Television

‘Lovecraft Country’ Shatters Expectations to Excavate Generational Black Trauma

HBO's supernatural series is an ambitious, audacious reclamation of Black genre fiction.

NOTE: Some spoilers for Lovecraft Country ahead.

Lovecraft Country, by design, defies definition.

For marketing and promotion’s sake, HBO has categorized the series as supernatural horror and drama, but that fails to encapsulate the scope of its ambition adequately. For ten jaw-dropping, mind-melting, insane episodes, showrunner Misha Green creates something that feels unprecedented in the television landscape, in the service of a specific type of exploration and examination of Blackness that is desperately needed and long overdue.

Despite claiming that Lovecraft Country is challenging to explain, I will attempt to. The series follows the journey of Atticus “Tic” Freeman (Jonathan Majors) to uncover the mysteries and histories of his family during the 50s. It begins as a road-trip search for his missing father Montrose (Michael K. Williams), with his uncle George (Courtney B. Vance) and childhood friend Letitia “Leti” Lewis (Jurnee Smollett) tagging along for support. That mission quickly daces complications: bloodthirsty ground-dwelling demons, a generations-old magical cult, and most terrifyingly of all, the violence and terror accompanied by explicit racism. 

That synopsis only covers about the first two episodes, as Lovecraft Country unfurls into a wide-ranging survey of the intersections of the supernatural and the Black experience. Magic, monsters, and weird science are all real in this world, and they all have deeply-embedded roots in the savage mistreatment of people of color, especially Black people. The show doesn’t turn over stones; it obliterates them, exposing just how deep and perpetual Black pain can be. The real-life horrors perpetuated by racists – genocide, medical experimentation, mutilation – reach their extremes via through paranormal activities. And yet, truth is often more terrifying than fiction. In the first episode, a low-speed car chase to escape a “sundown town” in the South matches, and even exceeds, a gigantic monster ripping people to bloody shreds in sheer horror. 

Jurnee Smollett, Wunmi Mosaku, and Jonathan Majors in Lovecraft Country (courtesy: HBO)

Lovecraft Country also understands that trauma can be self-inflicted and inherited, which often makes for its most emotionally resonant storytelling. Montrose’s relationship with Tic is poisoned by physical abuse and alcoholism, a reaction to his own father’s physical abuse, the racist violence perpetrated against him during the 1921 Tulsa riots, and his self-loathing over being gay. Montrose’s abuse runs deep in Tic’s being, manifesting in his emotional vulnerability, recklessness, and moments of stunning coldness. Leti’s relationship with her sister Ruby (Wunmi Mosaku) is shaped by their deceased mother’s parental inconsistencies, creating a vast gulf between them. Ji-Ah (Jamie Chung), a woman Tic met and loved during the Korean War, is demonically marked by her step-father’s sexual abuse. 

While trauma is at the narrative core, the show relishes in Black resilience and excellence. The most memorable moments celebrate its characters triumphing despite racism or exceeding the expectations of the racist world around them, like Leti’s car-bashing revenge against harassment or aunt Hippolyta (Aunjanue Ellis) reclaiming her identity across space and time. The show allows its characters an opportunity to transcend their pain to be heroes in the face of impossible odds. It’s an intensely powerful statement that doesn’t minimize Black trauma but paints a hopeful path forward. 

Jonathan Majors in Lovecraft Country (courtesy: HBO)

That is a lot of thematic ground for one series to cover, not even including its primary plot of secret magic societies. Lovecraft Country’s approach is one of reckless abandon, and it is often exhilarating. The joy of watching the show is not knowing what you’ll encounter. One episode will be an ancestral ghost story, followed by an Indiana Jones-esque adventure through the bowels of the United States. Although Tic and Leti are constants throughout, some episodes focus on specific loved ones and their stories: Hipployta’s cosmic journey, Ruby’s adventures outside of her skin, and Ji-Ah’s Judy Garland-tinged origins in Korea. Lovecraft Country largely eschews a formal episodic structure to serve its remarkably engaging characters and their unique ties to the show’s overarching narrative.

That isn’t to say that Lovecraft Country is without flaw; its audacious nature has downsides. Some of the dialogue can be a bit obvious, mired in platitudes and nondescript phrases that undercut the thematic depth. The show can also be disorienting, as it leaps into new plot points without fully grappling with previous ones’ consequences. Major characters will die but the show rarely pauses to grieve. You can argue that choice reflects the frequency of violence against people of color, but the hollowness persists.

The most egregious example occurs in the fourth episode, when Tic, Leti, and Montrose discover Yahima, an Arawak Two-Spirit person re-animated in underground ruins. Indigenous characters on mainstream television are rare; Two-Spirit characters on television are essentially non-existent. Yahima could’ve been represented a groundbreaking moment for representation on both fronts. Instead, she is killed, again, at the end of the episode, with barely a mention afterwards. It’s a shocking, disappointing, and downright offensive moment, a “fridging” without the character motivation to suggest a purpose (to her credit, Misha Green acknowledged that she “failed” Yahima).

Jonathan Majors, Jurnee Smollett, and Michael K. Williams in Lovecraft Country (courtesy: HBO)

Even when Lovecraft Country threatens to go off the rails, the uniformly exceptional cast keeps the show grounded in startlingly real work. Jonathan Majors is a revelation, a deeply committed performer whose emotional vulnerability and inner strength appears effortless. Jurnee Smollett is a tour de force as Leti, an immediate screen presence who tackles her character’s multitudes with intelligence, humor, and heart. As Montrose, Michael K. Williams is an exposed nerve of anxiety and insecurity, and balances the tension with his rough exterior expertly. Jamie Chung makes a serious impression as Ji-Ah, so much so that her standalone episode shines on the strength of her sensitive performance and chemistry with Majors alone.

I can’t recall ever watching a show like Lovecraft Country before. We’re still aways off from true Black representation in genre fiction, and Misha Green’s efforts to correct the record are admirable, even when it seems like the series is like a bull in a china shop. It’s not perfect, but the fact that Lovecraft Country – based on stories written by a virulent racist – exists at all is a miracle in 2020, a year desperately needing one.

Lovecraft Country is now streaming in full on HBO Max.

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