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Lovecraft Country turns racist genre tropes inside-out, and then starts to play by its own rules

  • "On Lovecraft Country, America is full of monsters, and only some of them aren’t human," says Willa Paskin of the Jordan Peele and J.J. Abrams-produced HBO drama that Misha Green adapted from Matt Ruff's 2016 novel of the same name. "In this heady horror romp through the grotesque topography of American racism, a small group of intrepid Black heroes faces off against sleek, slimy, vampiric creatures with 10-foot vertical leaps and eye-dappled skin, butchered and butchering ghosts, and zombie sirens, all less dangerous than the unvanquishable flood of blood-chilling sheriffs, blood-mad secret societies, bat-wielding neighbors, violent cops, and bigoted bosses who, unlike the monsters, need no provocation. Scary, funny, unsettling, sexy, goofy, loose, pulpy, and profound, Lovecraft Country uses metaphor, genre, and fantasy to tell the truth: For Black people, America’s always been a horror story." Paskin adds: "The pilot of Lovecraft Country is taut and near-perfect. The second episode is more exemplary of its everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach to genre, plot, and mythology...It’s at this point, beginning with the third installment, that the series’s essential structure comes into focus. Each episode is a kind of pulp-of-the-week—with side helpings of mythology, soap, and family drama—that takes tropes from fantasy writers like the deeply imaginative and inveterately racist H.P. Lovecraft and turns them inside-out, reading horror from a Black perspective....Lovecraft Country can be scary, but as a total scaredy-cat, I found the extended encounters with flesh-and-blood white people far more tense than the encounters with the supernatural. The monsters may leap and lurk in the dark, but their sympathies seem to lie in the right places. The first creatures appear to inadvertently attack the white people first, but a pattern emerges. This is a world densely populated not only by the supernatural, but also by the souls of dead, wronged Black folk, who reach across time and space to lend a hand."


    • Lovecraft Country is smart, gripping and wonderfully wild: "To say that Lovecraft Country is a whole lot of show would be an understatement," says Judy Berman. "Blood and jump-scares aside, the scripts pack in transcendent musical numbers, parties teeming with guests, sex both tender and terrifying, cinematic car chases that hit the spot in a summer without blockbusters. Green—whose great, prematurely canceled WGN America series Underground infused heart-pounding action sequences and contemporary pop and hip-hop into a period drama that followed slaves escaping from a Southern plantation—doesn’t discriminate between high and low culture....Some messiness comes with the territory, though, unlike most seasons of Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story, Green rarely lets the spectacle of it all overshadow her insights. Whether you think of it as postmodern or simply maximalist, the show’s cultural collage serves the purpose of forging connections between eras, identities and artists."
    • Lovecraft Country creates a mosaic of horror that keeps the premise fresh and newly terrifying: "To summarize Lovecraft Country as a whole is especially difficult," says Shannon Miller. "Yes, there is a through line that involves a secret cabal that underscores the entire series. But what makes this narrative work is its anthological approach to the Black experience. Multiple stories and hypothetical scenarios create a mosaic of horror that keeps the premise fresh and newly terrifying. It’s a fitting format: It’s never just one issue that plagues the Black community’s ability to exist peacefully, because racism doesn’t solely present itself in the form of Klan hoods and burning crosses (though there are instances of the latter, as well). It also comes in the form of job discrimination, basic access to decent housing, police overreach, and small country towns that convert into literal death traps for anyone with brown skin. While that reality is certainly heavy, the audience benefits with imagery that is easy enough for everyone to process—that is, grisly monsters (a visual joy, if you manage to not frightfully look away), thrilling car chases, and soul-arresting ghosts. Lovecraft Country is an utterly imaginative, wild ride, but it isn’t nearly as wild as the nonsensical bigotry that makes the series necessary."
    • The racism of Lovecraft Country—and the misogyny, when it emerges—is theatrically blunt: "There are few microaggressions or systemic prejudices here, just slurs and baseball bats. It’s effective as an exercise in exorcising a long-stifled demon for cathartic release," says Sonia Saraiya. "But Lovecraft Country is entertainment, not history; the racism is not being explored so much as the viewer is being bludgeoned with it. At points, the white folks’ anger becomes so over-the-top that it loses its violent shock value and becomes simply part of the woodwork, which has the odd and perhaps intended effect of flattening it into the background. Though the show has such a single-minded focus, the variety of stories it tells is enticing; at the end of any given episode, it’s really difficult to imagine what might happen in the next chapter of Lovecraft Country. In a moment saturated with serialized content, that’s a crucial feat. And whenever the story gets predictable, Lovecraft Country tosses in atmosphere, which it has in spades: the excellent costumes, music, sets, and props that we expect from an HBO series with high production values."
    • Lovecraft Country devotes too much time making its white characters cartoonish villains: "The HBO series, which was written and developed by Misha Green, has received heaps of early praise from critics, many of whom cite its usage of horror to dramatize the ugliness of racism," says Hannah Giorgis. "But Lovecraft Country stops short of deploying horror to convey new insights about the perils of white supremacy. Across the five episodes made available to critics, the show spends so much time focusing on its white characters’ near-comic monstrousness that it undercuts the development of its Black leads. It’s clear that the series thinks racism is evil, more so than even Lovecraft’s shoggoths. Through a convoluted subplot about a cult-like family of bigots known as the Braithwaites, the show also makes clear how intimately racism can figure into Black people’s lives. But halfway through the series, I’m still left wondering who Atticus, George, and especially Letitia (a classic 'Strong Female Character' archetype) really are. What animates Lovecraft Country’s Black characters when they’re not fighting racists, whether man or beast?"
    • Lovecraft Country often makes Watchmen look tentative by comparison: "It's pulp fiction by way of the 1619 Project, where America's original sin might simultaneously be slavery and a ritual blood sacrifice with the potential to open up a portal to another dimension," says Daniel Fienberg. "Lovecraft Country may not always be better than HBO's Watchmen, another recent show that used popular genre forms as a way in to larger sociological debates, but it often makes Watchmen (or even executive producer Jordan Peele's Get Out) look tentative by comparison. This is a show that hooks you fast — and one toward which it's nearly impossible to be ambivalent."
    • Lovecraft Country feels like the child of Get Out and Watchmen, with a pinch of True Blood: "The HBO series conjures a pretty intoxicating atmosphere, while proving confounding about what its rules are," says Brian Lowry. "The result is well worth watching, but requires patience to see where this gothic road will ultimately lead. Through five previewed episodes, or half the season, the jury remains out on that last part. Yet the series boasts such a handsome look and impressive cast and creative pedigree --produced by J.J. Abrams and Get Out's Jordan Peele, and adapted from Matt Ruff's novel by Misha Green (Underground) -- it earns the benefit of the doubt...What defines Lovecraft Country and initially sets it apart is the 1950s Jim Crow-era backdrop, filtering issues of racism and inequality through those years. Within that setting, the series keeps changing shapes, starting out as a quest before morphing into different styles, from a haunted-house-type episode to an adventure with almost a National Treasure feel to it."
    • While race was one theme on Watchmen, it informs ever scene and relationship in Lovecraft Country: "More important, though, is the new show’s attitude to the popular entertainment genres — pulp fiction, comic books, popcorn movies — from which it draws inspiration," says Mike Hale. "It bypasses the high-cult pretensions that, for some of us, made the Watchmen adaptation a bit of a drag. Lovecraft fully integrates a noxious real-life history into its fantastical narrative — and reminds us how little some things have changed in the six decades since the story’s setting. But its goal appears to be to scare us into having fun, something it achieves about half the time in the five episodes made available in advance."
    • Lovecraft Country faces challenges similar to those of Watchmen, with more limited strengths: "This show, too, wants to tell a tale that’s big in thematic sweep and iconography," says Daniel D'Addario. "Here, though, what’s borrowed tends to work against the plot: The violence of Lovecraftian horror is so extreme, and the threats so outlandish, that even the most evil impulses of humanity seem an inadequate counterweight. Lovecraft Country is more of Lovecraft than of our country. And though the performances are very strong, the characters are so rigorously put through a horror story’s beats as to defy our truly getting to know them until around the fifth episode — a long wait. What works best is the immense symbolic power, drawn from Lovecraft as well as from Green’s imagination."
    • Lovecraft Country gets lost in overly familiar genre territory: "Lovecraft Country digs deep into the regular horrors of the American experiment," says Darren Franich. "It also, unfortunately, reflects the anxieties of the modern TV drama, frantically serializing itself through cliffhanger hysterics, desperately distracting the viewer from changing to a thousand channels...Lovecraft Country arrives in the midst of a generational reckoning with America's history of racial oppression, and it cuts between colonial history and family secrets. Despite that vast historical backdrop and the central magical conspiracy, these early hours are most convincing as an old-fashioned monster-of-the-week structure with sharp social inflection. That kind of standalone storytelling is just about a lost art in TV drama, though, and viewers will recognize the delaying tactics. (Tic spends one episode slowly translating an ancient language — a punishing bit of water-treading in a season only 10 chapters long.) Showrunner Misha Green adapted Matt Ruff's novel, alongside executive producers Jordan Peele and J.J. Abrams. I respect their ambition, and hope the series finds its footing. Right now, they're skewering Lovecraft's beliefs but can't compete with his singular horror vision. They're better people making worse art."
    • The show doesn't sacrifice its Blackness to tell a rich and compelling story that is just as much about horror and trauma as any genre classic: "Lovecraft Country's running themes — the emotional scars of war, traveling while Black, and the ongoing struggle to reclaim Black legacy — are all symptomatic of many Black experiences. What further catapults the series into the genre space is elements of biblical folklore, fantasy, and special effects-driven monsters," says Candice Frederick, adding: "It's been nearly a century since the death of the series' titular inspiration, Howard Phillips 'H.P.' Lovecraft, who helped legitimize speculative fiction (one of his books also makes a cameo in the series). Lovecraft Country takes what he did and adds a timelessness that further expands the boundaries of the genre and its relationship with the real world at a time when audiences just so happen to be hungry for it."
    • Lovecraft Country is a middle finger to racist sci-fi, but it's not as good as Watchmen and Get Out: The drama can often "feel overheated, over-motivated, muddled and unsubtle, and not just because every single white character is trouble, if not implausibly so, on a scale from casually clueless to actively evil," says Robert Lloyd. "Its emotional volume has a way of drowning out its humor. Watchmen could be kind of a conceptual mess too, but it was impossible to miss its ambition — even its daffy obscurity had a way of coming across as gravitas — and arriving when it did in the life of the nation, it seemed to be not merely a harbinger of rising consciousness, but a contributor to it. Lovecraft Country has a sense of timeliness as well. When police arrive at the scene of a disturbance, the Black crowd adopts a 'hands up, don’t shoot' posture; taken into custody, Letitia is subjected to the sort of bruising police van ride that led to the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore in 2015."
    • How Lovecraft Country reappropriates H.P. Lovecraft's notoriously racist creations
    • Courtney B. Vance says of Lovecraft Country: "It’s not only ‘a show in chocolate,’ but it’s also a huge action flick": “Actually shooting this for real for real was very, very interesting to watch us all navigate and find our way to shoot something this big," he says. "And so it wasn’t about so much about that, it was a Black film or Black project, a big project, and how it’s going to come together. It was nice to see the color behind and in front of the camera. That’s usually not the case. Usually, you see some color in front of the camera but not behind the cameras. It’s pretty much a ‘whiteout.’ But that wasn’t gonna happen with Miss Misha, so that was beautiful to see the diaspora, and we all benefited from it."
    • Jonathan Majors could identify with his Lovecraft Country character after growing up in Texas: “There was always a fear that ran through us,” says Majors, who spent part of his childhood on his grandparents' farm. “The first ghost I remember seeing was the Klan.” One summer when he was a child, he saw a burning cross in a field near the farm; later that summer, when his father arrived home late from work, he told him he had been afraid that "the hooded people got you."
    • Jurnee Smollett was required to go “dark places" for Lovecraft Country: Smollett put her whole body -- “physically, mentally, spiritually” -- into the role. “This character cost me a lot, I’m not gonna lie,” she says. “I definitely was in the hospital a few times for it, but that's just because of what Courtney says to me. He’s like, ‘Jurnee, the problem is you just throw your whole body into things.’ But that is who I am as an artist.”  
    • Misha Green on her previous show, WGN's Underground, vs. Lovecraft Country: "I think one episode of this show was (the same cost as) maybe five of Underground," she says. “The playground you can play in is incredible. Our production designer said we had 162 sets. The VFX houses we’ve been working with, the makeup special effects places we’ve been working with — they’re some of the biggest. They make Star Wars movies. There’s no limits other than my imagination, which is fantastic.”
    • Green tapped into the experience of being a Black woman in making Lovecraft Country: “I walk through this world not only as a Black person, but as a woman, too,” says Green. “It’s literally, you’re in a horror movie (with) monsters at every turn. I think that the awareness of that has become more [clear] for more people than just the people who had to be aware of it before. Everybody’s like, ‘is it really that hard for you?’ And I’m like, ‘absolutely!’ It’s a feat, this show...where it is today...It’s a feat! I don’t know how I did it. I probably had to disassociate to do it (and) to make it happen this way. It’s everywhere. ...It’s the experience of being ‘the other’ in America...and I think probably (even extending to the) world that it’s a horror story.”
    • Green never thought the horror genre was limiting: "Every time people talk about 'elevated horror,' I ask, 'What’s the problem with the "not elevated" horror?' I love slasher films like Nightmare on Elm Street," she says. "But when I really started to think about this genre, I wondered, 'Why don’t they have Black people, or why do the Black people have to die in the first 10 minutes?' So when I read Matt’s book, I thought he beautifully reclaimed this genre space that hadn’t been for people of color. That’s what I pitched to HBO. We can launch off the platform of his book, reclaim the reclamation, and make a television show for people of color. In that respect, the show isn’t just horror but really an all genres space. When we were in the writers’ room, we would have our syllabus for each episode. For secret societies, we thought of The Shining and Eyes Wide Shut. Or a ghost story: Poltergeist and Amityville Horror. Or adventure: Indiana Jones and The Goonies. I was like, 'This can be all of it.' But at the end of the day, it’s just a family drama, and we want to love the characters and what they’re going through. What’s so exciting is to see people of color, who don’t typically get to be in those genre spaces, in these spaces now."

    TOPICS: Lovecraft Country, HBO, Courtney B. Vance, H.P. Lovecraft, J.J. Abrams, Jonathan Majors, Jordan Peele, Jurnee Smollett, Matt Ruff, Misha Green