Towards the end of last year, we had Alan Moore’s Watchmen book reimagined for HBO, with a Black protagonist, Angela Abar (Regina King) and the integration of real-life history, such as the Tulsa massacre of 1921. Now, we have a show that takes inspiration from the work of a virulent racist – horror author HP Lovecraft – and is set in the mid 1950s (before the Civil Rights movement gained more ground in the 1960s). It is extremely complex and layered, interweaving real history with monstrous creatures, ghosts and sci-fi elements. The book Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff places Black characters at the centre of a series of Lovecraftian tales, and the book, in turn, has been reinterpreted (and, many agree, improved upon) by show creator Misha Green.
Episode one, directed by Yann Demange (Top Boy and 71), introduces us to George (Courtney B. Vance) and Hippolyta Freeman (Aunjanue Ellis), who are the authors of the The Safe Negro Travel Guide, a real book which advised Black travellers about which restaurants, hotels and sometimes whole towns were safe and welcoming to Black people (especially after dark) and which ones were to be avoided. We have already seen one take on this particular element of history win the best picture Oscar, but perhaps the less said about that, the better. George’s nephew Atticus (Jonathan Majors) returns home to Chicago after a long time away, firstly serving in Korea, then drifting somewhat, in search of work. He has come back after receiving a concerning letter from his father Montrose (Michael Kenneth Williams) and learns that he has gone missing.
Atticus is a Lovecraft fan, despite his father making sure his son knows that Lovecraft viewed Black people as semi-human, “between Man and Beast.” Because of this, he is particularly intrigued that his father’s letter appears to come from Arkham – the fictional town Lovecraft created, where he set his stories (a practice adopted by Stephen King in the creation of Castle Rock). But it turns out to actually be Ardham, Massachusetts. George, Atticus and Atticus’ childhood friend Leti Lewis (Jurnee Smollett) set off in George’s trusty (and stunningly beautiful) car Woody, in an attempt to find Montrose and undertake vital research for the Guide at the same time.
One of the main reasons to be excited for this show is the acting talent involved. Jonathan Majors is a rising star, who has put in some exquisite work in Out of Blue, Da 5 Bloods and most notably, The Last Black Man in San Francisco (where was his supporting actor nomination?!). Jurnee Smollett gave one of the best ever child performances – in Eve’s Bayou (1997) – and is having something of a ‘comeback’ year, between this and Birds of Prey. Courtney B. Vance has had a long career and recently impressed as Johnnie Cochran in The People vs OJ Simpson and of course, Michael Kenneth Williams will always be best known as Omar Little in The Wire.
The episode starts with a three minute dream sequence that takes in a battlefield, UFOs, aliens, Cthulhu and Jackie Robinson. It’s a bold opening statement that leaves us in no doubt that this show will be full of horror, sci-fi and fantasy ingredients. The episode is punctuated with mini set-pieces. Not long after Atticus returns home, there is a block party where Leti and her sister Ruby (fantastic British actress Wunmi Mosaku) sing for the crowd. This is one of the many showcases for the phenomenally rich and detailed production design by Howard Cummings and costume design by Dayna Pink.
Then, about halfway through, comes the undoubted highlight – a sequence that you might expect to be set to music, in fact uses a James Baldwin speech – taken from his opening remarks in a debate at Cambridge in 1965, over whether the American Dream is at the expense of Black Americans. This is played over a montage of images (of the trio on the road, stopping at gas stations etc), which is heavily influenced by the photography of Gordon Parks, specifically a series of colour photographs taken in segregated Alabama in 1956. This sequence is jaw-dropping and while only short, merits rewinding several times to catch all of the references and details.
One of the main historical references in this episode (and the title – Sundown) is the concept of the ‘sundown town,’ referring to places where Black people were not welcome after dark (a ‘policy’ that was violently enforced by local sheriffs, of course) and this leads to one of the most terrifying parts. Clearly the series is always going to balance supernatural horror with real-world horror and I know which one I find scarier.
The final twenty minutes is an extended sequence where things really kick up a gear and something which is simply described in the book in two words as ‘the beast,’ gets a drawn-out, gory and bloody scene, where you fully see the creature they are facing. It’s a rare example of a filmed adaptation going into more detail than in the source material.
Overall, episode one is a great set-up to what will hopefully be a fantastic series. It ends on a brilliant cliff-hanger and the period detail has given us a feast for the eyes throughout the episode, leaving us craving more. With Watchmen and now Lovecraft Country, we are finally experiencing Black characters and stories at the centre of genre television shows (crucially, with Black talent both in front of and behind the camera), as well as starting to see more in mainstream movies as well, with the likes of Black Panther, Wrinkle in Time, Get Out, Us and the forthcoming Candyman and Antebellum. It’s an exciting time and hopefully this leads to lasting change.