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HBO’s sci-fi horror series Lovecraft Country relives the Jim Crow era

Lovecraft Country, a must watch landmark show is a story which grapples with America’s troubled past and present, a binary opposite defined relationship of us versus them is pitted throughout the narrative, be it law enforcement vis-à-vis policing and white American supremacy in the fray. It can be read as an allegory for the Black American horror reality.

Given the lockdown blues and Covid-19 grimness, Lovecraft Country is just about the show we all need to get sucked into. It offers that escapism we desperately need. The feel-good aphrodisiac, antidote release.

Set in the Jim Crow U.S. era, the new hybrid fantasy sci-fi horror television show taps into contemporary racism of the times. Nothing could be so relevant given the high profile ‘get your knee off our neck’ Black Lives Matter Movement campaign currently riding high globally. Throughout the show viewers are subjected to Midwest racism snippets of 1950s America.

A bit of context to Lovecraft Country is ideal here, for the uninitiated, as this will fully ensure they savour and enjoy the vicarious nature of the show exuded by among others, the vampire monsters and finesse acting skills exhibited. It’s based off the work of avowed racist author of the 50s, H.P. Lovecraft who must be turning in his grave given the predominantly black cast and the show’s executives; Misha Green and Jordan Peele. H.P. Lovecraft is famed for the creation of monsters redolent in today’s modern-day films and science fiction books. Big names horror writers, Stephen King and Guillermo del Toro. bounced ideas off his work as inspiration. But there is a darker side to H.P. Lovecraft; he was a hideous racist, he’s said to have written a poem called the ‘creation of the Nigger’ which allegedly said; God created man, then Beast, then black people as in between species.’

The interesting paradox at play in this TV show is now in contemporary 2020; we have on our screens characters experiencing the same supernatural monsters that H.P. Lovecraft created; not only that, but Lovecraft’s racist worldview has been spectacularly flipped. The main protagonists in the TV series are African Americans in the Jim Crow era, having to deal with the worst monsters such as a racist community, police officers and propaganda. 

 It is gratifying to the viewer to see Lovecraft’s racist ideologies and bigotry shredded in a show which purports to pay homage to his  works.

Aside from the race relations themes inherent in the show, there is an all-star cast ensemble of some of the greatest names in showbiz, who can forget Letitia Lewis (Jurnee Smollett) of Underground fame, itself another Misha Green, Jordan Peele production. Letitia also known as Leti gives a race thumping sublime performance in episode one as she makes a daring Formula One like escape on the wheel; in the car chase sequence with the other two fellow actors on board, in the speed chase from the Ku Klux Klan idiots in hot pursuit. Such a daring car chase sequence with Letitia would certainly make Lewis Hamilton turn green with envy. And such is Letitia’s prowess and charisma, she makes her terrific team say it; what is my name? Say it! At which she answers herself; ‘‘My name’s not a girl, it is Letitia fucking Lewis!’’ This is a sure formidable trio comprising Tic in quest of his missing father Montrose; and he enlists the help of Uncle George (Courtney B Vance), a travel agent and writer of Green Book-style guides for African Americans hoping to make a long-distance journey without being attacked by rapacious racists. Letitia makes up the third member of the trio. In reality, the guidebooks were of historical necessity, during those perilous times of the 50s. The Safe Negro Travel Guide was something of a legend of the times. It was a safe Green book type reference directing black travellers to establishments where they would be welcome and safe.

Jurnee Smollett-Bell at the “Underground” panel during the 2015 New York ComicCon, October 11, 2015. CC BY-SA 4.0

In scenes reminiscent of civil rights activist icon Rosa Parks, the show kicks off with an establishing shot; showcasing a segregated bus allocated seating plan, in which black people have to sit on their own side of the bus; and protagonist Atticus ‘Tic’ Freeman (Jonathan Majors) speaking to a fellow passenger; kills the opening scene off with his philosophical remarks; “Stories are like people,” he says. ‘‘Love them doesn’t make them perfect. You just try and cherish them, overlook their flaws.’’ Soon the bus has a breakdown and black people have to walk for the remainder of the journey whilst white people get a truck to town; itself a wider metaphor of the unfinished journeys in the black communities’ lives; stifled by a racist, discriminatory system. Black people’s lives are never fully fulfilled. They’re perpetually having to metaphorically walk long distances to either catch up with their white counterparts or to make good of their lives; in a world disproportionately skewed with endemic white privilege and systemic racism.

The trio have a somewhat tenuous lead on Tic’s father’s likely whereabouts, and it is a place called Ardham in Massachusetts. Ardham also known as Arkham is the fictional town Lovecraft used as a setting for most of his stories. And so, the trio embark on this precarious trip. There’s a great deal of a sense of forebode, dread and premonition in the air.

There is also another example of acting royalty in Ruby (Wunmi Mosaku), Leti’s older sister, belting out RnB tunes on an open-air stage in the streets. It’s hilarious and a comical sight when Leti gatecrashes Ruby’s ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On’ tune. This is a happy go lucky scene though things will pretty much switch to grimness.

The show captures a glowing poignant moment when James Baldwin’s 1965 debate speech address at Cambridge University’s Union Hall with the famous lines; ‘‘Is the American Dream at the expense of the American Negro?’’ is broadcast. The speech is also popularised in Baldwin’s epic; I’m not Your Negro documentary. Baldwin’s question here is apt given the race induced trials and tribulations the trio goes through on this allegorical journey.

James Baldwin taken Hyde Park, London. CC BY-SA 3.0

The racist tropes galore are there to glean as the trio criss-crosses Midwest America, from being mocked at a gas station by teenagers doing monkey chants impressions, racist slurs graffiti scribbled on road signs, ironically juxtaposed against an American dream billboard; and ultimately their gut-wrenching encounter with the racist police sheriff of Devon County, Eustace Hump. Lovecraft touches on the central aspects of blackness. Gas stations, diners, and street signs illuminate the inequality suffered by Black Americans as Leti, George, and Tic search for the latter’s father. During the montage of Midwest America, Tic sees a line of black people waiting for food/groceries while standing under a billboard featuring a white family in a car and slogan referring to the American dream. Perhaps, as James Baldwin intimates; it does appear the American dream is at the expense of the American Negro. The title sequence Sundown is telling in itself; Sundown towns were places where Black people were unofficially not allowed to be at night or after sunset, it’s more akin to a curfew.

In some parlance; the term ‘sundown town’ has traditionally referred to all white communities where Blacks are not safe and, in many cases, outrightly banned after dark, so the metaphor of exclusion abounds here.

For me the sign of a great show is that I am totally absorbed, which I was. In addition, it is a television show brimming with depth and important themes. Even the car is a character of some sort in this narrative; which the trio have nicknamed it Woody. The premier episode was absolutely brutal. I’m invested in this journey. Bring on the madness.

Episode one ends on a high with full blown gory faced monsters in a cabin in the woods, but not until sultry Letitia shows off her acting acumen and again saves the day in spectacular fashion. What an ingenious idea for a television show which subverts racist stereotypes and ideologies of yester-year. It sure gives some of us the kicks knowing that H.P. Lovecraft must be turning in his grave now that the modern world has turned his narrative around, and with huge success for that matter. It is gratifying to the viewer to see Lovecraft’s racist ideologies and bigotry shredded in a show which purports to pay homage to his works.

Author’s Bio:

Andrew Chatora teaches English, Media and Sociology at The Bicester School in Oxfordshire, England, where he manages The Media Department. He writes here in his personal capacity.

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