[This review is based on the first five episodes of Lovecraft Country. The ADR nor the VFX were complete, so I won’t comment on those.]
If you’ve been reading The Nerds of Color for any length of time, you know that I routinely eschew the traditional review format. I don’t find it terribly interesting to read and I’m not a really big fan of writing that way. As I only cover the things I enjoy, I write endorsements instead of reviews and I am endorsing Lovecraft Country, with a few caveats.
Based on the 2016 novel by Matt Ruff, Lovecraft Country is a television milestone in so many ways. It’s the first horror tv show starring an almost all Black cast, focused on multiple Black characters, and each of the Black characters have some agency, some stake in the tale, presented as prestige television. This alone should be enough to put it in the running for GOAT status.
You can look on Wikipedia or IMDB for who plays whom. Just know that the acting is almost uniformly engaging, with some exceptions I’ll get to.
Why Lovecraft? How could a virulent racist’s work be used to tell the story of Black folks in the height of the 1950s Jim Crow era United States? Surprisingly, very little. While I’m fully on board, there isn’t too much “Lovecraftian Horror” in Lovecraft Country. To be Black in the US, especially before the Civil Rights Movement was in full swing, was to be afraid most of the time. You go to the wrong town, the wrong restaurant, the wrong store and you could be assaulted, assaulted and jailed, or killed. No help would be available. You were completely and utterly on your own. The universe didn’t give one shit about you.
The cosmic horror of the Lovecraftian Mythos cannot even hold a candle to the cloak of fear Black folks wore, say, driving from down south up to Chicago, or from Chicago to New England. The quintessentially American activity of the cross-country road trip, something white folks enjoyed as a matter of course is the starting point of one long episode of hypervigilance, terror, and anxiety for Black folks.
This is where I get hung up by my biases.
Racism is scary. Jim Crow era racism was particularly scary. In the story-world of Lovecraft Country, the supernatural exists, but a hint of a haint isn’t nearly as terrifying as a row of white people in front of the house you’ve just purchased, letting you know that you don’t belong in that neighborhood.
The things that worked for me:
The opening handful of minutes of the first episode embodied, for me, what it is like to be a Blerd/AfroGeek/Black fan. Like Hermes sacrificing one of Apollo’s sacred bulls to the gods while cutting himself a piece to affirm his divinity, we will make a place for ourselves in these genres, even if we have to use a bat to do so. I hollered so loudly at that scene.
When something was scary, it was scary. There were some scares that were honestly earned and were exhilarating.
1950s Black life was portrayed with such love and affection and attention to detail that it felt like one of the most full-realized Black cultural spaces I’ve ever seen on television. From the music, the clothes, the slang, the dancing, the physicality of the actors — it was a marvel to behold.
Letitia “Leti” Lewis played by Jurnee Smollet-Bell. She’s an absolute firebrand. Whenever she’s on the screen, she forces you to pay attention. I found that she was the most effective in the quiet, inter-character moments. There’s a lot of subtlety there. A glance. A quick smile. A head tilt. When she’s talking shit. But when she’s at full volume, it’s just loud and some of what makes her such a wonderful character actor gets lost.
The affection and tenderness shown between Hippolyta Freeman (an on-fire Aunjanue Ellis) and George Freeman (a lovingly mischievous Courtney B. Vance). Their relationship was #SuperGoals. Jonathan Majors as Atticus “Tic” Freeman. This brother is our next major, major force of acting nature. Jada Harris is pure #BlackGirlJoy and determination. Wunmi Mosaku, as Leti’s half-sister, Ruby, has the most harrowing arc of all the characters. Black longing, loathing, gendered pathology, all in one performance. She out acts everyone, and this is no small feat, considering the company. A brief aside: If someone decides to do a Sister Rosetta Tharpe biopic, Wunmi Mosaku was made for the role. No one else. Only her.
The sonic anachronisms were such a welcomed treat. Misha Green (showrunner/co-creator) used the same technique of adding contemporary music to a period piece in her previous show, Underground, but I’d make the argument that these anachronisms work better in Lovecraft Country because of the new Black modernity being presented.
Black folks deserve a horror, science fiction, fantasy show that speaks directly to Black hope and Black Fear and Black life. Lovecraft Country does this using Blackness as the story-world default, and not as some kind of trauma-addendum.
And speaking of trauma… One of the things that bothers me about horror movies is that we rarely get to see what happens to the characters, post-exposure horror. Lovecraft Country explored post-horror trauma, the trauma of racism, inter-generational trauma, and the trauma of the 1950s ideas around gender and power.
Body horror. Yo. You really ain’t ready. I loved every disgusting, sloppy, creaky, and snapping minute of it.
The love and the power of literature and literacy. There are so many literary references both blatant and Easter egg-y that I hope someone does a Lovecraft Country syllabus. Word to Candice Benbow and her indispensable Lemonade syllabus.
The things that didn’t work for me:
I love all things pulp. Lee Falk’s creations, Doc Savage the Man of Bronze, Weird Tales, Secret Agent X — pulp is not just a medium, it is also a language. The language of pulp is one of shadow, mystery, derring-do, and kinetic energy. At times, Lovecraft Country felt more concussive and percussive than kinetic. Kind of threw some of the rhythms off. Just like fight scenes, adventure is a language. The pulp-y adventure scenes were tepid and overly-citational. I spotted Indiana Jones, The Goonies, and a host of other films. While these could be considered homages, it felt like the second unit director did not have an action adventure language of their own, so borrowed someone else’s tongue without knowing the basics.
The sex scenes were wack. All those sexy ass people but the sex scenes played like a bad school play. They were about as sexy as a Furby.
Lovecraft. A lot of reviewers (and viewers) talk about how Lovecraft Country reclaimed H.P. Lovecraft. But I wonder how you can reclaim something that was never yours? However, I do believe you can remix Lovecraft and as Eric Molinsky offers on his wonderful podcast, you can invert him. Which the show does, with varying degrees of success. While I get that the show is an adaptation of Ruff’s novel, which was a remix of the Lovecraft mythos, it didn’t have to be. I feel that this could have been a wonderful slice of horror without the added weight of the Lovecraftian, something the book itself didn’t do too well. I’m about 50/50 on the book. I would have loved to have seen this story in a stand-alone story-verse. Being beholden to Lovecraft limits the story, especially when you’re wanting to draw racism allegories. Lovecraftian horror has given us a lot, and there are some wonderful examples of how he’s been remixed to incredible effect, peep this and this.
Pacing. Ruff’s book was basically a loosely connected anthology. The show does the same, and is weaker for it.
Despite my criticisms, I love the show. I’ll rewatch the first five episodes, and will finish the series. When and where it is inventive, it is wholly new and exciting. When the actors are on, they are magnetic. When it is scary, it is really freaking scary. Come to Lovecraft Country for the representation, inclusion, and agency of Black life in horror/science fiction/fantasy. Stay for the “no they didn’t just do that. Oh, my damn.”