How HBO's Lovecraft Country confronts America's real and imagined monsters

Two families combat racism and supernatural forces on HBO's 1950s-set horror drama (premiering Aug. 16).
By Chancellor Agard

HBO's Lovecraft Country would’ve been timely whenever it premiered — whether it was after the killing of George Floyd sparked nationwide protests against police brutality and systemic discrimination, or in the relatively calmer days before the pandemic lockdown.

Boldly exploring racism through a horror-and-pulp lens, the 1950s-set drama — an adaptation of Matt Ruff’s 2016 novel — begins with three Black Chicagoans traveling across Jim Crow America; Korean War veteran and science-fiction bibliophile Atticus Freeman (Jonathan Majors), his uncle George Freeman (Courtney B. Vance), and their friend, singer and activist Letitia “Leti” Lewis (Jurnee Smollett) are in search of Atticus’ father, Montrose (The Wire’s Michael K. Williams). In addition to dealing with excessive force by police and other forms of bigotry, the trio must contend with terrifying Lovecraftian creatures along the way. The monster metaphor feels particularly potent due to current headlines, but Lovecraft Country understands that these issues are, unfortunately, timeless. “Even before coronavirus and the murder of George Floyd, when I read the scripts last year I was like, ‘This is America right now.’ That was crystal clear,” says Williams, 52.

“The hangings, the beatings, the killings — it’s the same thing that was happening back then,” adds veteran actor Vance (The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story), 60, whose character publishes The Safe Negro Travel Guide, a fictional version of The Negro Motorist’s Green Book. “I really wanted to be a part of something that was as important as delineating for people what it was [like] for us when we had to actually [travel] ourselves and figure out where we could stay, and then publish a book.… It is so sad that in this day and age we’re still dealing with the same issues.”

Lovecraft Country comes from showrunner Misha Green — reuniting her with Underground star Smollett — who executive-produces alongside J.J. Abrams and Jordan Peele. Green says she felt compelled to tackle the book after reading the chapter in which Leti’s half sister Ruby (Wunmi Mosaku) transforms into a white woman after taking a potion. “I was like, ‘Okay, this is something fresh. This is something crazy we can do,’” says Green. “Then [I felt I] had to visually see it happen, this idea of what skin color means to all of us. And so it was about going in and unpacking all that stuff and not being afraid to.” As a passionate horror fan, Green was also eager to see more stories in which the Black characters weren’t killed off first, a too-often-used trope. In fact, that trend is what kept Smollett away from the genre until now.

“It’s this radical imagining of our story. It’s centering Black voices in a genre where we’re rarely seen being centered,” says the 33-year-old Birds of Prey and Friday Night Lights alum. “The story is so ancestral. Our heroes are going on an adventure, essentially to bring down white supremacy, and yet there’s magic involved and all these supernatural elements, and it was just so incredibly ambitious and exciting.”

Exploring centuries of trauma did take an emotional toll, though, since some of the scares weren’t exactly foreign to the cast. In the series premiere, the sheriff of a Massachusetts sundown town accosts the three road-trippers, threatens to lynch them if they don’t cross the county line before the sun sets in seven minutes, and menacingly tails them to the border. “The slow chase is probably the most tense thing I had experienced,” says Majors, who was most recently seen in Da 5 Bloods and avoids driving in real life. “You see a cop car, it could be a hearse. So that sequence was extremely frightening.” But because of the comforting atmosphere on set, he felt safe venturing to these dark places. “You want the tension. But when it all came down, when it was all over, we had each other. And that’s a great theme in the [show]: that this family is so tight,” says the 30-year-old actor.

Moreover, the pain was worth it. “That’s the true joy of life, being used for a purpose,” says Smollett. “I would come home just spent, thoroughly worn out, fully feeling like I had no more to give, and yet excited to go back the next day to attempt to give more."

Eli Joshua Ade/HBO

Even though Lovecraft Country focuses on America’s sins, it also wants to have fun and vacillates between many different tones as it pits the Freemans and Lewises against a variety of mystical forces — from a malevolent secret society to poltergeists and more. “We have the ghost story. We have the adventure, the Indiana Jones story. We have the mystery story. We have the sci-fi story,” says Green. The showrunner is especially proud of the visual-effects team’s work on the series’ many beasts. Initially, the 35-year-old Sacramento native wanted to include a dragon, but that pushed Lovecraft over budget; however, she promises that the replacement monster “looks really f---ing cool. And that’s the thing, too, the idea that there’s not just one monster. I didn’t want to wait till the end of the season to see some big effects. I wanted to start in episode 1 and keep building from that.”

If it sounds like Lovecraft is juggling a lot thematically, that’s because it is; Green is confident, though, that the show can handle it, because it’s ultimately about two families’ struggle to survive. “That was the part that I wasn’t worried about going into it and crafting our narrative,” she says. “Whether it’s on a different planet, or we have an episode where we go back to the Korean War for the entire episode—[even if] it was jumping around like that—as long as we cared about the characters, we’d be okay.”

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