The new HBO drama Lovecraft Country is tough to categorize. It's set in the racially segregated Jim Crow America of the 1950s. But just when you think the show couldn't be more historically accurate, it takes a turn to the paranormal.
I was often disturbed by Lovecraft Country, but not only by its monsters and evil spirits lurking in the dark. I was also filled with dread by the depiction of sundown towns, segregated buses and separate entrances. The show portrays the lives of those who were denied service because of the color of their skin. They were harassed on a daily basis. By the police. By their white neighbors.
I'm not Black. I'm not originally from America. Yet this story, which streams Sunday, resonates powerfully with me. It helped me better understand the historical complexities of the country I immigrated to.
Jonathan Majors (The Last Black Man in San Francisco) plays Atticus Freeman, a Korean War veteran with a penchant for science fiction novels. He travels to Chicago to find out what happened to his dad, Montrose (Michael K. Williams), who disappeared a couple of weeks before. Atticus ends up embarking on a road trip quest across the Midwest and into Massachusetts with his uncle George (Courtney B. Vance) and his childhood friend Leti (Jurnee Smollett.)
The trip starts with a driving sequence set to James Baldwin's 1965 words during a debate at Cambridge University about the unattainability of the American dream for Black people. Baldwin's voice isn't the only welcome anachronism in Lovecraft Country. The soundtrack is filled with Etta James and Nina Simone songs from the '60s, but also Rihanna, Frank Ocean and Marilyn Manson. There's a sequence of Leti at church that incorporates the sound from this 2017 Nike campaign that champions equality for the LGBTQ community. Audio from different eras helps link the present and past.
You can't be idle while watching Lovecraft Country. The 10-episode adaptation of Matt Ruff's novel of the same name is filled with symbolism and commentary. It includes numerous book references, from The Outsider and Others by H.P. Lovecraft to Bram Stoker's Dracula to Edgar Rice Burroughs' John Carter stories. Keep your brain on while you watch.
Nothing seems left to chance. Even Atticus' last name is purposeful. He's the great-grandson of a slave, and he's called Freeman.
Amid this summer's global protests calling for racial justice, you might think Lovecraft Country is a timely historical drama that comments on race in the US. But it's that and more. The show is executive produced by Jordan Peele (Get Out) and J.J. Abrams (Lost). Misha Green (Helix) serves as showrunner and executive producer. There's a reason this title has so much science fiction and horror cred.
The opening sequence of Lovecraft Country is Atticus' nightmare, haunted by ghosts from his past as a soldier in the trenches. But it's also filled with flying saucers and octopuses with dragonlike wings. That sets the tone for the rest of the show.
Lovecraft Country may be a case of intellectual challenge and racial criticism with a generous serving of gothic and fantasy, but It's also just a very entertaining drama. And it's entertaining without feeling like it's trying to juggle too many pieces. There are vampires and witches, haunted houses and treasure hunts. Atticus reads novels starring Confederate soldiers like John Carter, just because there are no fantasy novels starring Black heroes. He ends up becoming the hero of his own story.
I liked Atticus, George, Montrose and the rest of the Freemans. They are relentlessly bookish. Their reading habits come in handy on many occasions. They guide the viewer through the complex mythology of this story. It's much better if you hear from them why this show is called Lovecraft Country.
They're not the only interesting characters. Leti is independent and the most dexterous driver in times of need. Leti's sister Ruby (Wunmi Mosaku) is a driven and charismatic singer. Then there's Christina (Abbey Lee), a witch deeply frustrated by the limitations of her gender. "I don't know what is more difficult: being colored or being a woman," Ruby tells Christina.
Don't judge any of the characters on first impression. After watching the five episodes available for review, I realized I made a lot of mistaken assumptions about Leti, Ruby, Atticus and the others when I met them.
But you can definitely judge Lovecraft Country by its looks. It is a very sexy show, from the mean production and costume design and cinematography to the incredible chemistry between Atticus and Leti. Between George and his wife, Hippolyta (Aunjanue Ellis). And between other characters. The sex scenes are stylishly filmed and not limited to the young or heteronormative.
"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." This quote from the 1950 movie The Jackie Robinson Story appears at the beginning of Lovecraft Country and introduces the show magnificently. This is an intrinsically American story.