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

And now, the “Strange Case” of Black women in a white man’s Lovecraft Country

undefined
Jonathan Majors and Jurnee Smollett
Photo: Eli Joshua Ade (HBO
TV ReviewsAll of our TV reviews in one convenient place.

Every once in a while, an episode of television will transcend its series. Think of how “Ozymandias” fundamentally changed the trajectory of every main character in Breaking Bad, or how “The Extraordinary Being put into perspective the driving force behind every cog in the Watchmen machine. Since Lovecraft Country’s only reached its halfway point, it is technically too early to label “Strange Case” the breakaway episode. But I’m going to do it anyway, because tonight’s episode, directed by Cheryl Dunye, is radical. I’ve never seen the trials of a single, fat, Black woman on screen—until now.

Advertisement

Like the unique depiction of righteous rage from Black men, or the desire for power within white men, the plight of the fat Black woman in America often gets portrayed as an internal issue. Black men get saddled with the image of being inherently violent, while white men default to the most powerful person in the room, leaving fat Black women with the ideal of caretaker thrust upon them. Enter Ruby Baptiste: eldest sister, rock guitarist, blues singer, hard worker, and a woman who’s stood mostly on her own her entire life.

Advertisement

At the outset of tonight’s episode, Ruby finds herself alone—and in Hillary’s smaller white body. Half-mad with confusion, she stumbles out into her neighborhood. Back in episode one, at Ruby’s city block performance, everyone in the community knew her name and her music. A stranger to her neighbors in Hillary’s skin, Ruby becomes a source of confusion and danger to the citizens. A half-dressed white woman, screaming hysterically, pushed patrolling officers into a hero mindset. A child tries to help Hillary up after she trips over her own feet, and he winds up accosted for his trouble. Ruby shakily finds her voice and unlocks her first white superpower; the ability to get cops to listen.

Advertisement

The 1965 bubblegum pop hit, “Tonight You Belong to Me” by Patience and Prudence, plays over the car stereo as the police drive Ruby back to William’s house. William holds ownership over Ruby, even in her white body. He lied, telling police dispatch that Hillary was his wife. Without bothering to confirm that information, they lock Hillary in the back of a car and haul her to someone who may seriously wish her harm—a subtle commentary, and the police’s ability to handle domestic violence cases.

When Ruby arrives back at William’s house, he explains she’s going through a metamorphosis. In serial killer fashion, he lays her out on a sheet of plastic, turns up the television, and begins to rip her outer shell to shreds. In a truly brilliant and disturbing moment of gore, Ruby’s eye appears inside of Hillary’s throat as she begs William not to kill her. The sequence nods to the reality that Black folks who pass for white might be met with murder if caught in the wrong space at the wrong time. This is the first destruction of the Hillary body. On the television, a reporter explains the molting stages of 16 million Kenyan locusts. They’ll go through five stages of metamorphosis before they get their wings and become sexually mature, where they’ll devour everything in their path.

Advertisement

Later, after William disposes of the bloody husk, he explains to Ruby how he became involved with disgraced professor Hiram Winthrop. Hiram wanted to understand the universe, William held a bit of Adam’s original language, and together they unlocked the secrets of metamorphosis. Now, Ruby faces the ultimate question: Would you choose to be Black?

I love my Blackness. The answer to this question seems simple. Of course, no self-loving Black person would choose to shed the visual links to their ancestry, the key to our community. But, the truth is, there isn’t a viable way to rid a person of their Blackness. Bleached skin looks bleached and does not allow an individual to hide amongst white people, the way many white people have over-tanned their way into Black spaces. Plastic surgery can narrow a nose and file down cheekbones, but for the most part, Black heritage is extremely difficult to mask. So we must accept and love ourselves to survive.

Advertisement
undefined
Wunmi Mosaku
Photo: Eli Joshua Ade (HBO

Ruby gets to know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the difference of walking around in white skin. “Most days I’m happy to be both,” Ruby says of being both Black and a woman, “but the world keeps interrupting. And I am sick of being interrupted.” When she’s told she can do anything she can think of, her thought is to spend a simple day in the park. That’s her radical idea of freedom because that small peace would never be within her reach as a Black woman. She’d always have to keep her mind on escape, of not embarrassing the race, of frightening a person who walked into Ruby’s path. Decisions outside of her control may still leave consequences at her door for which she would be responsible. That’s what it is to be a Black woman. Ntozake Shange captured this reality perfectly in For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf. In a segment entitled “Dark Phrases,” Outside Chicago speaks of the unkept promise most children receive but skipped her because she’d never been allowed to be a little girl.

somebody/anybody

sing a black girl’s song

bring her out

to know herself

to know you

but sing her rhythms

carin/struggle/hard times

sing her song of life

she’s been dead so long

closed in silence so long

she doesn’t know the sound

of her own voice

her infinite beauty

she’s half-notes scattered

without rhythm/no tune

sing her sighs

sing the song of her possibilities

sing a righteous gospel

let her be born

let her be born

& handled warmly.

As Hillary Davenport, Ruby strolls into Marshall Fields to “Money” by Cardi B. Financial freedom looks extremely different for Black women, who make less than their white female counterparts and Black male co-workers. Using the same resume, now with her fancy white name, the five numbers courses and six typing seminars catapult Ruby past sales associate to assistant manager. In her interview with manager Paul, she reveals that after her mother got her heart broken, she’d take the girls to Carson’s and window-shop. The glamorous women behind the counter made heartache bearable, and Ruby longed to be the one to solve the world’s problems—a burden too many Black women wear.

Advertisement

As Ruby leaves the interview, her white form begins to deteriorate. She nearly slips into African-American Vernacular English during her interview, blowing the charade before she got the job offer, but she quickly corrects herself. Blackness is not merely the skin we live in—it’s a style. She can’t hide it when she dances with her white co-workers in the break room, or when she reprimands the only other Black woman working at the store. Even in the Hillary “suit,” she’s still Ruby. Her self-identity is intertwined with Black culture. That’s why she won’t let William kiss Hillary. She knows where Ruby and Hillary begin and end, but she can’t be sure if William knows the difference. Is he falling for the construct he made or the person she is on the inside?

undefined
Jurnee Smollett
Photo: Eli Joshua Ade (HBO
Advertisement

When reflecting on the image of larger Black women in American art, the first images that spring to the mind are Aunt Jemima and Hattie McDaniel. One, a racist marketing tool derived from the mammy stereotype; the other, an Oscar-winning talent who expertly found a way to bring dignity to the domestic workers she portrayed on film. Aunt Jemima spoke in African American Vernacular English as understood by white ad sales copywriters. McDaniel had to justify working within a racist system because across race, class, and gender, people demand that fat Black women be morally just, loving, and sassy for the betterment of those they serve. Even McDaniel’s most original portrayal of a woman in the service industry in Gone With The Wind, where Mammy was outspoken with her opinion, that opinion was always in service to Scarlett O’Hara. Her sage advice often went undervalued and unused, but the advice itself was solid and might have helped Scarlett if she bothered to listen to it.

The other depiction of Black women comes in the form of the sassy fat Black woman; examples include the Madea franchise, The Parkers, etc. She is loud, short on income, long on Jesus, and invested in the success of her family. Her sense of fashion resembles a clown’s closet. For years, she embarrassed me because I felt when I walked into any room, that was the image I projected. I couldn’t see the brilliant ways actress Mo’Nique provided depth to a mother, head of the house, and sexually active Black woman. Ruby can’t see all the things that make her beautiful and powerful because she keeps getting interrupted by other’s views of her.

Advertisement

Nowhere is this more clear than in her interactions with Tamara. Poor Tamara, who applied for Ruby’s dream job on a whim, had no idea she was signing a contract with the devil. Not only would she be a point of derision for the majority of her co-workers, but she also had no idea how to meet the high expectations of a 1950s department store. On top of that, the boss hired her because of her body. Even though the white employees dump their work on Tamara, Ruby remains jealous of her. Tamara, in her thin body, could waltz into Ruby’s dream without any education. None of Ruby’s work ethic, polish, or good recommendations could give her Tamara’s body. She’s so infuriated by this thought that she can’t see how unfair these circumstances are for Tamara until they’re right in front of her face. Their initial terse conversation struck me as hilarious. A Black woman in white skin, trying to reassure her Black co-worker, who views the conversation as more of an interrogation by her new boss.

undefined
Jonathan Majors
Photo: Eli Joshua Ade (HBO
Advertisement

The gap between Black and white and fat and thin seems as wide as the Grand Canyon. “Paranoia is the price of being a working girl in America,” one of Ruby’s white co-workers tells her. It’s downright maddening for a Black woman. A break trying on the showroom shoes would be impossible in Ruby’s original body. It’s interesting how quickly Ruby forgot how these white women treated her in her original skin. She so easily dismissed Tamara for being unqualified, and the women saw that as an opportunity to diminish the entire race.

And to walk from that situation into that degrading maid’s costume reminds Ruby where she stood. On the floor of Marshall Field’s, Ruby stood tall, looking after her flock. As a server, she goes back to being invisible. Beyond humiliating, the whiplash change of circumstances reminds me of the very similar journey millions of Black women take from holding positions of respect and power within their community to being dismissed as less than in the wide white world.

Advertisement

The bar scene showcases the way white people in Black spaces turn recreation into a spectator sport. An innocent dance becomes fetishized, and what was once a safe space becomes dangerous. In her fourth transformation, Ruby crushes the vial holding the magical solution, rejecting the white shell William gifted her. This metamorphosis embodies beauty. Ruby’s gorgeous curves burst out of the restricting body of Hillary. Ruby claws away the flesh revealing a more determined and aware human than we’ve seen before. Then she witnesses manager Paul trying to assault Tamara, and she makes a decision.

Hillary gives her notice at Marshall Field’s. The dream no longer fits Ruby’s worldview. The counter girl only existed as an illusion. Revenge feels authentic. This story evolves from a horror to a rape revenge thriller. Ruby discovers she can make her own red bottoms, granting her access to justice that the system, as it still stands today, could never grant her. This Norman Rockwell painting living would have continued to harass Black women forever. Bet he thinks twice about it now.

Advertisement
Michael K. Williams
Michael K. Williams
Photo: Eli Joshua Ade (HBO

The trio of Montrose, Tic, and Leti deal with their own sexual awakenings. When Atticus discovers Montrose killed the one person who may have been able to crack the language of Adam, he snaps, becoming the violent and hopelessly lost person he hoped never to become. Tic’s lost. He scares Leti so badly she grabs a bat to protect herself, in case his rage turns on her. Of course, Tic instantly regrets his behavior, which is a side effect of depression is rage. Tic’s been dealing with some form of depression since coming home from the war. When he asks Leti not to be afraid of him, he sounds like a wounded child. I think about the young boy thrown to the ground by the police, losing his popcorn, after trying to help a distraught woman. I think of young Tic and a young Montrose afraid of their fathers—unable to be children because no one took responsibility for their protection.

Advertisement

Meanwhile, Montrose seeks comfort in a lover. Hiding amongst trans women, after murdering an intersex person to protect his son, wages havoc on Montrose’s peace of mind. But a kiss brings some ease to the chaos. Tic’s not so fortunate. He broke the code, which ominously just says “DIE.” Hopefully there’ll be none of that.

Stray observations

  • Where does Christina begin and William end? There are moments, like when William’s picking out his ascot for the day, that the two seem to be the same person, their gestures and mannerisms mimicking one another. But there are other times it seems that though one cannot exist without the other, that the two are not inherently the same person. For example, Christina comments that William, “always did like a strong-willed woman.” She puts distance between William’s actions and her desires for someone more willing to go with the flow. William also seems to genuinely care for Ruby. He doesn’t care enough to keep her out of a maid uniform and away from a racist police captain, but he does desire her opinion and her body in away that moves past fetish into genuine interest, whereas Christina does not seem to hold any affection for Ruby. If they are becoming different people, the more William experiences life and forms his own opinion, how long before William takes over Christina’s life entirely? Is such a thing even possible?
  • Where does Ruby go from here? She’s never been stupid, and knew not to trust William/Christina and their magical “gift,” even before their truth was revealed to her. The truth is, if William/Christina gave Ruby the power to turn into a moderately attractive white woman, but not a white man. This placed Ruby below both Christina and William in the social hierarchy. Equality was never the goal. She was a tool, but now she’s empowered in her own body. She’s willing to shed blood and cause pain. As Leti moves closer to religion, it seems Ruby is inching closer to magic. Perhaps a dual or a powerful alliance between the sisters isn’t far off.
  • The decision to play Frank Ocean’s “Bad Religion” over Montrose’s first intimate scene was inspired. Knowing Montrose murdered Yahima but loves a trans woman reflects the violence done to the trans community, sometimes at the hands of cis queer people. I still feel weird about this storyline. The trans community has seen record numbers of murders over the past few years, and while the representation has mostly been authentic in this series so far, it’s also been traumatic to view. The bittersweet kiss becomes toxic knowing Motrose’s past deed. Is Sassy Sarah Vaughn safe with him? While the cinematography gorgeously illuminates the freedom a dance floor holds for queer Black men, the liberation can’t be extended to the trans individuals at that same party.
  • Tic’s ancestor, Hannah, burns him alive in his ancestral home. I wonder if his violent actions, his proximity to magic, or his relationship with Leti is bringing about these dark premonitions.
  • Yo, that police captain had the body of a Black man and a rotting living corpse in the closet. Is this what Hiram was doing in that house? Giving Black bodies and ideals of masculinity to coward cops?
Advertisement

Share This Story

Get our newsletter