Review: LOVECRAFT COUNTRY Gives HBO Another Genre-Bending Triumph
Jonathan Majors, Jurnee Smollett, and Courtney B. Vance star in the series, executive produced by showrunner Misha Green, and now streaming on HBO Max.
[Note: HBO offered episodes 1-5 of Lovecraft Country for review. Subsequent episodes will be reviewed individually.]
In HBO’s Lovecraft Country, writer-producer-showrunner Misha Green’s (Underground, Helix) dazzlingly brilliant, genre-bending adaptation of Matt Ruff’s well-regarded 2016 novel during the Jim Crow era, the ravenous, nightmarish creatures straight out of H.P. Lovecraft’s fevered, fervid imagination may hunt, rend flesh, and tear sinew from bone, but they pose far less of an existential threat than real-world monsters, the monsters with Caucasian faces who wear badges and uniforms to enforce post-Civil War, pre-Civil Rights state-sanctioned white supremacy and segregation through threats, intimidation, and violence.
It’s history, our history, the history that’s rarely examined in depth or detail in American schools outside of colleges and universities. It’s history, critically reimagined and recontextualized through the pulp science-fiction/horror lens of Lovecraft’s problematic work (overt racism and white supremacy were the norm, not the exception, in Lovecraft’s cosmic horror), radically re-centered on Black characters and Black lives.
At least initially, Lovecraft Country revolves around a seemingly traditional quest narrative, with Atticus “Tic” Freeman (Jonathan Majors, Da 5 Bloods, The Last Black Man in San Francisco), a Korean War vet, returning to the South Side of Chicago after receiving a cryptic letter from his estranged father, Montrose Freeman (Michael Kenneth Williams).
With his father disappeared and the only clue a reference to an “Ardham” in Massachusetts apparently missing from current maps, Atticus decides to follow the clues and find his father with the help of his uncle, George (Courtney B. Vance), and an old acquaintance, Letitia “Leti” Lewis (Jurnee Smollett), a refugee from parts unknown who is eager for both a new adventure and also an excuse to separate herself from her older, judgmental sister, Ruby Baptiste (Wunmi Mosaku). The author and publisher of popular guidebooks for Black travelers, George also sees Atticus’ search for his father and George’s brother as an opportunity to add new entries to the latest edition of his soon-to-be-published guidebook.
Green interweaves several key themes and ideas throughout the first and second episodes, including imaginative play as a tool of survival in a virulently racist society that gives little, if any, room for positive depictions of non-white characters -- Atticus’ obsession with science-fiction/horror doesn’t blinker him to its inherent limitation -- and just as importantly, the generational abuse that’s left all three men (Atticus, Montrose, and George) emotionally damaged to varying degrees, a product, if not in whole then in part, of the punishing poverty inflicted on the Freemans and Black people like them by the slavery and post-Civil War aftermath that left freed slaves with few resources and even fewer economic opportunities.
Absolution, however, isn’t Lovecraft Country’s intent. Green gives each member of the Freeman family, including George’s wife, Hippolyta (Aunjanue Ellis), an independent-minded woman, guidebook co-writer, and astronomy buff, and their daughter, Diana (Jada Harris), a budding comic-book artist who shares Atticus’ love for pulp fiction, individual agency and autonomy, a rarity for secondary characters in genre-related fiction or film.
For Atticus, Letitia, and George, their journey doesn’t end in Ardham, Massachusetts. It’s only the end of the beginning, a beginning that leads to centuries-old secret societies, a vast, isolated manor straight out of Edgar Allan Poe, and Titus Braithwhite (Tony Goldwyn), leader of said secret society with a keen interest in Atticus’ lineage and the elevated, exalted role Atticus might play in the secret society’s super-secret plans for themselves and, of course, the world.
Titus’ daughter, Christina (Abbey Lee), barred by her gender from joining or participating in the super-secret society, has an agenda of her own that might conflict with her father’s and however briefly, align with Atticus’. Along the way, Atticus, Letitia, and George encounter purely fictional monsters and real-world based monsters, including an over-eager sheriff enforcing local “sundown” ordinances that immediately put the trio in mortal danger.
While the first and second episodes can stand on their own as a two-parter or even the equivalent of a feature-length film, the remaining episodes under review are far more episodic and less serialized in nature, bringing Atticus and the others back to Chicago for a seeming one-off involving Letitia’s inheritance, a fixer-upper that probably should have been a fixer-don’t on the North (white) side of Chicago, leading to a series of escalating confrontations with local racists. (Even when a ghost or eight might be around to cause minor stress or havoc, it’s the white supremacists who ultimately prove to be the most life-threatening.)
That's followed by an Indiana Jones-style side-story involving adventures at and under a museum, and a spotlight episode centered on Ruby and Christina’s factotum, William (Jordan Patrick Smith), a blue-eyed, blond-haired, demonic Aryan who enters Ruby’s life at a low point and like all blue-eyed demon-types, makes her a Faustian offer she can’t, but should, refuse.
As remarkably deft, intentionally provocative, and seemingly effortless as Lovecraft Country’s integration of character, plot, and theme may be ― and for the record, it really does qualify as a remarkable achievement given the mix of real history and science fiction/horror/fantasy ― it’s not the big, effects-driven set pieces that stand out, but the quieter moments, the moments when Green, working alongside several, visually oriented directors, lingers on Black lives free, however momentarily or briefly, of the day-to-day struggles of surviving apartheid in America, simply going about their lives, children playing in the waterfall created by an open fire hydrant, businesses closing down for a block party, or performing and dancing in a nightclub.
They’re scenes, in short, that might be technically essential to narrative or character development, but they’re necessary to celebrating the Black experience more than fifty years ago. The struggle may be real, but as Lovecraft Country repeatedly suggests, so is the joy of celebrating the provisional successes born out of that struggle.