The 1950s were a wild time for Black folk. Jim Crow, Racism and Demons: both from within the family and beyond the stars.
Lovecraft Country is a new science-fiction/horror series following Atticus ‘Tic” Black (Jonathan Majors), Letitia Dandridge (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) and George Black (Courtney B. Vance) as they follow the Greenbook throughout the Jim Crow South to track down Atticus’ father and resist terrors: both white and supernatural.
I was afraid that Lovecraft Country would start with the same heavy-handed nature many Black series are guilty of. Sometimes, they pay too much attention to the racism that they cannot achieve and the transcendent feeling that sci-fi encaptures, and we’re left thinking the only role of Black folk even in our wildest dreams is plight. Sometimes, they pay too little attention to race that it all feels disingenuous: like an elephant in the room, we threw a white sheet over when white company swung on through.
Most often, both science and racism can be at the center of the plot, but we forget that we need to have some joy in there too, because what Black person is too serious to smile?
HBO, where the series premiered Sunday, August 16, gets everything right and still has room to shock us with things we didn’t know that we desperately needed.
Our screening got a bit creative in how it was going to confront the on-going issue that was COVID-19 and creating a user experience that wasn’t just a glorified late-night Zoom call (which at best, rates itself as great as a 2 a.m. Facetime striptease). The screening began with a quiz starting initially as trivia on H. P. Lovecraft’s extended mythos of racism-inspired horror and slowly transfused into a journey throughout Black political consciousness in Jim Crow and pulp fiction.
It was a test I barely passed, but was thoroughly educational in nature as to the kind of experience we were in for. The show wasn’t rooting itself in repelling a racist’s problems with anyone non-white and rich; the show wasn’t going to beat down its message with racial allegory to pull at white America’s heartstrings; the show wasn’t going to lie in hopes of achieving a fantasy of Black experience. It was going to tell its story, and we can make arguments on its own while having fun.
In the first scene, Jackie Robinson offs an alien, and that is maybe the least memorable moment of the show’s first few minutes of viewing because then we are riding a bus through the Jim Crow-checkered rural south towards Chicago. It’s startling to pan down the aisle, knowing just how cramped charter buses are, sliding past the Whites section into the Colored section in the back. No one here in their department store suit and gown in 1955 is exactly wealthy, nor would we expect fine things from anyone riding a metal box in Summer heat up the American Midwest.
And yet, in what is probably the divine occupation of every Greyhound bus in the world: it broke down in the boonies. A pick-up truck swiftly comes and gatherers everyone into the back, but there are only two Black people on this particular route and without saying another word, or making an observation, or defying the truth of an era only 70 years removed: our protagonist, Atticus Black (Jonathan Majors), does the only thing a Black hero of his time can do. He picked up a kind Black woman’s bags and walks with her miles into the city, discussing pulp fiction.
And just before the scene can end at heartbreaking, they strike a conversation on what is about to seal the core themes of what ‘Lovecraft Country’ is really about when discussing a science fiction novel with a former confederate soldier who goes to Mars and fights aliens.
Atticus is almost giddy talking about his books like the true Blerd he is, until the kind Black woman reminds him about what he just said.
“He fought for slavery. You don’t get to put an ‘X’ in front of that.”
Atticus considers this as they continue their walk. I softly come to the realization that this movie isn’t only a love letter to Black Speculative Fiction, a genre that has persisted further than any would give it credit for beyond even the most notable mothers of the art, Octavia Butler; this series is about wrestling with conflicting and equally dangerous truths in a subject.
You’re left carrying the baggage of this woman’s observations all the way through one of the most cinematic pilot episodes I’ve ever seen in my life. So precious is every scene and every action and every bit of timing that you transcend the idea of mediums and consider it for art’s sake alone. And if you’re an avid reader, you’re still carrying the subtext with you as far as the cinema will bring you.
I’ve struggled with my words to encapture the joy I experienced watching this show. It’s a habit of being someone used from experiencing joy from the margins, but in that, I might have failed myself. I turned to understand other reviews in order to find my own voice and was largely annoyed by the amount of White people who somehow didn’t get what I loved so much about Lovecraft Country’s pilot.
I should’ve trusted that I loved seeing Black hair in reality as a Black reality — tangled in bed when unwrapped, tangled in the scenes that followed when free. I should’ve trusted that Black culture in the throws of mass celebration and nostalgia even under the threat of persistent White terror. I should’ve trusted the depiction of complicated family dynamics, and the hard wall of silence that is placed around family trauma and abuse that would not be faced until even I was born 40 years following.
I should’ve known that many of them wouldn’t understand the subversive nature of including the warring truth that many Black folk walk with — that in our blood which we are so proud of is the blood of those whom we are so oppressed and conflicted by and that to resist them is in part to deny ourselves. Miscegenation might’ve been illegal until 1967, but we all know that laws only apply to those who can be convicted by them. And no matter how long and loving the history is, so much that we might even place the image of the white woman in our family albums, or on our walls, we’re conflicted and troubled, and we’re carrying a lot.
All of this, and we ain’t even gotten to the aliens yet!
Or the most atrocious horror of Lovecraft Country that is only so familiar having risked sickness and death two months ago to protest for Black Lives saved by nothing but a medical mask and rubber gloves. It’s the horror that in a world where a threat cannot be shot, cannot be bargained with, cannot be reasoned against: you still have somebodies’ racist mom, dad, grandpa, uncle, sister, etc. in the mood to remind you of where you should belong to them. And that’s the preferable sort of hate to the violence of a Cop in a world where racism is not only perpetuated solely but is an actionable legislation punishable by death.
Lovecraft Country is a contender for the greatest pilot of recent history and sets the tone for what I hope is HBO’s future of Black science-fiction storytelling.
I have no choice but to rate this series 10 Angry White Film Nerds out of 10.