Review: HBO's compelling and smart 'Lovecraft Country' is the best show of 2020 so far
Courtesy of HBO
At this point I sound like a broken record, and like Spike Lee’s “Da 5 Bloods” earlier this summer, the new HBO series “Lovecraft Country” – an excellent and compelling story about reclaiming black legacy in the 1950s – expertly has its fingers on the pulse of what our country is dealing with in terms of systemic racism. If you didn’t know how filming logistics work, you’d think this show was made yesterday (at one point, there’s a shot of an Aunt Jemima billboard in the background).
Typically, a buzzy HBO series that gets a primetime Sunday night slot usually is reserved for white leads, but showrunner Misha Green upends television mechanics by turning in a smart, gory, and pulpy adaptation of the popular novel “Lovecraft Country” with fantastic black talent both in front of and behind the camera (Jordan Peele is an executive producer). Though that shouldn’t be the only reason people discover it, “Lovecraft Country” is also the best scripted television series of 2020 so far.
Green and HBO don’t sacrifice the African-American experience to tell a basic story, “Lovecraft Country” is a narrative surrounding many elements: including the demons and trauma that infects us all, the emotional turmoil of war, traveling through “sundown” counties while black, and the ongoing battle to reclaim a legacy often taken away from people of color. That alone is enough to make for a rich and engaging episodic series, but now throw in special effects driven monsters, folklore, and a dash of fantasy, not only do you get a series that’s topical and timely, but one that looks cool as hell.
Before the show delves into the wild mythology of the novel, we meet young Korean war veteran Atticus Freeman (the versatile Jonathan Majors last seen in “Da 5 Bloods”) returning home to Chicago to search for his missing father, Montrose (Michael Kenneth Williams). We’re in the segregated era of the 1950s where Jim Crow laws are still very prevalent. This might be one of a handful of shows that visualizes what the definition of a “sundown town” is, which was a way for white police officers to arrest black people for, literally, existing.
HBO, along with Green – based on Matt Ruff’s novel – doesn’t try to dance around or censor the cruel punishment of what the black community faced during this tumultuous time. And I thought good, show it, because society still needs to be educated. I don’t think it’s ironic Atticus’s last name is Freeman, considering he’s a post-slavery black man searching for his destiny and God-given birthright.
So begins the cross-country journey to find Montrose and Atticus, along with his nerdy uncle, George Black (Courtney B Vance) and strong independent love interest, Letitia Lewis (Jurnee Smollett – a revelation) hop in “Woody” – the nickname for the car – and start their travels. What begins as a harmless rescue mission, quickly detours into a pulse-pounding exercise in textbook genre thrills.
The technical aspects of “Lovecraft Country” are indeed a remarkable achievement: cinematographers Robert McLachlan and Michael Watson know how to maneuver the camera to get the best angles and production designers Kalina Ivanov and Howard Cummings work overtime to get the meticulous details of iconic novel staples like Braithwhite manor just right. Not to mention a sequence where the squad narrowly escapes monstrous beasts in the woods, that by the time we get to the manor – where they’re waited on hand and foot by William (a prickly Jordan Patrick Smith) – we’re still pulling ourselves together from what just happened.
Considering Peele has made a name for himself in the realm of the unexpected, you should keep a close, watchful, eye in the background of “Lovecraft Country” as Atticus keenness for the truth leads down some dark paths - amplified by terrific VFX work - (though, some of the episodes screened for press in advance weren’t completely finished) – that has serious ramifications and impacts on how the crew will view themselves in history.
Another fresh and lively aspect of “Lovecraft Country” is how Green deals with the female characters, making sure they’re treated with dignity and respect. Smollett’s Letitia being the prime example here, the writers do a flawless job at making the character resilient and adaptable to her surroundings, and when a group of white folk place a burning cross on her front lawn, you bet she’s out, swinging a baseball bat looking for the punks who did it. Another instance involves her going to great lengths to absolve her home of souls trapped by a demonic entity. Nothing is off limits for Letitia and Smollett is a force to be reckoned with.
Even Letitia’s sister, Ruby Dandridge (Wunmi Mosaku) who’s initially a side character, eventually evolves into an unforgettable force of nature and must constantly deal with the struggles of job discrimination.
Most people don’t remember H.P Lovecraft for presenting the black experience in his novels (in fact, he was pretty racist) but “Lovecraft Country” uses his mantra and adds a timely spin to his creations, expanding on the lore of his novels while maintaining integrity to Ruff’s vision. It’s an excellent little slice of world building and should give audiences eager for must-see television something to mull over while stuck in lockdown.
The soundtrack is made up of an array of glitzy artists: ranging from Shirley Caesar to Rhianna, and takes popular jazz, gospel, and rap songs and reconstructs them in a modern lens, further solidifying how woke “Lovecraft County” is, especially with its take on hope, despair, fear, and heritage. Some might find themselves lost in the crazy worldview Ruff and Green create (not going to lie, there were several moments where I, too, struggled to keep up) but there’s so many rich allegories to dive into that should elevate this incredibly unique television series into the biggest smash of the summer season.
It’s all you’re going to be talking about.
LOVECRAFT COUNTRY premieres Sunday August 16th at 9pm ET on HBO and HBO MAX.