Watching the opening scene of HBO’s Lovecraft Country, viewers may find themselves in a state of déjà vu—particularly if they also watched the splendid Watchmen series that aired on HBO last year. Atticus Freeman (Jonathan Majors), runs through a WWII trench stabbing the human enemy before the alien enemy makes itself known. Several UFOs, an obligatory Cthulhu, and a rogue gladiator make their presence known. A red alien woman descends from the heavens. Her silk press waves in the breeze. When she lands, she embraces the soldier; a comfort in the chaotic new world. The narrator promises the story of “[a]n American boy, and a dream that is truly American.” When Jackie Robinson appears a moment later, the sequence reveals itself to be a dream. Freeman wakes up on a segregated bus, on his way home to Chicago. What a way to snap back to reality.
The somber reminders of Jim Crow surround Atticus. A sign directing Black citizens to the back of the bus hangs in the aisle. Atticus and a fellow traveler choose to walk several miles back to town rather than travel with the white riders on a small truck transporting them the same distance after the bus breaks down. Here, executive producers Misha Green and Jordan Peele set the tone for the series. Taking a cue from the grandfather of this text, early 20th-century horror legend H.P. Lovecraft, the show swings wildly from dark science fiction to familial melodrama, with a sprinkle of romance lightly dusting the entire production, creating a feeling of never quite landing at the point. Is this an allegory for the Black American horror reality, or a Black retelling of Lovecraft with 100% less racism? It seems to be neither, which makes the show that much more interesting, because—like Watchmen—the audience has no idea where it’s leading them.
Reading Lovecraft’s work resembles takeoff in a broken rocket. His deft ability to mold words into descriptions of the eerie and macabre instantly takes the reader to another world of occult monsters, and human fragility. But then, with a casual stroke of his pen, Lovecraft inserts prickling and divisive racism. Every Black human is a mongrel, while he depicts Indigenous peoples as dumb and filthy. These facts make enjoying the most popular Lovecraft narratives nearly impossible. But Atticus and his Uncle George (Courtney B. Vance) identify as Lovecraft fanatics. Atticus even believes, like many Lovecraft devotees, that the stories are not fiction, but a roadmap to the occult happenings throughout the East Coast and part of the American south. He uses Lovecraft’s roadmap to begin the hunt for his missing alcoholic father.
Lovecraft Country touches on the central aspects of Blackness. Playing modern music over a period piece is nothing new, but there was a moment when I questioned what era the show was taking place. As kids played in the open spray of a busted fire hydrant and the army recruited young men outside a busy shop corner, decades blurred into a single never-ending moment. Some aspects of culture never die. They merely adapt to fit their surroundings.
Other times, the show seems to shy away from the difficult conversations. When Letitia (Jurnee Smollett) crashes her sister’s concert, the crowd demands Leti; the thin, light-skinned, straight-haired sister joins her dark-skinned, plus-sized sister (Wunmi Mosaku) on stage. They battle for the single microphone until someone brings another out for the additional performer. It seems a colorism conversation hovers around the disgruntled sisters who don’t understand one another, but the conversation doesn’t manifest by the end of the premiere, “Sundown.” There’s plenty of time to explore that dynamic. But, since most of the dark-skinned women exist on screen as secondary characters, I hope the conversation arrives sooner rather than later.
In addition to modern music, the show also inserts a quote from James Baldwin, the vibrato and heavy rattle of Baldwin’s voice reverberating over images of life on the road. Gas stations, diners, and street signs illuminate the inequality suffered by Black Americans as Leti, George, and Atticus begin their search for Atticus’ father. Baldwin’s quote—found below in its entirety because reading Baldwin can save your soul—expresses how exclusion from the American Dream seeps into the bones of both the abuser and the abused; how racism changes how a person carries themselves, how they see themselves, and how they behave.
“I find myself, not for the first time, in the position of a kind of Jeremiah. It would seem to me that the question before the house is a proposition horribly loaded, that one’s response to that question depends on where you find yourself in the world, what your sense of reality is. That is, it depends on assumptions we hold so deeply as to be scarcely aware of them...
The white South African or Mississippi sharecropper or Alabama sheriff has at bottom a system of reality which compels them really to believe when they face the Negro that this woman, this man, this child must be insane to attack the system to which he owes his entire identity. For such a person, the proposition which we are trying to discuss here does not exist. On the other hand..”
Baldwin spoke these words during a 1965 debate at the University of Cambridge on American racism with William Buckley Jr., once considered the father of modern conservatism. “The American Dream is at the expense of the American Negro,” Baldwin declared fervently to a hushed audience. Buckley differed from the white supremacist who foamed at the mouth for segregation or death. Articulate, calm, and educated, he believed segregation was a right of the South, and that he could defeat the gay expat in the debate. Instead, Baldwin gave one of his most quotable speeches. He highlighted how enslaved Black Americans suffered and built this country with their own hands and received nothing in return for their labors. “It comes as a great shock around the age of 5, or 6, or 7,” Baldwin stated, “to discover that the flag to which you have pledged allegiance, along with everybody else, has not pledged allegiance to you.” Baldwin won the debate 540 to 160.
After many days of travel, the trio of Atticus, Leti, and Uncle George tries to decide if it’s worth risking their lives for a chance of a hot meal, or if they should stay in the car. The threat of racism is insistent. It resides in the firefighter’s dog that barks like mad as they drive by. It’s certainly in the all-white diner, made so because the diner once burned to the ground. When a local citizen militia runs them out of town after asking to be served in a diner, they engage in a high-speed chase complete with rifles as the fire department and a pick-up truck chase them down the backroads.
While watching the scene unfold, it’s impossible not to wonder why this isn’t already a trope in the American cinematic library. The chase thrills as Smollett zooms down on the country roads, tearing up the street seeking an escape. Salvation arrives in the form of a blond-haired blue-eyed mystery woman, who manages to total the pick-up truck, without getting a scratch on her silver Roll- Royce. If this were a blaxploitation film, this character would be “the white devil”—she’s very clearly not meant to be trusted. Luckily, the trio has the good sense to get the hell out of there and continue on their journey.
Of course, their next stop brings more heartache. After being rejected by her sister, Leti’s brother ejects her from his home as well. Her family can only see her free spirit as undisciplined. Missing her mother’s funeral seems to be the final blow everyone needed to distance themselves from her. Atticus moves to help her, but Uncle George comments “That’s family business”— a phrase many Black Americans know all too well. A ready and reliable way to keep family dirt hidden, the phrase often leaves the abused alone with their abuser. Atticus had just finished trying to explain to his uncle how similar circumstances allowed his alcoholic father, a victim of abuse himself, to harm Atticus when he was young. A cycle of violence left unchecked for appearance’s sake leaves all wounded.
Just as peace arrives between Leti and Atticus, a white police officer descends on the team after they lose their way in the woods. He informs them that this is a sundown county, and the crew better push on. Atticus, a veteran, opens his mouth and speaks the words that set the officer off: “It’s not sundown, yet.” It’s a challenge. A factual statement, but a challenge nonetheless. After degrading Atticus by forcing him to refer to himself as “a smart nigger,” the officer follows them out of town. The speed limit is 25 mph, and if Atticus drives over the limit the officer will force the car to stop. The sun is setting! There’s one minute left until the law will decide to execute them. Leti prepares to shoot the officer if they don’t cross the county line in time. She’s praying the entire time. By a hair, they cross the tracks out of town, only to run into the next county’s squad blocking their only way out.
Dragged into the middle of the woods, the cops force the trio to lay on the ground. They prepare to be executed. The cops question the trio about a robbery. The crime clearly means nothing to them. It’s Atticus’ intelligence that offends them more than anything.
It is here that a monster, like a wild hairless rabbit emerges from the ground and begins to tear the officers’ limbs off like licorice. Everyone scatters. Atticus and Letitia find coverage in a cabin, but the sheriff and another officer barricade themselves inside the cabin before Leti and Atticus secure the door. The threat is inside the house, and outside the house. Nowhere is safe for them. They get Uncle George in the cabin only because the officers are too wounded to stop them from opening the door.
George realizes the creatures are vampiric because they’re sensitive to his flashlight. The pilot’s final great exploration of being Black in America comes as one of the officers begins to transform into the vampiric rabbit. Face scrunched up like a gargoyle, fangs having dropped—yet his fellow officer still keeps his rifle aimed at the unarmed Black citizens in the house. He’s more afraid of their skin than the monster in blue.
Lovecraft Country seeks not to retell the stories of H.P. Lovecraft, nor is it an allegory, for nothing about American culture is hidden in this story. The racism, the erasure of that racism, and the impact of racism on Black citizens blatantly appear throughout “Sundown.” No, Lovecraft Country is fan fiction. Removing the detestable parts of the original text, inserting original characters into the narrative, and taking little jabs at the author for his ignorance makes Lovecraft Country a delight for readers fond of the author’s monsters, but not the man himself. Cackling, free, and mad, these are the horror stories Black Americans tell around a campfire, for we have always been fans of science fiction. But we’ve only been able to tell these stories on large platforms for the past 50 years. Lovecraft Country takes us back 80 years to open this era of horror to modern Black creatives.
- Okay, but seriously, who is that woman Harpo? Why is she following our beloved crew around? Is this man her brother? Why do they look like Hitler Youth? I got a bad feeling about this creepy mansion in the middle of nowhere.
- Uncle George’s niece writes him a comic called Orynthia Blue. Orinthia can either mean “fair-skinned” or “to excite.” Which may mean a colorism conversation is coming after all.
- I wonder who Atticus was talking to on the phone. Definitely a woman. She said Atticus shouldn’t have returned home… Could he be hiding his mother for some reason? Or is this an ex-lover? So many mystery women in this series!