Content Warning: This informal review by K includes mentions of racism, colorism, transphobia, and anti-Semitism.
Although I was certainly late for the Twitter watch threads surrounding Lovecraft Country (2020), I wasn’t late to the hype and the nominations it garnered this awards season. It disappointedly didn’t win much this season which I was utterly confused about, but with further reflection and putting aside my bias towards the acting, it makes a bit sense. Upon watching it a second time and reading other critical articles on the show, I realized that while there are many great and gripping aspects concocted in the show like its creative decisions and its performances, but it, like most media, has flaws.
Lovecraft Country and the praise around the series is really a result of the Jordan-Peele industrial complex and without a surprise, it’s produced by him as well. In the last 5 years, we’ve seen an influx of films and TV shows like his works Get Out and Us. While he certainly isn’t the first to combine horror and Black trauma on screen it seems that such films are being produced en masse because of the “hyperawareness” (white) liberals think they have on racial violence in America. This hyper-visibility of racial violence unique to the Black experience may make white liberals believe that they have more proximity to Black people than they really do. This is why this industrial complex (I believe) gains so much traction and acclaim.
The series opens up setting the stage for the type of show we’re about to watch; a horrifying show not just because of its Lovecraftian monsters, but also because of its racist monsters. It’s made aware to us that our main character Atticus is looking to travel to Ardham, Massachusetts with his uncle, George, to look for his father, Montrose, after receiving a letter stating he is in danger. We then meet Atticus’ childhood friend Letitia ‘Leti’ Lewis that joins them on the ride where they encounter racist officers and monsters that both try to kill them, but also save them by the command of Christina Braithwaite that is one of the sole villains (yes, villains) of the show. This is the synopsis often shared of the show, but in actuality only accounts for the first 2 episodes of the series.
Throughout the entire series, I was captivated by the family dynamic between every character, and the acting by every single actor only made it better. It felt nice to see Black people in a genre that we’ve historically been excluded from. We see afro-futurism in the 7th episode be portrayed on-screen with justice because of this combination of sci-fi and the Black, specifically woman’s, experience. I was really stunned during award season to see that it hardly garnered any acting nominations. The entire series expectedly lost best drama series to ‘The Crown’ in a number of award ceremonies.
The first episode starts off on a high note and while I was shocked and impressed, I was also confused. Lovecraft Country is a show that you have to pay great attention to; set the phone down and really listen to and watch everything the characters do or else you’re left hanging without clarity on the events of the show. However, it wasn’t until later in the show that in retrospect it probably wasn’t my attention span, but a fault in the writing.
The first three episodes are mostly great and they certainly would keep someone hooked onto the show and the mess that would come after. In the fourth episode, the show loses its footing with an ending that left many, including myself, very disturbed. This leads me into my critiques of the show and some of its problematic executions:
The Killing of a Two-Spirited Character
The 4th episode of the series leaves off on a very violent and transphobic ending. With very minimal representation of two-spirited and intersex and/or trans individuals on screen, many viewers felt this may have been a step in representation for gender-variant and Indigenous individuals. However, many people online noted that there were dangerous inaccuracies in the portrayal of the two-spirited character named Yahima. Yahima is further “other”-ized by the gaze of the other characters and the almost fetish-like movement of the camera. The episode gets worse as Yahima is brutally murdered at the end. This graphic, egregious murdering was triggering for many viewers as Indigenous people have been murdered since the beginning of colonial America. While one could argue that it is a depiction of this violence that is so often erased from history, it becomes apparent that the killing was used for shock value as it is not even mentioned once after the following episode. The showrunner and writer Misha Green apologized publicly in a tweet for the gross misrepresentation.
There is a common trope and trend in Hollywood of having a lightskin woman and a dark skin man in a relationship. We see this in a number of works both directed by nonblack and Black directors in works like Love & Basketball, Malcolm & Marie, Poetic Justice, and Lovecraft Country doesn’t come short of it. And, no the issue doesn’t lie in the fact that they’re together, but rather because the darkskin man is almost often portrayed as hyper-aggressive and violent. Both Montrose and Atticus are portrayed as so and it can be interpreted as a critique on performative Black masculinity. However, such depictions of darkskin folks can peddle into the colorist trope that darkskin people are “violent and barbaric” as they have more proximity to Blackness. These are the ways in which blackness and whiteness were structured and lightskin people, whether monoracial or biracial, have proximity to whiteness that is often not acknowledged within our own communities.
Lovecraft Country’s colorism issue doesn’t stop there, unfortunately. As mentioned earlier, one of the main characters of the show is Leti potrayed by Jurnee Smollett, a lightskin actress. All other women on the show mostly lie in the backgrounds besides the solo episode that Hippolyta, portrayed by Aunjanue Ellis, who is browskin, receives and even in it’s aftermath, her character feels like she’s mostly used as a plot device afterward. SPOILER: she’s used to open a portal to travel in the past. While she’s in a seizure-like state, Leti, meanwhile, is walking, not running, with a valuable book the family has needed to find throughout the show.
Leti has a sister by the name of Ruby, who is darkskin, and she is merely disposed of and like Hippolyta is used as a plot device. As she battles with internalized racism and wanting to exist in the world as a Black woman without interruption, she has a taste of the benefits of whiteness by consuming a potion that then turns her into a white woman, given to her by Christina Braithwaite whose is in the appearance of a male servant Atticus and co. previously encountered during their stay in Ardham. This subplot re: the relationship between Ruby and Christina full of complexity resulted in Ruby being killed in the finale. While it did kill Christina and stop her in her tracks, Leti walks out of the situation alive after telling Ruby it is her obligation to help her out because they’re family despite Leti showing on numerous occasions that she can’t live up to the same loyalty she preaches. While their relationship can be described as simple sisterly disputes, the larger picture depicts Ruby as the problem and constantly leaves her suffering while her sister receives a number of privileges.
One could argue that such depictions on screen written by Misha Green (because they aren’t present in the book) show colorism in its violent nature, but Green has said herself that she didn’t have the intent on writing on colorism and with her work she wanted to say “everything is not about colorism”. This is disappointing as she fails to acknowledge colorism plays a huge role in the dynamics of these characters and certainly outside of the Lovecraft Country world. Characterizing this show as pro-Black and concurrently failing to acknowledge the issue of colorism within Black communities feels like a misrepresentation of what it means to be “pro-Black”.
The third episode is notably known for its stellar performance by its episode main star, Leti. However, many people didn’t notice and/or take note of the name of the scientist that performed gruesome experiments on Black people in his basement. His name was Hiram Epstein; his last name considered to be a stereotypical Jewish name. This change in name is dangerous as it starts to use anti-Semitic tropes and myths about blood libels and the use of non-Jewish people’s blood by Jewish people to tell its story. In the original novel, the name of the scientist was Hiram Winthrop, which explains the name for the (Winthrop) house. This change is unnecessary and only further perpetuates anti-Semitic tropes.
Lovecraft Country is a series full of provocative revelations about the long history of racial violence against Black Americans. It included Black people in a genre in film and television that we’ve been shut out from to tell a story that felt revolutionary but, unfortunately, it ultimately peddled into violent tropes that harmed its inauthentic message of pro-Blackness and inclusivity.