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‘Lovecraft Country’ Review: HBO Tackles Racism with Confounding Jim Crow-Era, Genre-Bending Drama

Pulp noir meets Lovecraftian horror in a series perfectly suited for the madness of the year 2020.

Lovecraft Country

Courtney B. Vance, Jonathan Majors, Jurnee Smollett in “Lovecraft Country”

Eli Joshua Ade/HBO

With its atmospheric mix of paranormal and social menaces, “Lovecraft Country” uses horror to comment on American race relations. It rejuvenates the genre by not just making its heroes Black, but by setting the story in the racially segregated Jim Crow era of the 1950s, putting America’s racist history at the center of the narrative. Within that setting, the series continuously shapeshifts in episodic fashion, starting with a road trip, then a haunted-house story, an Indiana Jones-esque hunt for treasure buried beneath a museum, and more, each equally manic and, at times nearing absurdity. It’s a series perfectly suited for the madness that has been the year 2020.

The opening scene of “Lovecraft Country” is an actual nightmare, as series protagonist Atticus “Tic” Freeman (Jonathan Majors), is haunted by ghosts from his past as a soldier in the Korean war trenches. It’s a fantasy sequence filled with flying saucers, octopuses with dragon-like wings, reddish alien life forms beaming down from spacecrafts, and Jackie Robinson at bat, except he’s swinging at indescribable monsters that ooze green slime. It’s a chaotic jumble that, on its surface makes very little sense, but such is the nature of dreams.

By the end of the first episode, audiences will have witnessed skirmishes with flesh-eating, forest-dwelling, multi-eyed monsters, racist redneck cops, and white supremacists who cast magic spells, including one who believes he is a direct descendant of Adam.

That sets the tone for the rest of a peculiar series beaming with ideas (although maybe too many for its own good) — including an apparent supposition that whiteness itself is a superpower, at least from the perspective of Black people in a country with racism woven into its very fabric.

From showrunner and executive producer Misha Green, the 10-episode series follows the aforementioned Tic — a Black Korean War veteran and science-fiction buff. He journeys with his hard-wearing childhood friend Letitia (Jurnee Smollett), and peaceable uncle George (Courtney B. Vance) — who publishes a Black travelers’ guidebook — on a road trip from Chicago across 1950s America in search of his missing curmudgeon of a father, Montrose (Michael Kenneth Williams).

Tic receives a letter from Montrose, indicating the discovery of a secret birthright that exists in a strange town called Ardham. And their mission becomes a series of bizarre chimerical adventures that ensnare the trio into ancient rituals, magical texts, alternate universes, secret societies, and transmogrifying potions, as they fight to overcome the terrors of racism, as well as grotesque monsters that could be ripped from any H.P. Lovecraft yarn.

The title refers to the early 20th-century author best known for horrifying stories filled with the same fear and awe of phenomena beyond human comprehension, contemplation of mankind’s place in a vast, dreary universe, and fusion of horror and science fiction that inspired “Lovecraft Country.” But Lovecraft is also known for his virulent racism and bigotry. His contempt for Black people ran deep. In his 1912 poem, “On the Creation of Niggers,” the gods, having just created Man and Beast, design Black people as a semi-human form who populate the space between.

In Matt Ruff’s 2016 novel on which the HBO series is based, Lovecraft’s legacy is subverted by centering Black heroes and making the story a parable about dismantling a culture of white supremacy.

So far (HBO made the first five episodes of a 10-episode season available to the press), there is enough similarity to Ruff’s novel to suggest Green’s series will follow its arc, even though there are enough differences to suggest that it just might not. But, like the book, the series is ultimately a “quest” story.

As the bookish Tic says early in the first episode, “I love that the heroes get to go on adventures in other worlds, defy insurmountable odds, defeat the monster, save the day.” It’s a bit too on-the-nose, but Tic gets to become the hero of his own story, going on otherworldly adventures, defying odds, and defeating monsters, both of the eldritch and human kind, and sometimes a combination of both, during a time when “Driving While Black” was an even more perilous proposition than it is now.

“Lovecraft Country” is difficult to categorize. It’s ambitious, graphic, flamboyant, uneven, and bewildering. It’s a diverting mix of genres, wrapping social criticism within macabre imagery. It brims with ideas about race, class and gender, as well as dizzying symbolism, and is clearly dedicated to its own pulpy vision — to a fault. To mention plot specifics would spoil the series, best experienced blindly.

Each hour could stand on its own. Episodic menaces are dispatched, never to be heard from again. It’s possible these seemingly individual threads will come together during the second half of the season.

Lovecraft Country HBO Jurnee Smollett

Jurnee Smollett in “Lovecraft Country”

Elizabeth Morris / HBO

While there’s an overarching creeping cosmic threat that the series’ protagonists will likely ultimately have to contend with, it’s not entirely clear what or who that threat is. Green and company are stingy with information, teasing seemingly important pieces of the story, including one that appears to be located in South Korea, which has yet to be fully accounted for.

The series’ recurring menaces thus far have been members of a nefarious clan of Aryan cultists (Tony Goldwyn, Abbey Lee, and Jordan Patrick Smith), who are a generally bland, and at at times cartoonish, bunch. Although their presence hints at something or someone much grander and perilous on the horizon.

The series’ main attractions include its genre-busting soundtrack, which includes a mix of era-specific music, contemporary hip-hop and R&B, spoken-word poetry, and monologues, creating a unique soundscape, taking the show out of time. Audiences will get their fill of music from the likes of Cardi B, Etta James, Nina Simone, and Marilyn Manson, to name a few. There’s also an excerpt from James Baldwin’s 1965 debate with conservative pundit William F. Buckley, on the unattainability of the American dream for Black people, as well as Gil Scott-Heron’s poem “Whitey on the Moon,” which speaks to the poverty experienced by Americans as the country invested billions in the 1969 Apollo Moon landings.

The set pieces are also a draw, including some lovely period work, creating a corner of mid-1950s Chicago that feels lived-in and welcoming; it’s obvious that HBO wasn’t stingy on staging.

But the series’ real stars are the performances from its two athletic leads: Majors, who, as Tic, has muscles and charisma to spare, and Smollett, as Leticia, who is pure dynamite. They are fun to watch, and their onscreen chemistry is palpable. They complete each other. And despite the series’ dark themes, the pair exchanges enough sharp dialogue and good humor to keep the clouds from forming for too long. Meanwhile, the formidable Wunmi Mosaku as Ruby, Leticia’s no-nonsense sister with a transmogrifying arc of her own, is powerful and credible.

Ultimately, “Lovecraft Country” is a family drama about hope and freedom that stretches across time, wrapped in cosmic horror tropes, and it’s in the more earthly vignettes that the series is most effective. Although the stories have genuine moments of supernatural dread, most conspicuous is a sense of solidarity, ethics, and not yielding in the face of great evil.

Executive-produced by Green, along with J.J. Abrams and Jordan Peele, “Lovecraft Country” is a chimerical portrait of racism in America, and it couldn’t arrive at a more timely moment, as the nation contends with a vast reckoning. The rules of the world Green has created remain confounding. Still, there’s enough reason to watch, but patience will be necessary to see where it all will ultimately lead.

Grade: B+

“Lovecraft Country” debuts Sunday, August 16 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO and will be available to stream on HBO Max.

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