Lovecraft Country: Pairing The Black Experience & The Supernatural
From police brutality to derogatory language and microaggressions, racism is a wound inflicted on the black community that refuses to heal. Instead of spinning the negative events that have taken place concerning race relations into something positive, Lovecraft Country pairs the reality of the black experience with the supernatural and the genre of horror, further confirming that the gap between dehumanising black people and the literal demonisation the oppressive system of 1950's America isn't a wide as you may think.
Lovecraft Country is an HBO American Drama-Horror based off Matt Ruff's 2016 novel with the same title. Following the story of a young black war veteran returning home to search for his missing father, the plot unravels piece by piece into a juxtaposed world of fictional gore and authentic history. The series almost seems episodic and disjointed from a storytelling perspective, but the happenings are all tied together by the string that is Atticus Freeman's (Jonathan Majors) unexpected legacy. Accompanied by his troubled childhood friend, Letti (Jurnee Smollet), and his uncle (Courtney B. Vance) the trio set out across a racially tense and segregated America facing the horrors of discrimination and monsters.
With an executive production team consisting of Jordan Peele, J.J. Abrams and Misha Green - the director behind Underground - the storytelling was always going to be spectacular. The parallels of iconic pictures highlighting the separation of black and white people were recreated and then brought to life through cinematography that gave a vibrancy to African-American life in a way that most black period dramas fail to do. Although there is a fictional element to the storyline, the actuality is very apparent through facts and easter eggs. The tell-tale signs may be as small as an Aunt Jemima billboard or the well-kept secret surrounding why the White House is really painted white, but no matter how far the plot delves into the realm of science fiction, it is always lassoed back to real life. It also steered clear of horror tropes in a refreshing manner. There is no 'slow reach' for the handle to find out what is behind a closed door or frolicking away from fatal threats causing the victim to coincidentally trip- or at least, not in the case of the black characters. The reactions to danger are just as you would imagine: scream and run like the wind.
There are many instances in the show where the depiction of monsters and the act of racism are identical or there is a transformation from one concept into the other. The identical examples run throughout the first five episodes as a recurring theme. The 'Safe Negro Travel Guide', a map that indicates where in the US it is safe for black people to visit, is illustrated with mythical creatures in areas deemed unsafe. In this case, white people of the time become the monsters to be weary of, and it is most definitely highlighted by the way they run from the threat of monsters and the threat of lynching in the exact same fashion. The transformation aspect comes in the form of the wounded police officer physically changing into a monster, after being bitten, signifying their similarities of inherent ruthlessness all along.
In a true homage to its novel roots, foreshadowing and foretelling is expressed through Gothic literature and other classics. Right from the opening scene of the first episode, viewers are transported from the war trenches to an alien invasion in a way that can only be explained as a dream sequence. The series of events that unfold relates directly back to the book Atticus is reading on the bus, titled A Princess From Mars. The story talks about a soldier that is mysteriously sent to another planet, touching on the concept of Atticus being thrown into an unfamiliar world. The parallels run deeper, like when the shed is attacked by unknown creatures in the middle of the woods, George recites a quote from Dracula to describe the sounds they could hear.
"Listen to them, Children of The Night, what music they make".
It's natural for people to match the inexplicable with their imagination because that is arguably the limits of comprehension. Likening the creatures to vampires justified their need to get rid of the threat, in a way that wasn't too different from how the white population saw black people- the only and major difference is that one was a supernatural blood-sucking demon and the other is simply of darker complexion. The pairing of Gothic texts, in that sense, was very deliberate. George and Atticus' affinity to the classics not only showed how educated and cultured they both were, but how they found comfort in the idea of the 'outsider'.
The use of historical black voices to create a new line of storytelling was a standout feature. The opening line to the entire show was taken from The Jackie Robinson Story, a 1950 biography of the first black player in Major League Baseball,
“This is the story of a boy and his dream. But more than that, it is the story of an American boy and a dream that is truly American.”
Jackie goes on to save him in the dream he has, talking directly to the idea of the American dream applying to black people only when talent supersedes the status of race. Although the soundtrack veered between cultural relevance with songs like Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On and I Want a Tall Skinny Papa, all the way to current and contemporary sounds, the lack of music in certain scenes, replaced instead with voice overs was a powerful move. It felt as if history wasn't being retold, but the narrative was being controlled and put on display with a different outlook to the ‘history books’. Having the voice overs relate to iconic black figures of the time (including James Baldwin's famous debate against William F. Buckley) is ironically testament to how 'supernatural' individuals like them, as well as the protagonists of the show, truly are to stand against a regime using their lives as acts of defiance.
Despite it being a show that was criticised for its seemingly random narrative and far-fetched concepts, it is an important and indispensable story that doesn't profit off of black suffering but questions the necessity of the plight and struggle altogether. It stands as a reminder to us all, especially white viewers, that Lovecraft Country is a recount of a true story through a fictional, creative lens and not just a fairy tale.