Lovecraft Country's unintended racial horror: How the HBO series uses Black trauma as narrative currency

Though Lovecraft Country has every flavour of creaturely nightmares, its biggest horror is the way it misuses historical woes and seems blind to its own perpetuation of damaging tropes

The New York Times October 20, 2020 10:59:36 IST
Lovecraft Country's unintended racial horror: How the HBO series uses Black trauma as narrative currency

This essay includes spoilers for the first season of Lovecraft Country.

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HP Lovecraft was both a founding father of modern horror and a deeply committed racist, a symbolic portent of the general disregard the genre would have, for most of its history, for creators and performers of color.

The HBO series Lovecraft Country, created by Misha Green and based on Matt Ruff’s novel of the same name, aimed to pull off a clever trick: to use Lovecraft’s themes (ancient cults, the cost of magic) and aesthetics (creeping dread, oozing monsters) to create a heroic narrative about the very race of people he so grossly reviled, and in the process expand the Black horror canon. In the show, which wrapped up its first season Sunday, Lovecraftian terrors appear in 1950s Jim Crow America, where a Black family faces racism, wizardry and mystifying beasts.

However, Lovecraft Country mostly delivers a muddled narrative with sloppy execution. The series seems to want to upend racial and sexual stereotypes by providing nuanced, complex characters but more often ends up reinforcing those same stereotypes, serving offensive messages about Blackness, queerness, sexuality and gender in tasteless, gratuitous ways.

The story begins with a Black Korean War veteran named Atticus (Jonathan Majors) going on a journey with his childhood friend Leti (Jurnee Smollett) and uncle George (Courtney B Vance) to track down his missing father. He’s led to Ardham, a nexus of supernatural happenings in backwoods Massachusetts — an analog of the Arkham from many Lovecraft tales — where they discover an ancient cult of white magicians who need Atticus for their nefarious plans. It’s an encouraging start, promising the kind of interwoven supernatural and societal horrors that Jordan Peele, an executive producer on the series, employed adeptly in films like Get Out and Us.

And yet, it doesn’t take Lovecraft Country long to cross the line between mining the past and exploiting it for the purposes of its convoluted fiction. The series shamelessly name-drops events and figures from Black history as if crossing off squares on a racial Bingo card.

In Episode 3, Leti buys a house that’s haunted by the ghost of a white doctor who performed heinous experiments on Black people, and by the spirits of the victims themselves. One of the ghosts is named Anarcha — a reference to an actual slave who endured surgery, without anesthesia, by the white doctor J Marion Sims, whose medical advances earned him the title of the father of modern gynecology. But Lovecraft Country, which essentially uses her name as a kind of macabre Easter egg for its own purposes, ends up doing not much more than the history books that have overlooked her.

Anarcha is not the only victim. Episode 8 begins with Emmett Till’s funeral and references his murder several times, but it has no bearing on the actual narrative; the series shows no awareness of how dropping in the tragedy for no apparent reason, other than to signal social relevance, is a graceless act of sensationalism. A jaunt back in time to the Tulsa, Oklahoma, riots also plays as an unabashed attempt to get points for relevance. (See a different HBO series, Watchmen, for a more intentional and nuanced incorporation of Black history into a fictional narrative.)

Lovecraft Country is a perfect example of a series that uses Black trauma as narrative currency. The real historical figures and events aren’t woven into the story in a way that freshly reveals or acknowledges the humanity of the victims or broadens our understanding of Black injuries and generational suffering. They’re used for show — as though adding in allusions to and scenes of Black grief may increase the series’ credibility as a woke depiction of Blackness in America.

But these choices only reinforce the message that racism is bad and that Black people have suffered — hardly anything enlightening, and hardly worth borrowing tragedies from history for those brief, ornamental reminders.

Lovecraft Country is also interested in exploring the humanity and trauma of other marginalised groups, like gay and transgender Americans. Queerness often still comes with a stigma in the Black community, so not only do we need stories with nuanced portrayals of Blackness, but of queer Blackness as well. Yet in its attempts to do this, Lovecraft Country ends up conflating queerness with villainy.

Atticus discovers that his abusive, alcoholic father, Montrose (Michael K Williams), is closeted. Though the series and Williams’ performance eventually turns Montrose into something more than a bitter, self-hating gay man cliché, the character is still fumbled more than once, beginning with his brutal murder of Yahima, an Indigenous Two-Spirit (identifying with both a masculine and feminine spirit) character the group discovers while investigating the magic cult. (On Twitter, Misha Green admitted there were problems with this subplot: “I wanted to show the uncomfortable truth that oppressed folks can also be oppressors. But I didn’t examine or unpack the moment/portrayal of Yahima as thoroughly as I should have. It’s a story point worth making, but I failed in the way I chose to make it.”)

But what comes right after Yahima’s murder has problems, too: Montrose’s sex with a gay bartender and his attendance at a drag party — glamorously shot, with oodles of glitter — come across as attempts to absolve him, as if to immediately negate and undermine his killing of another queer person of color.

There is a broader trend of queer people being punished in the world of Lovecraft Country: Ruby (Wunmi Mosaku), Leti’s sister, gets involved with one of the show’s villains, Christina Braithwaite (Abbey Lee), a white woman who occasionally uses magic to appear as a man.

Their complex relationship could have been a fascinating means for exploring race, sex and power dynamics. But it ends up being little more than a gory sideshow that ultimately perpetuates the long-standing trend of colourism in fiction: The light-skinned Leti is center stage and heroic, while her dark-skinned sister sides with the enemy and is killed at the end of the series.

The show has a strangely Puritanical view of sexuality overall. It fixates on how Atticus and Leti lose their virginity, at various points equating their relative inexperience with purity. The show depicts female sexuality as dangerous, at times explicitly so, as with the character Ji-Ah, a Korean woman Atticus falls for while he’s serving in the war.

Ji-Ah, who was molested by her father when she was a girl (and curiously defends her stepfather’s love for her, reasoning the abuse away), is possessed by a nine-tailed fox spirit and can only regain her humanity by sleeping with 100 men and killing each of them with tentacle-like tails that emerge from her body. Little more than a plot device for foreshadowing Atticus’ death, she is a classic Dragon Lady: the deceitful Asian seductress. Her sympathetic backstory does little to save her from her tentacled vagina and its loaded symbolism, nor us from the sight of it.

Lovecraft Country has good intentions, and there are faint, brief glimmers of the incisive show it could have been.

In Episode 8, Atticus’ young cousin Diana (Jada Harris) is the victim of a racist white cop’s magic attack and is chased by two demon girls from the cover of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The girls, Topsy and Bopsy, with their wild hair, crude red smiles and minstrel movements, convert the racist pickaninny stereotype into a living threat. The way Diana herself — along with her family — fights her mystical transformation into one of these girls after she’s overcome by them is the show’s way of literalising what it is trying so hard to do: invoke historical instruments of oppression, then actively fight against them with well-drawn Black characters who take ownership of their stories.

However, what this more often amounts to, in practice, is racial revenge fantasy. Racists are bashed with baseball bats, raped with stilettos, torn apart by beasts. In the finale, Atticus and Leti summon their ancestors to help them resurrect a slave owner so Atticus can pin him down and tear into his chest with a knife to finish a spell. Are Black viewers meant to enjoy this? Take it as a fictional act of reparations? If so, Lovecraft Country thinks little of its audience, to expect our satisfaction at mere brutalisation.

The series leads toward a profound act of reclamation that costs Atticus his life (and we get yet another trope: the Black man as sacrifice). By the end of the story, it’s revealed that magic belongs not to white people but Black people, and Atticus’ death helps ensure that only Black people may use it going forward. It seems that we’re meant to applaud the final scene when Diana, now accompanied by a Lovecraftian beast trained to obey her, dispassionately kills Christina.

But this conclusion serves to limit the agency of its Black heroes. They spend 10 episodes being manipulated behind the scenes by white people with magic and at every chance opt to use the same means used against them to fight back — they lack the imagination to do anything other than repeat the actions of their enemies.

The ultimate irony at the end is that what these characters achieve is literal "Magical Negro" status — a final embrace of stereotypes from a show that aspires to upend them. Though Lovecraft Country has every flavour of creaturely nightmares, its biggest horror is the way it misuses historical woes and seems blind to its own perpetuation of damaging tropes.

Audiences deserve more than the racist legacy of Lovecraft, of course. But they also deserve more than what Lovecraft Country offers instead.

By Maya Phillips c.2020 The New York Times Company

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