dead, yet!” She shouts. “You can still fight.” And it works. Of course, now she’s living in a house with a creepy elevator that can easily reveal three dead white boys. But the house is hers. No questions asked.

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Stray observations

  • Children. Do not play with spirits in the basement. These are basic horror rules.
  • Y’all, I love this level of gore! Heart pumping blood out of a headless neck is good stuff.
  • Ooo, Christina Braithwhite is back and just as chilling as ever. This time she has an invitation to partner with Atticus to discover the family history. Also, she presents her power to freeze a man where he stands. The way she unfurled those blinds to reveal a Black man with a gun, was so frightening. I thought for sure she was gonna pull a Karen and call for help. Stay away from her Atticus. She’s evil! I know it.
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A contributor for Playboy and Hollywood Reporter Joelle writes about film, television, and comic books. A speaker, host, and avid podcaster her reviews have been featured on NPR, BBC1, and ET.

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