Lovecraft Country was Great Until it Wasn’t: From Sundown to A History of Violence

When a ‘progressive’ series lacks solidarity.

This review will contain major spoilers.

CW/TW: Homophobia, Transphobia, Violence, Death

The insidiousness of racism and its evolution.

The series Lovecraft Country (2020) on HBO/HBOMAX has been a marvel of science-fiction horror history since its first episode entitled Sundown, which explored the infamous locations around the United States where Black persons dared not be — as the name implies — after sundown. After the episode debuted, many persons were shocked to discover that these places existed and persist to this day. Lest we forget, the insidiousness of racism is that it’s constantly evolving and its tendrils are intertwined with everything. On Twitter, the writer/editor @MorganJerkins is actively cataloging a list of sundown towns via an Excel spreadsheet, that consists of 200 locations and counting…

Prior to the horror history setting of racist Chicago and sundown towns, the audience is immersed in a science-fiction dreamscape where the main character Atticus ‘Tic’ Freeman (Johnathan Majors) relives his experiences abroad in the military. Spacecraft from War of the Worlds (1898), a gorgeous interstellar being from A Princess of Mars (1912), and Cthulu itself flies into the frame before being smashed to bits by Jackie Robinson. Eagle-eyed viewers will notice that the princess is non-humanly skin toned but has the phenotypic facial features of an Asian woman, more specifically Korean. The series at this time has teased a possible romantic/platonic relationship between Atticus and a woman from his service time there, but after the third episode, she and Korea have not been mentioned again.

Terrorizing people of color.

It’s important and imperative that we analyze the finer details of this series because the minutiae can drastically alter the tone of the show and what we are supposed to glean about each character’s attributes and moral center. The way that the Korean War, military occupation, and psychological warfare are generically hand-waved in this series made my eyebrows raise from the get-go because Black people’s relationship to militarized conflict is fraught and layered. Other characters, especially Leticia Lewis (Jurnee Smollett) try to engage the trauma, morality, and conscience of Tic but he disengages and subsequently deflects. Historically, Black Americans have been drafted or actively participated in every single militarized conflict since the inception of the country, but wars waged against other people of color lies in a very very grey area.

The wars waged against Native/Indigenous people of the Americas, Mexicanos, and then abroad against the Japanese, Koreans, Vietnamese, various Middle Eastern ethnic groups, and so on have not been unraveled (yet) in this series. Understandably, the latter wars are closer to our present but the power of hindsight is so strong in this series at times that I was really surprised that there wasn’t more nuance given to Black Americans that were anti-war and anti-occupation of other people of color. Remember that the persons in this series are the living descendants of enslaved people and now wrestle with the ceaseless inhumanity of Jim Crow laws.

The recreated images of Black American life, (originally) by Gordon Parks.

When activism isn’t intersectional…

Perhaps, the glaring oversight of other types of activism shouldn’t have rattled me so much but the series had laid the very important groundwork from the onset of the series that seemed to be in solidarity with freedom and civil rights. I believed that it was gravely important that the show respected the lived experiences of other non-Black people, queer, and two-spirit identities that the show at this point has been lacking. Specifically, because of the lack of care towards these persons considered on the periphery is (almost) always violent. Lovecraft Country has been doing incredible and absolutely amazing work with its Black cast members, but where the road leading to that greatness becomes bumpy is at the expense of others that are harmed and then breezed by in a scene or a smash to black end-credits.

A homosexual male character throughout the series thus far is whispered about or around, side-eyed by the protagonist, and spoken of in passing as a way to police masculinity in relation to his Father who another character assumes may be in a relationship with him. In those moments where the character could be protected or defended, the dialogue is just left hanging. (Literal) posturing is all that the character Tic gives, with a bicep flex or clenched jaw for added measure. I’m becoming increasingly nervous that the series may veer into some antagonistic ‘no homo’ hyper-masculine flexing too or that the one identifiable gay character may meet some type of grisly fate soon.

The Coding of Others.

When characters are explicitly or implicitly coded as othered we should be on-guard and hyper-vigilant about their welfare because in the hands of the wrong writer(s) their story arc may be filled with misery or death. In between the bubbling sense of dread I always have for the Black leads of the series — from racist humans and literal monsters — the fear of harm coming for other non-main characters in the series remained in my periphery. I’m glad that I didn’t get too relaxed because the latest episode entitled, A History of Violence, was just that a historical snapshot of acts of violence against intersex, trans, non-binary, and Native American/Indigenous people that are rarely examined in ‘mainstream media’.

The white occultists that have been the ‘big-bad’ of the series were shown in this episode to have pillaged information, killed, enslaved, and (possibly) enacted sexual violence against Arawak tribal members historically of South America, the Caribbean, and now of Guiana. Even with the main characters lives on the line with a ticking clock where the outside rooms are rapidly filling with water, the show made time to misgender-ogle-and shout “WHAT ARE YOU” at the two-spirit person Yahima Maraokoti whose life has been just as upended akin to theirs by white supremacist violence. The roiling discomfort of this scene is the violent (almost fetishized) horror of this ‘reveal’ made a spectacle. The camera, gaze of the characters, and the eyes of we the audience removed any autonomy the character may have had by leering at their nudity, and from that moment onward their very existence is up for dissection.

Before engaging with Yahima further though they need covering, and the chivalrous male lead does so but at the expense of the exclamation from his father seconds later — who is not reprimanded. The YIKES is still on the table, but there was a beautiful second where she/they/them are actually named. Far too often in media, we are given none or vague tribal membership about Native/Indigenous people but not more into the individual’s actual lived identity. Sadly, an interview with the cisgender actor Monique Candelaria reveals even more about the clumsiness of this episode wherein an attempt was made to interpret the experience(s) of a presumed intersex, trans, and/or non-binary individual. The only plus side of the interview is the additional translated Arawak dialogue that was left out of the episode. (Furthermore, I am not aware of the translations 100% accuracy.)

Interestingly or puzzlingly, within the interview, Monique utilizes the neo-pronoun ze for Yahima’s identity but gives no further information or critique as to why, where, or how they came across this information. There was no discussion about the gendering of the character whatsoever. As an aside, my knowledge is limited about the actor’s racial/ethnic background or tribal membership besides what’s provided on the Internet via a cursory glance (including what they’ve disclosed) so a more informed insight into the actor’s appropriateness for this part should also be considered in this discourse. Humbly, I am only equipped to engage or critique any appropriate commentary within my own identity. Ergo, I was pleasantly surprised by the episode’s intersection with other people of color in solidarity against white supremacy but was in turn appalled to not see more adeptness in the humanity building in the conclusion of the episode.

The intersection of horror and history.

Harriet A. Washington: Medical Apartheid (2006)

For context, prior to this episode was the third aptly named, Holy Ghost. Therein, one of the white occultists who was also a medical practitioner captured, experimented, mutilated, and murdered dozens of Black people. This episode had frightening resonance with stories of Johns Hopkins University and many other medical schools where Black people would disappear after dark. Thankfully, the souls of the Black people are eventually laid to rest and the malevolent spirit of the white man who trapped them there is dispatched. This was a phenomenal episode that I highly recommend, by the way, because the visceral intertwining of history and horror was chillingly brilliant. However, fast-forwarding to this week’s similar story beats wherein a Native/Indigenous person’s spirit/soul is awoken from a death-sleep only to discover that their people — their tribe has been decimated in front of them was just as nightmarish in imagery.

Hand-waving targeted violence(s).

The episode doesn’t have time to linger with the Arawak people though, lest we forget that ticking clock out there, so the episode promptly speeds past Yahima’s melancholy and grief to snatch the pages out of their hand; it should be noted, this action is done by the father character who shouted at them earlier. Never-mind, they said they wouldn’t help our leads after being leery of others who could harm them again or weaponize their people’s knowledge. The room begins to flood after their connection is severed from the sacred texts.

A mad dash is made to the exit where they must swim for their lives to an elevator that takes them back to the surface. As the characters ascend, Yahima screams in distress with an ear-piercing screech that is silenced by Atticus knocking them unconscious. They couldn’t be comforted or calmed. They just had to be silenced and quickly — violently. Moments like this in popular media are usually where a laugh track is inserted or a sigh of relief is expelled that ‘the annoyance’ is quieted. This type of weaponization of assault and methodology of control is rampant for women or femme presenting characters in media, and I was horrified to see it utilized flippantly in this series.

Speaking of horror, Yahima can no longer communicate without screeching after she is taken from the chamber where her people have been entombed. Now, their character is permanently silent in the script and from the narrative entirely as the credits fade to black when they are slashed across the neck by the character who has been antagonistic towards them from the beginning. The visceral reaction that I had to the ending of this episode was so…visceral…and familiar. Black people are often dispatched violently in life and fiction, so I knew that feeling intimately but the other jarred part of my being was the ‘queer’ Black part and the non-binary part where my pronouns and identity converge.

The visual ‘outing’ and ‘othering’ of the Yahima character was already so much to take but then to have a very specific and targeted violence enacted against them is frighteningly familiar to trans and gender-variant people. This was the one-two punch this episode didn’t need, shouldn’t have had, but veered down anyway because it’s familiar (too) and become ingrained in the culture as a trope. There are six episodes left in the series and I sincerely doubt they’ll course correct. Primarily, because the episodes already exist so there’s no altering the filmed or written content, thus what we get is what we’ll get. I’ve been genuinely excited every single week to watch this series but if this is a precursor of more abhorrent things to come then….I can’t in good conscience applaud the leaps and bounds this series has made for Black American representation while using other people as speed bumps to get there.

Writing 101.

I don’t want Black stories made at the expense of harming, violating, or killing other non-white racial/ethnic groups. This series should either act as a bridge of solidarity between oppressed peoples or it should stay in its lane and stick with the world purview its familiar with. I know this is writing 101, but write what you know (not what you think you know). Veering into unfamiliar territory results in episodes like these where everyone’s humanity is diminished in some way and perpetuates white supremacist patriarchal close-mindedness that this series claimed it was inherently dismantling.

As mentioned previously, there are six episodes left of the first season and I’m actively worried about what may slip in or be blatant visual text that marks those in the ‘othered’ categories for death. If there’s a second season, the horrific missteps that I’ve examined here should never ever happen again. If you don’t hear me writer’s room or read this HBO, rest assured I know you’ll feel the backlash from the viewers across the Internet for this.

In the meantime, I have to just sit with my deflation and reckon with the phobias and toxic material that slid so easily into this (seemingly) revolutionary show. I’m heartbroken that the show that was sweeping everything else off the table with so much grit felt comfortable leaving the homophobia and transphobia intact. I despise this familiar refrain about media that we’re conditioned to emotionally invest in because it’s important…but at what cost? Gosh, Lovecraft Country was (so) great, until it wasn’t.

(Update) The Anti-Semitism of Holy Ghost

Since the posting of this editorial, it has come to my attention (by many Jewish viewers) that there is deep and insidious antisemitism within the third episode, Holy Ghost. Therein, the character’s identity from the book was changed from Hiram Winthrop to that of a doctor named Hiram Epstein…a Jewish individual, whom would not have gained admittance into the cult by proxy of their Jewishness (and you know xenophobia).

The name Hiram Epstein was a red flag/alarm bell for many within the Jewish community who were appalled and horrified by the historical ripple effect of antisemitic tropes and antagonism. The writer Philissa Cramer unpacks everything within her editorial, especially the allegations of ritualistic murder, i.e., “blood libel” that has been lobbied against Jewish people for centuries.

*Note: I side-eyed the name Hiram Epstein in the episode, but did not have the language or personal connection to the discourse surrounding this abominable insertion. Media literacy is integral to this work.* A huge thank you to everyone who brought this additional commentary to my attention. 🖤

Sources/Additional Reading:

EIC: We Are Horror Magazine. Writer: An Injustice, Gayly Dreadful, Ghouls Magazine, Rely on Horror, SUPERJUMP, and Upper Cut!