Review: ‘Lovecraft Country’ is a middle finger to a century of racist sci-fi
That “Lovecraft Country,” which premieres Aug. 16 on HBO, has something to say about the ordinary horrors of racism as well as the cosmic ones of fantastic fiction is mixed into its foundation.
Matt Ruff, on whose 2016 novel the series is based — sometimes closely, sometimes loosely — was inspired in part by Pam Noles’ 2006 essay “Shame,” about the unbearable whiteness of sci-fi and the difficulties it presents to what she calls a “FoP,” as in, “Fan of Pigment,” and in its particulars by “The Negro Motorist Green-Book” and by James W. Loewen’s study “Sundown Towns,” as in “get out by.” (Ruff is white; series developer Misha Green, who previously wrote for the sci-fi series “Heroes” and “Helix” and created “Underground,” as in Railroad, is Black.)
There is a natural temptation to compare “Lovecraft Country” to “Watchmen” — which also put Black heroes and Black history at the center of a genre piece — and, because Jordan Peele is an executive producer (along with J.J. Abrams and others), to Peele’s watershed satirical horror movie “Get Out” — which, like “Lovecraft,” is a tale of white people using Black people for their own ends. But, while not without interest, “Lovecraft” is something less than either.
The racism of H.P. Lovecraft, an influential writer of pulp fiction and weird tales, is well-known; indeed, it’s a point the characters explicitly discuss. The difficulty he and other old-time genre writers present for FoPs, and more enlightened readers of lighter shades, is expressed by Atticus (Jonathan Majors), a Black science-fiction fan and Korean War veteran, to a fellow traveler on a bus home to Chicago. (They’re in the back of the bus, being Black.) “Stories are like people,” says Atticus. “The author doesn’t make them perfect, you just try and cherish them, overlook their flaws.” Still, both Ruff’s book and Green’s series function as much as critique as celebration; the mere fact that the series’ heroes are all Black is in itself a riposte to the early 20th century author, spitting in his otherwise admired eye.
“Watchmen,” the revolutionary HBO series about a Black vigilante superhero, planted its groundbreaking flag at the 2020 Emmy nominations Tuesday morning.
Atticus, who is of a serious, somewhat dreamy disposition, has received a letter from his father, Montrose (Michael Kenneth Williams), with whom he has issues, indicating the discovery of “a secret legacy, a birthright that’s been kept from you” in a place Atticus first misreads as Arkham, the fictional Massachusetts town in which Lovecraft set many of his stories. It turns out the town is actually called Ardham, because Arkham is “fictional,” or more fictional, in the context of the series, but it’s a moot point: Here Be Monsters, including what looks to be a shoggoth, Lovecraft’s own many-eyed blob.
He makes the trek into darkest New England in the company of his Uncle George (Courtney B. Vance), a fellow sci-fi fan and publisher of the “Green Book"-inspired “Safe Negro Travel Guide,” and childhood friend Letitia (Jurnee Smollett), whom the series promotes to a love interest for Atticus, not wanting the attractiveness of its leads to go to waste.
When, having braved racist townspeople, a racist gas station attendant, racist cops and the aforementioned blob, they finally come to the Gothic pile where they expect to find Montrose, they are greeted by a troika of characters (Tony Goldwyn, Abbey Lee, Jordan Patrick Smith) so pop culturally Aryan that one expects them to break any minute into a chorus of “Tomorrow Belongs to Me.” There are secret doors, magic spells and the familiar sight of rich old jerks in monkish robes conducting quasi-religious rites in the pursuit of unimagined power and some decadent idea of purity. Classic and evergreen.
This is only an opening chapter. Ruff’s book is constructed as a set of linked short stories, and the series too has a semi-anthological structure that plays with different sorts of stories and moods — a haunted house, an underground quest, ancient texts, magical space travel — in and among the merely human intrigue, squabbling, family business and love stuff. (Even the “chosen one” status Atticus is accorded — I was going to write “enjoys,” but “suffers” is closer to the mark — in the opening episodes subsequently fades.) Only the first five episodes, of 10, are out for review; so far, there is a substantial enough resemblance to the novel to suggest that the series will follow its arc, even as there are differences enough to suggest that it might not.
The opening scene of “Get Out,” a satirical horror-thriller perfectly tailored to our post-postracial moment, is so cleverly composed and effortlessly subversive that writer-director Jordan Peele never quite manages to top it.
There are departures from the page; fans of the novel, and I know they will be in the minority of viewers, will note some gender swapping, some new sexual identities. There is not much in the way of sex, or sexual identity, in the book, but this is premium cable television and so ... there is. And Green has made sure to interpolate or amplify other sorts of action — car chases, gun battles, flooding underground passageways, decapitation — to keep things lively. Smollett is especially good at taking a heroic stance. She is the character you most don’t want to mess with, though it’s Wunmi Mosaku, as her economically frustrated sister Ruby, who makes the greater impression, in a transmogrification storyline. (Jamie Neumann is also fine as the Hyde to her Jekyll, or maybe the other way around.) Ruby sings the blues, too, and rhythm & blues, and Mosaku should be first in line for the Sister Rosetta Tharpe biopic you can put on your schedule now, studio heads.
But the series can also feel overheated, over-motivated, muddled and unsubtle, and not just because every single white character is trouble, if not implausibly so, on a scale from casually clueless to actively evil. Its emotional volume has a way of drowning out its humor. “Watchmen” could be kind of a conceptual mess too, but it was impossible to miss its ambition — even its daffy obscurity had a way of coming across as gravitas — and arriving when it did in the life of the nation, it seemed to be not merely a harbinger of rising consciousness, but a contributor to it. “Lovecraft Country” has a sense of timeliness as well. When police arrive at the scene of a disturbance, the Black crowd adopts a “hands up, don’t shoot” posture; taken into custody, Letitia is subjected to the sort of bruising police van ride that led to the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore in 2015.
There is much of interest in “Lovecraft.” The set pieces are well done: Some money and care has been expended on staging, not just as regards the spookier special effects, but on some very nice period work, creating a corner of mid-1950s Chicago that feels inhabited and inhabitable; party and bar scenes are well-populated and choreographed. The monster attacks, crazy dream sequences, scenes that borrow with no embarrassment from “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and the places “Raiders” borrowed from, all work as they’re meant to.
“We need to follow the logic of adventure novels,” Montrose declares at a critical junction, and they do.
When: 9 p.m. Aug. 16
Rated: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)
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