Now that I’ve finished recapping the German time travel nightmare that is Dark, let’s move on to the quintessentially American nightmare that is HBO’s Lovecraft Country. The series is adapted from Matt Ruff’s 2016 novel of the same name, which takes place in 1950’s Jim Crow America, emphasizing the competing horrors of racism, trauma and monsters of pure fantasy.
The “Lovecraft Country” of the title is a pun, referring both to scifi-fantasy author HP Lovecraft’s non-human creations, which are referenced sporadically, and to his racist, xenophobic and misogynist beliefs, which permeated both his writing and mainstream America at the time. Lovecraft Country is an intricate dance competition between metaphorical, cinematic and human monsters. It’s not always clear who wins, but the people of color definitely fight for their lives, on every level.
Lovecraft Country follows a young, black former Korean war soldier, Atticus Freeman (Jonathan Majors) and his childhood friend, Leti Lewis (Jurnee Smollett), on their road trips across the country in the family station wagon and their adventures at home in Chicago as they attempt solve the mysteries of Atticus’ mother’s ancestry, which have quite literally come back to haunt him and those close to him. Other friends and family take part in their adventures as the story requires, particularly Leti’s half sister, Ruby Baptiste (Wunmi Mosaku), Atticus’ father, Montrose (Michael K. Williams), and his aunt and uncle, George (Courtney B Vance) and Hippolyta (Aunjanue Ellis).
The story isn’t exactly an anthology, but each self-contained episode has a particular thematic focus and genre- there’s a haunted house episode, a Goonies episode, a scary road trip episode (amongst all the road trips, the pilot emphasizes the road trip as nightmare the most), a sinister, secret magical society episode, and so on. One or a few characters are highlighted each episode, as the overall backstories of Atticus’ ancestors and his current community are slowly revealed. His extended family impacts his life in small and profound ways, both those who are still among the living and those whose history is brought to light.
Lovecraft Country is enjoyable as a fun adventure story combined with a serious examination of how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go in the fight against racism (and misogyny). But as with the best of previous work by executive producers Jordan Peele and JJ Abrams, it also touches on other universal themes, such as domestic violence, addiction, sexuality, trust, betrayal, community, family, identity and maturity.
Both the writing and the cinematography feel like a blend of Peele’s Get Out, HBO’s Watchmen and Abrams’ Castle Rock S1. The influence of showrunner and main writer Misha Green is especially felt in the show’s emphasis on its characters, relationships and settings. Green made the critically acclaimed series Underground (about the Underground Railroad, the secret network of Abolitionists and free African-Americans who helped slaves escape the American South) and brought series star Jurnee Smollett along with her from that show. Smollett/Leti is the MVP of Lovecraft Country and if this show isn’t a star making vehicle for her, there is no justice in the world. Even among Lovecraft Country’s incredibly talented ensemble, her talent and charisma stand out.
Lovecraft Country also stars Abbey Lee as Christina Braithwhite, Jamie Chung as Ji-Ah, Jada Harris as Diana Freeman, Michael K. Williams as Montrose Freeman and Jordan Patrick Smith as William. Cinematography by Tat Radcliffe and Robert McLachlan. Music by Laura Karpman and Raphael Saadiq. Season 1 runs for 10 episodes. There is also a companion podcast, Lovecraft Country Radio, featuring one of the show writers, Shannon Houston, and writer and podcaster Ashley C Ford.
Image courtesy of HBO.