Actress Jurnee Smollett talks with USA TODAY’s Brian Truitt about the new HBO drama, “Lovecraft Country,” and how its themes relate to the present.
The Black heroes of HBO’s new supernatural family drama get chased by snarling, many-eyed man-eating creatures pulled straight from some crazy nightmares. Even more frightening is their attempt to escape a “sundown” New England county, forced to leave at a low speed limit in their wood-paneled station wagon as an evil sheriff itches to hang them all.
Welcome to “Lovecraft Country” (premiering Sunday 9 EDT/PDT). a horror series set in 1950s Jim Crow America. The 10-episode series mixes pulp fiction with themes of police brutality, racial inequality and identity that feel so timely in a 2020 marked by Black Lives Matter and protests over the death of George Floyd. And like Matt Ruff’s 2016 novel on which it’s based, the show carries over “this idea that the human monsters are just as scary, if not scarier, than the monsters you see,” says Misha Green, an executive producer alongside Jordan Peele and J.J. Abrams.
“If I had written this, (where) you can’t be Black in a town after dark in America and there’s signs all over that tell you that, people would be like, ‘Oh, this is like a horror trope.’ And I’m like, ‘But it’s real!’ There’s so much horror in history that can be brought into the moment.”
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“Lovecraft” stars Jonathan Majors (“Da 5 Bloods”) as Atticus “Tic” Freeman, a Korean war vet and bibliophile who heads home to the South Side of Chicago to investigate the disappearance of his estranged father Montrose (Michael Kenneth Williams). A letter leads Atticus to believe that his dad might be in Lovecraft Country, an area in Massachusetts used as a setting by one of Tic’s favorites, 1920s horror author (and notorious bigot) H.P. Lovecraft. Atticus, his uncle George (Courtney B. Vance) and old friend Letitia “Leti” Lewis (Jurnee Smollett) hop in the station wagon and drive off to the Northeast, where Atticus learns of his connection to a mysterious secret society.
There’s plenty of fun to be had in “Lovecraft.” Majors describes the pilot’s bonkers opening, with UFOs, Jackie Robinson and cosmic Lovecraftian monster Cthulhu, as “Chuck E. Cheese on acid.” And Williams teases a future museum-exploring adventure as a combo of Indiana Jones, “National Treasure” and “Scooby-Doo mystery.”
But the specter of discrimination and segregation is never far away. “Our heroes are engaged in spiritual warfare because racism is a demonic spirit,” Smollett says. “A monster in front of you, you know what you’re getting. It’s just pure danger, pure terror, pure threat. Systemic racism is more clever than that, and it can throw you off your game.”
Smollett’s Leti is a pioneering Black woman who doesn’t suffer bigoted fools. In one haunted-house episode, she’s forced to deal with vengeful ghosts inside and cruel white neighbors outside, and a burning cross is planted outside her home, Leti grabs a baseball bat, and she cathartically goes to town on some racists’ cars.
The cross-burning brings out “such a rage in her, that it’s a blood memory. What I meditated on was that real, visceral, ancestral connection that I have to my people,” Smollett says. (She was influenced by her grandmother, “who was nicknamed ‘Showtime.’ So that tells you a lot.”)
“The terror of being the only Black family in an all-white neighborhood, I can relate to that growing up,” she adds. “Knowing that isolation, that feeling of loneliness, (that) the second you step outside of your home, you are not safe.”
Leti and Tic share a budding intimacy, while he and Montrose have some issues to sort out. Their dynamic taps into the father-son relationship in the Black community that’s been “severely frayed” over the past few decades, Williams says. “It’s a great opportunity to look at masculinity (and) the generational curses that we pass on to our sons and our children.”
Atticus’ enlistment in the Army drove a wedge between him and Montrose, and Atticus is reminded his dad wanted him to trade Lovecraft for “respectable literature.”
“Montrose brings it up to Atticus’ consciousness that this man you like so much is a blazing racist and has no respect and no regard for you and your people,” Majors says. “Atticus can take in the good of that and also deal with the (crappy) part of it, very much like any marginalized group in America: ‘Are there things about this country that are pretty much (messed) up, built against me and my people? Yes, absolutely. But do I still love my country? Yeah, absolutely.’ ”
Majors recalls filming the life-or-death “slow chase” in the series premiere as “quite horrifying,” and he was “throwing hands” and boxing with Vance between takes to keep up their spirits. “Historically, this is awful. This is the horror film, monsters be damned.”
As a person of color, Green has had to reconcile that horror “is not a space that has been made for you,” she says. Much of the genre in the past has been “just centered around white men.” Yet a narrative of “the other” is “baked into every basic horror story there is,” Green adds. “And to not see yourself in it, when you are the other, is so interesting to me.”
The recent rise of Black horror is exciting for Williams, a longtime fan of the genre. “If there was no ‘Get Out,’ there would probably be no ‘Lovecraft Country,’ ” he says of Peele’s acclaimed 2017 film.
“There’s a horror in just being Black. I can, God forbid, go out right now and meet my demise merely based on the color of my skin; that is horrifying within itself,” Williams says. “So to take the Black experience in America in that context and tell a narrative in the horror genre is brilliant.”
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