If Green Book already looked like a laughably sanitized history lesson when it won Best Picture in 2019, HBO’s Lovecraft Country does the film no favors.
Instead, the utterly absorbing new horror series uses the thinly veiled Safe Negro Travel Guide—among many other things—to show how truly ominous, foreboding, and brutal the 1960s could be for Black people who didn’t keep a white savior close by.
Not that America is, by any means, out of the woods yet.
Lovecraft Country, adapted from the Matt Ruff novel of the same name, continues down the path of HBO’s recent hit Watchmen by depicting America’s deep history of racism through a genre lens. While Watchmen introduced many white viewers (including the author of this post) to the Tulsa Massacre of 1921, Lovecraft Country provides those same viewers with a more accurate vision of what Sundown Towns entailed than Green Book did. It’s a hodgepodge of history and horror that takes its thrills from monsters both real and imagined.
“You think you can forget the past,” George Freeman (Courtney B. Vance) tells his nephew Tic (Jonathan Majors) early on in the show. “You can’t. The past is a living thing. You owe it.”
This warning proves well-founded. In a later episode, white wizards use magic enchantments to make some of the characters forget what has happened to them. Kind of like how the Tulsa Massacre was almost erased from collective memory. But the power that comes with knowing one’s history is both part of the show’s plot—and its purpose.
Lovecraft Country is the New England setting author H.P. Lovecraft used in many of his creature-packed horror stories, blurring the lines between real and fictitious locations. In the HBO series, Korean War vet Tic Freeman decides to drive through the area during the twilight of the Jim Crow era to look for his missing father, Montrose (Michael K. Williams), with his uncle George and his love interest, Leti (Jurnee Smollett), in tow. Since Lovecraft Country happens to be filled with some of the same beasties that populated the (notoriously racist) author’s stories, many strange things happen along the way.
There’s an anthology quality to the show, due to its sudden minor time jumps and tonal shifts. The second episode is about secret societies, for instance, while the third is a straight-up haunted house story. The series is anchored, though, by a greater mythology around Tic’s past, not to mention the kind of cohesive storytelling that unfolds in highly qualified hands.
Creator Misha Green developed Lovecraft Country as the follow-up to Underground, her previous period piece, which chronicled life with the Underground Railroad for two seasons on WGN. She also received some input on the new endeavor from high-profile executive producers J.J. Abrams and Jordan Peele.
The latter’s influence is all over this project.
The title, Get Out, is what audiences screamed at Daniel Kaluuya’s Chris all throughout Peele’s 2017 breakthrough film, imploring him to flee a house full of quietly hostile white people. In the third episode of Lovecraft Country, the spirit of a dead white scientist roars, “Get out of my house,” to the building’s new Black tenant. (Yes, even the ghosts in this show are racist.) The difference between the present day that Peele inhabits with Get Out, and the past as epitomized by this show, is merely the volume of that hostility. What both have in common is the concrete belief that the harbingers of it can be just as scary as any monster.
Indeed, the most terrifying figure in the series premiere isn’t the toothsome beastie that awaits in the woods; it’s the sheriff who makes our heroes race against the rapidly dwindling daylight on their way out of his sundown town.
Viewers who know their history know that this monster is real.