‘Lovecraft Country’ offers different looks at monsters

Rick's Reviews

Jonathan Majors and Jurnee Smollett star in HBO’s “Lovecraft Country.” (Photo courtesy of Warner Media).

HBO’s new drama series, “Lovecraft Country,” is a mystery and romance road story that unfolds in the volatile world of Jim Crow America during the 1950s. The trip is complicated by those who do monstrous things in the name of racism and the kind of conventional monsters and creatures one would find in the works of horror fiction writer H.P. Lovecraft.

The travelers try to decide with each passing mile which of these is the most dangerous type of monsters they must face.

Executive producer Misha Green (“Underground”) says, “I think that the monsters are a metaphor for the racism that’s kind of always been through America and even globally. For me, genre works best when it is the metaphor on top of the real life emotions that you explore in the real life problems.

“And I think that that was one of the things that was exciting to me about Matt Ruff’s book, is that he blended that very well, and we wanted to really honor that as we did the TV series.”

The series, which debuts at 9 p.m. Aug. 16 on the premium channel, is based on the novel of the same name by Ruff. The ten-episode series follows Atticus Freeman (Jonathan Majors, “When We Rise”) as he journeys with his childhood friend Letitia (Jurnee Smollett, “Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey”) and his uncle George (Courtney B. Vance, “State of Affairs”) on a road trip from Chicago in search of his missing father Montrose (Michael Kenneth Williams, “When We Rose”).

Atticus is convinced his father may have gone looking for insight into Atticus’ late mother’s ancestry. Their trek leads them to the mysterious Ardham, Ma. That’s when their real battles for survival and to find the truth begin.

Smollett, who has worked for social causes most of her life, uncovered some interesting parallels between the period in which the series is set and today’s world.

“Preparation for this definitely required a lot of research and was quite sobering to see the parallels.  The fact that the systemic racism that this nation’s been built upon, yet to be dismantled and very much so I could relate to so many instances in the text,” Smollett says. “You look at something that happens during this period like an Emmett Till and you see a Trayvon Martin. And really the story is so ancestral.

“Our heroes essentially are going on a quest to bring down white supremacy, and we are still on that quest today in 2020 as Black Americans because racism is such a demonic spirit. It’s something that we are still fighting off. One thing I love so much about the research process was going back to writings like James Baldwin or Gwendolyn Brooks or these great minds and thinkers like Lorraine Hansberry. There’s such wisdom and knowledge that they provided then that we can gain from now.  And it’s, you know, it’s humbling. It’s humbling.”

One reason the script resonates so much with the current climate comes from Ruff’s book being released in 2016. The book and series show that the racism during the Jim Crow era was not confined to the South but was prevalent across the country.

Green stresses it was very important to show how widespread the issue was then and now. Once that was established, the task was to make sure the monsters who thrived on racism were as deadly and dangerous as those who drank blood or ripped off limbs.

“We definitely talked a lot about putting them on the same plane as the monsters. That parallel was very clear for us and we were very adamant about making sure that we kept that throughout the season,” Green says. “I love monsters. I’ve been a horror fan since I was a kid. For me, again, the genre works best when metaphor is on top of something real.

“So it felt really prescient here and what Matt Ruff had done in his book to parallel how the monsters from pulp was the metaphor on top of the racism that was going on in America, and it’s still going on.”

“Lovecraft Country” also will be available to stream on HBO Max.

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