Lovecraft Country: A strange trip through America’s terrifying history
November 11, 2020 | Michelle Musili
Illustration by Michelle Musili
Black horror is having quite a moment right now. The genre was virtually non-existent (save for an occasional Candyman), until 2017 rolled around and Jordan Peele gave us the game-changing Get Out. Since the smash hit, studios have been investing more into horror stories that parallel the horror of racism in America. One such endeavor is HBO’s Lovecraft Country. But is this a genre that re-traumatizes Black audiences rather than giving them solace?
Created by Misha Green and produced by Jordan Peele, Lovecraft Country follows the story of Atticus “Tic” Freeman as he joins his friend Letitia and his Uncle George to embark on a road trip across 1950s Jim Crow America in search of his missing father. The show contends with Lovecraftian monsters and the equally horrifying past of this country. Tic’s journey takes them through multiple magical, high fantasy, and historical detours on its path to Lovecraft county, in central Massachusetts.
Lovecraft Country’s structure is a mix of serialized and episodic. The main plot revolves around Tic discovering his magical lineage and the consequences of it, while the characters around him are also dealing with unique and terrifying encounters with magic. Along with that, there are several episodes where the main plot is completely absent, and the audience gets time with a different character. While this allows for interesting and more complex characterization, it comes at the price of pacing. The show’s pace and tone feel as though they vary wildly, and the audience walks into every episode not knowing what’s in store. This can be a fun experience, but it is ultimately frustrating. The finale ends the plot on a somewhat satisfying note, however, the show takes a long and convoluted road to get there.
The show focuses the most on Tic (Jonathan Majors), Letitia (Jurnee Smollett Bell), and Tic’s father, Montrose (Michael K. Williams). Majors does an incredible job as the stoic Tic, even though his character’s writing lacks the depth the other characters get. Smollett Bell is equally stunning as the badass Letitia, a character whose fierceness is complicated by her selfish and secretive nature. Montrose is a conflicted, formerly abusive character and the relationship between him and Tic is a strong dramatic element in this show. Secondary characters such as Hippolyta, Ruby, Ji-Ah, and Dee are all given interesting arcs and episodes that focus more on their struggles and experiences. Yet, despite how strong the cast of characters is, the plot does not leave enough space for their arcs to be completed in a satisfying way.
Illustration by Michelle Musili
The show is set in the Jim Crow era and features fantastic 1950s fashion and set dressing. The outfits and setting are clearly made with incredible care and make the show’s visual language distinct and beautiful. The time period appropriate music choices also gel beautifully with the setting and emotional beats of the scenes they’re featured in. However, the show makes the choice to occasionally feature anachronistic music choices from current artists like Tierra Whack and Solange. While the song choices themselves aren’t bad, they shake the audience’s immersion and often feel unfit for the emotional beats of the scene.
As both high-fantasy and horror, Lovecraft Country features many magical elements. The special effects are done well, if not cheesy every now and then. The show has horrifyingly well-done gore work, sometimes even steering into too much. While this is appropriate for a fantasy horror series, much of the violence isn’t magic related, but historical. The audience is treated to graphic depictions of racial violence, seeing sickening deaths from the Tulsa massacre. While it is important that history reflects the incredible violence that plagues the United States’ history, these graphic depictions can re-traumatize Black audiences. In a time like 2020, the vivid depictions of Black people being killed in racist shows of power are not necessary, even if fictionalized or historical.
Lovecraft Country is a show with big ideas and a distinct voice. The final assembly of these elements is messy and violent, but still shows a lot of heart and care. The show has done well critically, which means good things for the future of media centered around people of color, with people of color behind the camera. Hopefully, as the genre progresses, Black horror can be interesting and scary but still a place of catharsis and relief rather than re-traumatizing audiences searching for solace.