Is "Lovecraft Country," an ambitious blend of sci-fi, horror and social commentary on racism, worth streaming? Here's what the reviews say. The HBO show will be available for streaming on HBO and Amazon on August 16.
The Show Is A Period Horror Set In The South With Frequent Connections To The Present
Based on the book of the same name by author Matt Ruff, Lovecraft Country is a gripping period horror set against the backdrop of the Jim Crow South. Atticus Freeman (Jonathan Majors), Tic to friends, is a Korean War vet who returns to his home in Chicago, following the disappearance of his estranged father, Montrose (Michael Kenneth Williams). With only a location, Ardham, in an area he calls "Lovecraft Country" — the New England region where most of Lovecraft's work is set — Tic sets off with his Uncle George (Courtney B. Vance) and childhood friend Letitia Lewis, Leti (Jurnee Smollett), to find his father. What begins as a normal trip through the American South, rife with its own dangers, turns into a fight for survival from monsters of multiple natures.
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.
'Lovecraft Country' Feels More Timely Than Ever With Its Portrayal Of Racism
For those who signed up for monsters, the series' first episode is subtle in the way it introduces them because it wants you to understand that the things slinking around in the dark aren't all there is to be afraid of. The jeering racists, threatening signs and armed gangs of white people they encounter are every bit the menace as the things waiting for them in Lovecraft Country proper.
Monsters are everywhere in Lovecraft Country […] Some have slimy, grayish skin, tentacles, razor-sharp teeth and dozens of eyes. Others are human: cops enforcing sundown policies; white business owners who won't serve Black people; white families who support the Ku Klux Klan and segregation, who prefer Black Americans to fall into three categories: servile, invisible or dead.
Often in fiction, being a magical Other — an alien, mutant, witch, etc — is analogous to being Black, but anti-Blackness is rarely explored as a function unto itself. In this diegesis, racism is a horror that exists independently of, but parallel to the dark and fantastical. Monsters aren't just metaphors, they exist and take many forms. Some wear badges, others have tentacles, but one does not negate or stand-in for the other. In Lovecraft Country racism is not allegorical.
It Also Addresses The Racism Of H.P. Lovecraft, The Author Who Inspired Ruff's Original Novel
Riffing off horror tropes from celebrated writer H.P. Lovecraft — and reacting to his open and vicious racism — the series uses fantasy and science fiction to explore what it was like to live as a Black person in 1950s America. (Notably, the series and its many horrifying instances of racism take place in Northern states, helping to dispel the notion that the Jim Crow South was the only seat of America's racist history.)
With each new episode, we gain more appreciation of the thought that's been put into every aspect of "Lovecraft Country's" production, including the cultural baggage that accompanies each reference — Lovecraft more than any other. The author was as notorious for his racism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism as for his mastery of the language of dread. The series' conceptual masterstroke is the way it links the monsters of Lovecraft's fiction and the monsters inside the characters' minds to the monsters of American history.
Among The Actors, Jurnee Smollett's Performance Stands Out
Smollett, who worked with Green on the brilliant-but-canceled slavery drama Underground, is pure dynamite as the story's wild card. There's a sequence in the third episode where Leti uses a baseball bat to attack a group of cars parked around her home by racists bullies; she plays it equally as a dance number and an action sequence, and it's as riveting as it is cathartic.
Smollett is a breakout, and given far more screen time to demonstrate her acting prowess than in her turn in February's "Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey." Leti isn't confined by stereotypes about Black women, and takes on a pivotal role in the action.
Pacing-Wise, There's Never A Dull Moment
Each hour seems full to bursting with ideas and incident, as if Green wants to squeeze in as much as she can while she has the chance. (Can you blame her? She's one of only a handful of Black series creators in HBO's long and otherwise progressive history.) After the road trip in search of Montrose, there's a crackerjack haunted-house story, and an Indiana Jones-esque hunt for treasure buried underneath a museum. So much is happening, all so stylishly presented, that each episode feels like it could last twice as long and not get dull.
The series runs through its affecting stories with astounding speed, occasionally losing the narrative thread while explaining mythology. The first two episodes, the highlight of the five made available for review, feel more like a standalone film, so centered and complete is their plot. But there's some awkwardness in the transition to new stories in the rest of the season, rendering the third episode in particular a bit anticlimactic.
It's enjoyable, in a ridiculous way; it's so heightened that it delivers a roller-coaster experience, which is sometimes all you want from a show.
Though As A Whole, The Show Doesn't Always Come Together
But by the show's third and fourth episodes, it begins to be clear that "Lovecraft Country" can't both keep up the head of steam that it builds by putting its characters through various hells on earth and, at the same time, wipe the slate clean to start over with a new scary story in every episode […] The show tends to excel with brilliantly disturbing moments — it overlays Gil Scott-Heron's "Whitey on the Moon" over some action to astounding effect in the second episode — but not so much with arcs, episodes or overall narrative.
"Lovecraft Country" is a mess. A well-meaning, well-made, well-acted, timely and sometimes important mess, but a mess nonetheless — possibly by design. And you should watch it. The disparate parts — a tough look at racism, sci-fi horror, Saturday-morning serial adventure, ghost stories — are all strong. It's the bringing them together that is tricky.
By the end of episode 3, you'll be convinced "Lovecraft Country" could go literally anywhere — and believe me, you want it to. This is one of the wildest, most exciting projects of the year.
Watch The Trailer Here
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