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‘Lovecraft Country’ review: HBO drama takes on the Jim Crow era

 


Black Pulp meets Lovecraftian horror in a series perfectly suited to the madness of the year 2020.

With its atmospheric mix of paranormal and social threats, “Lovecraft Country” uses horror to comment on American race relations. He rejuvenates the genre not only by making its heroes black, but by setting the story back into the 1950s Jim Crow era of racial segregation, placing America’s racist history at the center of the narrative. Within this setting, the series continuously transforms in episodic ways, starting with a road trip, then a haunted house story, an Indiana Jones-style scavenger hunt buried beneath a museum, and more, each equally manic. and, sometimes close to absurdity. . It is a series perfectly suited to the madness that was the year 2020.

The opening scene of “Lovecraft Country” is a nightmare, as series protagonist Atticus “Tic” Freeman (Jonathan Majors) is haunted by ghosts from his past as a soldier in the Korean War trenches. It’s a fantastic sequence filled with flying saucers, dragon-winged octopuses, reddish alien life forms radiating from spaceships, and Jackie Robinson in the bat, except as he swings over indescribable monsters that ooze out. green slime. It’s a chaotic jumble that, on its surface, has very little meaning, but such is the nature of dreams.

By the end of the first episode, audiences will have witnessed skirmishes with flesh-eating, forest-living, multi-eyed monsters, racist cops, and white supremacists who cast magical spells, including one who believes he is a direct descendant of Adam. .

This sets the tone for the rest of a particular radiant series of ideas (though perhaps too much for its own good) – including an apparent assumption that whiteness itself is a superpower, at least from a standpoint. blacks in a country where racism is woven. in its very fabric.

From showrunner and executive producer Misha Green, the 10-episode series follows the aforementioned Tic – a Black Korean War veteran and sci-fi enthusiast. He travels with his resistant childhood friend Letitia (Jurnee Smollett) and his peaceful uncle George (Courtney B. Vance) – who publishes a guide to black travelers – on a road trip from Chicago across America of the 1950s in search of her father’s missing villain, Montrose (Michael Kenneth Williams).

Tic receives a letter from Montrose, indicating the discovery of a secret birthright that exists in a strange town called Ardham. And their mission becomes a series of bizarre chimerical adventures that take the trio through ancient rituals, magical texts, alternate universes, secret societies, and transmogrifying potions, as they fight to overcome the terrors of racism, as well. only grotesque monsters that could be torn apart. from any HP Lovecraft thread.

The title refers to the early 20th century author, best known for his horrific stories filled with the same fear and admiration of phenomena beyond human comprehension, the contemplation of the place of humanity. in a vast and dreary universe and the fusion of horror and science fiction that inspired “Lovecraft Country.” But Lovecraft is also known for his virulent racism and fanaticism. His contempt for blacks ran deep. In his poem by 1912, “On the creation of negroes”, the gods, having just created Man and the Beast, conceive of blacks as a semi-human form who populate the space between the two.

In Matt Ruff’s 2016 novel that the HBO series is based on, Lovecraft’s legacy is subverted by centering black heroes and making the story a parable about dismantling a culture of white supremacy.

So far (HBO has released the first five episodes of a 10-episode season to the press), there are enough similarities to Ruff’s novel to suggest that Green’s series will follow its arc, even if there are enough differences to suggest it might not. But, like the book, the series is ultimately a “quest” story.

As the book Tic says at the beginning of the first episode, “I love that the heroes can have adventures in other worlds, challenge insurmountable odds, defeat the monster, save the day.” It’s a bit too much on the nose, but Tic becomes the hero of his own story, going on otherworldly adventures, defying all odds and defeating monsters, both eldritch and human, and sometimes a a combination of the two, during a time when “Driving While Black” was an even more perilous proposition than it is now.

“Lovecraft Country” is difficult to classify. It’s ambitious, graphic, flamboyant, uneven and confusing. It’s an entertaining mix of genres, wrapping social criticism in macabre imagery. It’s teeming with ideas about race, class, and gender, as well as dizzying symbolism, and is clearly dedicated to its own luscious vision – one foul. Mentioning the details of the plot would spoil the series, best lived blind.

Each hour could be autonomous. Episodic threats are sent out, never to be heard again. It’s possible that these seemingly individual threads will reunite in the second half of the season.

Lovecraft Country HBO Jurnee Smollett

Jurnee Smollett in “Lovecraft Country”

Elizabeth Morris / HBO

While there is an overall creeping cosmic threat that the show’s protagonists will likely have to deal with in the end, it’s not entirely clear what that threat is or who that threat is. Green and his company are stingy with information, teasing seemingly important elements of the story, including one that appears to be set in South Korea, which has yet to be fully considered.

The series’ recurring threats so far have been members of an infamous clan of Aryan cultists (Tony Goldwyn, Abbey Lee, and Jordan Patrick Smith), who are generally bland, and at times cartoonish. Although their presence hints at something or someone much bigger and more perilous on the horizon.

The main attractions of the series include its all-new soundtrack, which features a blend of contemporary music, contemporary hip-hop and R&B, oral poetry and monologues, creating a unique soundscape, bringing out the show of time. Audiences will be delighted by the music of Cardi B, Etta James, Nina Simone and Marilyn Manson, to name a few. There is also an excerpt from James Baldwin’s 1965 debate with conservative expert William F. Buckley on the inaccessibility of the American dream for blacks, as well as Gil Scott-Heron’s poem “Whitey on the Moon,” which speaks of the poverty experienced by Americans as a country invested billions in the Apollo Moon landings in 1969.

The sets are also a toss, including some fine period artwork, creating a corner of mid-1950s Chicago that feels lived in and welcoming; it is obvious that HBO was not stingy with direction.

But the real stars of the show are the performances of its two sporting leaders: Majors, who like Tic has muscle and charisma to spare, and Smollett, like Leticia, who is pure dynamite. They are fun to watch and their on-screen chemistry is palpable. They complete each other. And despite the show’s dark themes, the couple exchange enough dialogue and good humor to keep clouds from forming for too long. Meanwhile, the fearsome Wunmi Mosaku as Ruby, Leticia’s unadorned sister with her own transmogrification bow, is powerful and believable.

Ultimately, “Lovecraft Country” is a family drama about hope and freedom that stretches through time shrouded in tropes of cosmic horror, and it’s in the more earthly vignettes that the series is. the most efficient. While the stories contain genuine moments of supernatural terror, most noticeable is a sense of solidarity, ethics and not giving in to great evil.

Produced by Green, starring JJ Abrams and Jordan Peele, “Lovecraft Country” is a pipe dream of racism in America, and it couldn’t have come at a more opportune time, as the nation grapples with a vast calculation. The rules of the world Green created remain confusing. Still, there is enough reason to watch, but patience will be needed to see where it all ultimately leads.

Quality: B +

“Lovecraft Country” debuts Sunday, August 16 at 9 p.m. ET / PT on HBO and will be available to stream on HBO Max.

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