Living While Black in ‘Lovecraft Country’

Living While Black in ‘Lovecraft Country’

“Lovecraft Country,” which debuts Aug. 16 on HBO, tells the intersecting stories of two Black families as they travel throughout the Jim Crow North confronting monsters — some fantastical (pale gray beasts called Elder Gods) and others that are no less horrific for being based in reality (racist sheriffs, predatory oligarchs).

Created by Misha Green (“Underground”), the series follows Atticus, an Army veteran played by Jonathan Majors (“Da 5 Bloods”), as he searches for his missing father, played by Michael Kenneth Williams (“The Wire”). Carrying a copy of “The Safe Negro Travel Guide” — a fictional version of Victor Hugo Green’s real-life “The Negro Motorist Green Book” — Atticus, his uncle George (Courtney B. Vance) and his friend Letitia (Jurnee Smollett) navigate the byways and backwoods of a macabre, mid-1950s New England.

With its atmospheric blend of supernatural and societal menaces, “Lovecraft Country” follows in the footsteps of works like Jordan Peele’s “Get Out,” using horror filmmaking as a form of social commentary on American race relations.

“In horror, there’s a level of anxiety that your life can be taken at any moment,” Green said. “That’s the Black experience.”

Adding potency in this case is the fact that “Lovecraft Country,” like the 2016 Matt Ruff novel that inspired it, appropriates the frightening creations of a toxic racist in order to tell its story.

The title refers to H.P. Lovecraft, the early 20th century writer who is best known for inventing the “cosmic horror” genre and for filling his hair-raising stories with the same types of creeping dread, misanthropic characters and phantasmagoric demons that adorn “Lovecraft Country.”

He is also known for approving of Hitler and condoning lynching in the South as a necessary evil to prevent interracial relationships. (“Anything is better than mongrelization,” he wrote.) In the novel, Ruff upended this legacy by centering Black characters and making the story a parable about throwing off the constrictions of white supremacy.

“I was talking about the same things and the same themes on ‘Underground,’ and that was four years ago,” she said. “Now, I feel like there are more people aware of what’s going on who didn’t have to be aware of it before.”

“Underground,” a stylish period thriller about the Underground Railroad, was what first drew Peele, an executive producer of “Lovecraft Country,” to Green. Once he realized that she was a horror fan like him, “it was instant chemistry, instant realization that we love the same things, even though we do it a little bit differently,” he said in a phone interview.

Like Peele’s films — next up this fall is “Candyman,” which he co-wrote and produced as a present-day sequel to Bernard Rose’s 1992 cult horror film — “Lovecraft Country” wraps sly, sharp critiques within ghoulish imagery, and it is nothing if not committed to its own pulpy vision. “When a project does that boldly enough, it resonates hard,” Peele said.

“When I was writing ‘Get Out,’ I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, this could be a disaster,’” he added. “The fact that it worked just validates this idea for me.”

The show’s other big-name executive producer, J.J. Abrams (“Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker”), was similarly captivated by the “utterly fearless writing” of Green’s scripts.

“She’s so wonderful on the page,” Abrams said in a phone interview. “She has this ability to just dive utterly and entirely into what she’s doing and not look over her shoulder and worry about what anyone might think.”

In a Zoom interview with Green, who is also an executive producer, she discussed her own lifelong obsession with horror and why its sense of dread and danger is not an allegory but a living reality for Black people since slavery. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Have you always been into horror?

I’ve always had this preoccupation with what we’re willing to do for metaphorical and physical survival. Horror just moves toward that in a really easy way. I remember seeing “Aliens” and thinking: “Oh my God, you’re stuck on the ship with this alien, but you’ve got to survive. What does that bring out of you?” But my real interest started with R.L. Stine’s “Goosebumps.” It was lightweight horror, but those stories were scary to me as a kid. But I was also like, “Ooh, I’m intrigued.” Stephen King’s “It” is my favorite book of all time. I was that kid that would come to the library and be like: “There’s more Stephen King? Great.” The next day: “Give me the next one.”

While Lovecraft himself wrote racist stories and letters, did you find it refreshing that Matt Ruff, who is a white author, tried to depict the multi-dimensionality of his Black characters in “Lovecraft Country”?

I have read H.P. Lovecraft, and I understand why he has influenced so much of horror writing. But because of his history, I wasn’t a huge fan. When I read Matt’s novel, I said: “Oh, it’s legit. Thank god.”

But, here’s my thing: For a white writer not to be able to step into the shoes of people of color confuses me. That should be the default — many people of color have to step into the shoes of white people. Women have to step into the shoes of men. It’s sad that we say, “Thank you for doing some research and for actually seeing people as people.”

The novel was very feminist-forward. Leti was doing a lot of the saving of the day and was a character who had such an inner life — I wanted to see more of that. Other than giving this really beautiful gift of his book, Matt gave the gift of saying: “It’s yours now. Go for it.”

In terms of Christina, it’s really not that complicated. If we’re exploring levels of power and using magic as the overlay of that, it just felt right to explore what it means for a white woman who doesn’t technically have power to have stolen some of that power. Just like our people are technically stealing the power that was stolen from people like them. And by changing [the teenage boy character] Horace from the book into Diana, we were talking about #SayHerName [the campaign dedicated to Black girls and women who are victims of police violence]. When we were writing, we were seeing depictions of what this stuff is like for teenage Black boys. What does it look like for Black girls, who also are in a horror movie everywhere they turn?

Is it even fair to describe your show as horror? Is that too restricting?

I never thought horror was limiting. Every time people talk about “elevated horror,” I ask, “What’s the problem with the ‘not elevated’ horror?” I love slasher films like “Nightmare on Elm Street.” But when I really started to think about this genre, I wondered, “Why don’t they have Black people, or why do the Black people have to die in the first 10 minutes?” So when I read Matt’s book, I thought he beautifully reclaimed this genre space that hadn’t been for people of color.

That’s what I pitched to HBO. We can launch off the platform of his book, reclaim the reclamation, and make a television show for people of color. In that respect, the show isn’t just horror but really an all genres space. When we were in the writers’ room, we would have our syllabus for each episode. For secret societies, we thought of “The Shining” and “Eyes Wide Shut.” Or a ghost story: “Poltergeist” and “Amityville Horror.” Or adventure: “Indiana Jones” and “The Goonies.” I was like, “This can be all of it.”

But at the end of the day, it’s just a family drama, and we want to love the characters and what they’re going through. What’s so exciting is to see people of color, who don’t typically get to be in those genre spaces, in these spaces now.

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