“Lovecraft Country” reinvigorates horror and science-fiction tropes
ETHNIC MINORITIES are certainly in the minority when it comes to horror films and television shows. George Romero cast a black actor, Duane Jones, as the lead in “Night of the Living Dead” (1968), but non-white major characters were rare in the genre until Jordan Peele wrote and directed the Oscar-winning “Get Out” and its ambitious follow-up, “Us”. Now Mr Peele is one of the executive producers of “Lovecraft Country”, a landmark ten-part HBO series. It could be a prequel to “Get Out”, in that it combines horror tropes with America’s history of racism, and has an almost all-black cast.
Developed by Misha Green and adapted from a novel by Matt Ruff, the series is grimly relevant to the current wave of Black Lives Matter protests, but it is also a lavish period drama, complete with the gleaming classic cars and the tailored hep-cat clothes which always decorate television dramas set in the mid-20th century. The reluctant hero is Atticus “Tic” Freeman (Jonathan Majors), a tough but tormented Korean war veteran who goes on a road trip through Massachusetts in 1954 in search of his missing father. His companions are his glamorous, hotheaded friend and potential girlfriend, Leti (Jurnee Smollett), a photographer who grew up with him in Chicago, and his kindly uncle George (Courtney Vance), the publisher of a travel guide to places which are safe for “coloured” people to stay (a genuine phenomenon, as seen in the Oscar-winning film “Green Book”). Such places are few and far between—and if the small-town racists don’t get you in “Lovecraft Country”, the huge slimy monsters will.
The series’ overarching plot is the race between Tic and a secret white supremacist society to find an ancient spellbook. But every episode works as a standalone tale of mystery and suspense, much like those in “The X-Files” or “Buffy The Vampire Slayer”, except with more sex and swearing. In each one, Ms Green and her co-writers take a familiar horror or science-fiction scenario and examine how it might chime with the experiences of black Americans. In the first episode, for instance, there are fanged, vampire-like fiends who only come out at night. The twist is that these monsters live near a “sundown town” where “coloured” people will be arrested (at the very least) by the sadistic police if they don’t leave by nightfall, so the setting sun signifies two different but equally dangerous threats. In another episode, Leti moves into a gothic haunted house in an all-white district in Chicago, so it isn’t just shrieking phantoms who pester her to move out, but cross-burning neighbours. And in another, entitled “Strange Case”, a character drinks a potion which transforms them, Jekyll-and-Hyde-style, from black to white.
When Mr Peele was asked last year about casting a white leading man in one of his films, he replied that it was unlikely. “Not that I don’t like white dudes,” he added, “but I’ve seen that movie.” “Lovecraft Country” exemplifies his point. Audiences will have seen the supernatural elements before, but the racial aspect refreshes them, enhancing their potency and deepening their meaning, at the same time as educating viewers about the many manifestations of American bigotry.
Last year another HBO series, “Watchmen”, did something similar. As well as serving as a worthy sequel to the peerless comics which were published in 1986 and 1987, the show explored how superhero mythos might be especially resonant for black readers. “Lovecraft Country” isn’t quite as ingenious as “Watchmen” was. It is a handsome, exhilarating romp, but it is never particularly frightening, despite the graphic depictions of heads being sliced in two, and the humourless heroes aren’t interesting enough to care about. There is something wrong when the most compelling character in a series about racism is the blonde, blue-eyed villain (Abbey Lee).
Still, Tic and his friends have one trait which makes the show groundbreaking in another way: they are geeks. One is a female astronomer, another is a girl who writes and draws superhero comics; the two bond over their love of pulp fiction—including the Cthulhu stories of H.P. Lovecraft, even though they know he was notorious for his racist views. Usually in films, the bookworms and science buffs are white. “Lovecraft Country” reclaims horror and fantasy fiction as genres enjoyed by black people. It also shows how those genres can be improved when black people are in them.
“Lovecraft Country” is being broadcast by HBO in America and by Sky Atlantic in Britain
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