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Lovecraft Country asks us who the real monsters are

Olivia Olphin August 18, 2020
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Jordan Peele’s new executive produced series Lovecraft Country debuted on HBO early this Monday morning. The much-anticipated series based on the work of HP Lovecraft is a whirlwind of genres and a thrill ride from the outset. The show walks the fine line between supernatural thriller and gritty realistic drama, showing us the realities of our present through the lens of our history.

When watching the show we must ask ourselves. Who are the real monsters here? 

Warning! Spoilers ahead!

Photo by Mary Mathis for The Washington Post via Getty Images

What is the show about?

The first episode follows a young, Black, Korean-war veteran Atticus Freeman (Jonathan Majors) travelling back from the South, to find his father who has been reported missing.

About Last Night | Season 1 Official Trailer | Studiocanal International

He teams up with his uncle (Courtney B. Vance) and old friend Letita Lewis (Jurnee Smollett), embarking on a journey to the ambiguous Lovecraft Country. Their journey is cut short by encounters with racist townsfolk and deeply corrupt police officers.

The series combines a multitude of genres including sci-fi, horror and fantasy. Lovecraft Country continues to subvert traditional horror tropes which left Black characters as supernatural cannon fodder, the first to die, or as barbaric villains. However, where the show really excels is in its depiction of the 1950’s, Jim-Crow-era Black American experience and the parallels drawn between the monsters of our imagination and the human monsters of our reality. The show’s creator Matt Ruff stated, ‘I needed a thematic bridge between paranormal horror and the horrors of racism’. In a show full of supernatural creatures, the lasting horrors are the reality of racism, segregation and police brutality that plague the African-American community.

Monstrous People

In Lovecraft Country supernatural creatures are a dangerous threat, but humans are the real monsters. History.com explains that ‘The legal system was stacked against Black citizens, with former Confederate soldiers working as police and judges’. The very institutions meant to protect are the very institutions that do the most harm.

This institutionalised corruption is shown in the first Lovecraft Country episode through the character of the Sheriff, who reminds our trio that this is not only a ‘sundown town’ but a ‘sundown county’. He gives them seven minutes, until the sun sets, to get out of the county lines or they will be killed. This scene is a masterclass in acting, scriptwriting, and filmmaking. The Sheriff approaches slowly in the background of the shot, with our protagonists in the foreground. He is an unnerving presence infiltrating the space of our main characters. 

More than the many-eyed monsters, it is this scene that you remember, the intimidation and degradation of Atticus and the exultant power that the Sheriff feels holding his life in his hands. The Sheriff plays with them like rats in a trap, and although they make it out of the county, he has more officers waiting to bring them straight back. This scene highlights the historic power imbalance between the White law enforcement and Black community in America. A battle that is still being fought today with the reignition of the Black Lives Matter movement. 

Humans literally become monsters. The Sheriff transforms into a hideous creature.  But the show asks you to question, wasn’t he already one before?. 

Photo by Library of Congress on Unsplash

Monstrous Institutions

The first line of the episode comes as Atticus wakes up from sleeping on a bus, as a fellow passenger remarks, ‘just going over another bridge named after a dead slave owner’. The show is touching on the brutal history of American slavery, but more importantly, how this history is embedded into the very structures of American society, in bridges and town names. Here the very history of slave ownership is a spectre in society, a monstrous reminder of a brutal past. It is no wonder that Atticus wishes ‘Good riddance to Old Jim Crow’. This is directly relevant in modern society as there has been a recent backlash against statues of slave owners, most recently the toppling of the Edward Colston statue in Bristol

This is a show very much rooted in the realities of Black experience in the 1950s but extremely relevant to modern day America. The complexities of history, politics, human experience and connection are all explored within a tightly compact first episode. This is not only gripping television, it is a series holding up a mirror to the monsters living within us all.

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Olivia Olphin is an English Literature graduate and a film and literature fanatic. She has many years of reviewing experience, recently working as accredited press for the London Film Festival. She has also written widely about culture and sex education, as well as LGBTQ+ and women's issues.