Alien spacecrafts descend on a scene of 20th century trench warfare in the opening moments of HBO’s newest mind-bending show, “Lovecraft Country” (2020–). The scene immediately focuses on a Black soldier running through trenches amid the chaos of warfare that at first shows no hints of the supernatural. The opening words, a voice-over sampled from the 1950 film “The Jackie Robinson Story,” declare, “This is about a boy and his dream. But more than that this is the story of an American boy and a dream that is truly American.” Here enter the spaceships, flying squids and laser beams as the focal Black soldier runs into the fray, bewilderment written across his face. A crimson woman descends from a spaceship to embrace him, and as they turn a great monster with wings and tentacles rises from the ground. Who is going to save them?
Jackie Robinson, sporting his #42 Los Angeles Dodgers jersey and grasping a baseball bat, splits the alien creature right in half with his bat in a rather large explosion of green goo. “I got ya, kid,” he tells the still unnamed Black soldier, and as the undead alien creature reforms behind him, Robinson turns to kill it once more. The dream sequence ends and the show’s hero — Atticus Freeman (Jonathan Majors) — wakes from his bizarre imaginings to the section at the back of a public bus; the tone is officially set for the entirety of the horror, dark fantasy and historical fiction that is “Lovecraft Country.”
The 10-episode series debuted Aug. 16 and has since been produced in weekly installments until Oct. 18. As the brainchild of such notable executive producers Misha Green of “Underground” (2016–17), Jordan Peele of “Get Out” (2017) and “Us” (2019) and J.J. Abrams of “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” (2019), among others, the show is a true fusion of genres.
The show takes place in the mid-1950s and follows the story of Black Korean War veteran Atticus Freeman, a fan of science fiction books and H.P. Lovecraft, who is returning to his hometown Chicago upon hearing that his father has gone missing. Leaving behind only a cryptic note amid a series of mysterious events, Atticus’ father Montrose (Michael Kenneth Williams) becomes the focus of the first few episodes as Atticus, his uncle George (Courtney B. Vance) and his childhood friend Leti Lewis (Jurnee Smollett) journey to find Montrose, only to uncover a much larger mystery.
Atticus and his family are some of the last, though illegitimate, descendants of a white family’s oligarchical sorcery dynasty. With the world of monsters, spells, hauntings and magic now open to Atticus and his companions, they must find a way to protect themselves from the supernatural as well as the equally horrifying incidents of racism throughout the series.
Based on the 2016 novel of the same name by Matt Ruff, the series tackles the racism of the Jim Crow era in a chillingly familiar narrative of police brutality, white supremacy and systemic oppression that is all too true of modern American society as well. The novel and the show both carry similar themes and plots to some of the most famous H.P. Lovecraft stories, and it is for these that the name is derived. In and of itself, the use of Lovecraft’s writings as a centerpiece is significant because he was a vindictive white supremacist and a self-avowed “admirer” of Adolf Hitler, but the show twists his stories to fit a different narrative: White supremacists create monsters and demons to harm the Black community.
While the show is not for the light of heart (the horror elements, sex, gore and suspense can be striking), its message is truly universal. The show focuses on the 1950s and yet the images of racist police brutality sent chills through my body and brought thoughts of the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Michael Brown, among countless others, to my mind.
The show’s soundtrack also contributes to this. With music from the likes of modern Black artists like Cardi B, Leon Bridges, Tierra Whack and Leikeli47 as well as artists from decades past like Nina Simone, Earl Grant, Etta James and Gil Scott-Heron, the soundtrack is truly a transgenerational mix of Black empowerment intended to show the continuity of the Black community’s struggle for equality and respect in America, and also the continuity of its success and strength in defiance of racism.
“Lovecraft Country” is a monumental show: It delivers weirdness, suspense, tears and a poignant reality check about the state of racism in our society today, and it does so with a unique flair we won’t soon forget. It is the perfect TV series for this moment in history.