When you imagine characters on screen thumbing through a copy of Alexandre Dumas's The Count of Monte Cristo or Bram Stoker's Dracula, you probably conjure up images of white males at the center of a haunting story. And to that end, road trip films and TV series also typically have white male leads. But the fact that showrunner Misha Green's spellbinding Lovecraft Country defies genre stereotypes with fantastic Black talent both in front of and behind the camera isn't what should attract audiences (though obviously that is a plus); viewers should watch it because it's just that good.
The HBO series doesn't sacrifice its blackness to tell a rich and compelling story that is just as much about horror and trauma as any genre classic. Lovecraft Country's running themes — the emotional scars of war, traveling while Black, and the ongoing struggle to reclaim Black legacy — are all symptomatic of many Black experiences. What further catapults the series into the genre space is elements of biblical folklore, fantasy, and special effects-driven monsters.
But it all starts with something that seems quite simple: a young Korean war veteran named Atticus Freeman (the wonderful Jonathan Majors) returning home to Chicago by bus to see about his missing father, Montrose (Michael Kenneth Williams). It's the 1950s era of Jim Crow, so informed audiences may not flinch when phrases like "sundown town" are stated to indicate locations where Black people are criminalized for literally being in the wrong place at the wrong time — in a white town past sundown. Or when white neighbors set a cross on fire in their Black neighbors' front yard to antagonize them out of the area.
Green, working from Matt Ruff's acclaimed novel of the same name, doesn't shy away from any of that. Rather, it serves as fuel for many of the more fantastical drama that occurs. Atticus's last name, Freeman, is not lost on viewers as he is a post-slavery era Black man traveling across the country — and ultimately an adjacent dimension — in the name of justice and a better understanding of his birthright.
What starts as a rescue mission to find Montrose turns into an increasingly dangerous and thrilling adventure to watch in the spirit of the aforementioned Dumas novel. Like Edmond Dantès, Atticus is not only interested in his father's freedom from the clutches of who knows what. He also wants to free himself and his people from a long history of abuse and segregation. With his uncle and fellow bookworm, George Black (Courtney B. Vance), and fiercely independent love interest, Letitia Lewis (Jurnee Smollett), in tow, Atticus drives into a hotbed of midwestern plantations that are even more noxious than they already seem.
Production designers Kalina Ivanov and Howard Cummings, along with cinematographers Robert McLachlan and Michael Watson, introduce the Braithwhite manor, which is drenched in as much decadence, with its vast library and vintage wardrobes, as peril lurking in its acres of land. After narrowly escaping mysterious monsters in the forest (in an ambitious sequence sure to insight nightmares), the central trio happens upon a mansion inhabited by dubiously welcoming residents like the platinum-haired William (Jordan Patrick Smith) who waits on them hand and foot.
As anyone who has seen Jordan Peele's Get Out (Peele is also an executive producer on the show) could probably tell you, one should never let their guard down. Atticus's curiosity and sheer determination lead him and his two confidantes down a terrifying path — though lessened by occasionally mediocre effects — that impacts how they view themselves and their history and motivates them to redefine their destiny.
Though race adds a timely layer, another thing that sets Lovecraft Country apart from its genre precedents is its gender politics. Though much of the plot lies in Atticus's hands, Green and her team ensure that the storylines of his female counterparts are just as compelling. Like the great Dorothy Dandridge in the same era, Smollett's Letitia is a natural resister who is capable and resilient. She's willing to swim to the deepest parts of water to reclaim a clue to this endless mystery as well as stand up against both her racist neighbors and horrifying spirits from another time.
Meanwhile, Letitia's sister, Ruby Baptiste (the stunning Wunmi Mosaku), an initially peripheral character who becomes an unforgettable force, battles a threat that alleviates one challenge she faces as a Black woman contending with job discrimination yet thrusts her into danger contiguous to that of her kin. In a somewhat bottle episode, we see how the complexities of identity propel the overarching narrative.
The same is true for Montrose, who in lesser hands may have been one-dimensional. But Williams' portrayal highlights an oft complicated relationship between race, sexuality, and masculinity in an era of violent discrimination.
It's been nearly a century since the death of the series' titular inspiration, Howard Phillips "H.P." Lovecraft, who helped legitimize speculative fiction (one of his books also makes a cameo in the series). Lovecraft Country takes what he did and adds a timelessness that further expands the boundaries of the genre and its relationship with the real world at a time when audiences just so happen to be hungry for it.
Even with a soundtrack featuring gospel, jazz, rap, pop, poetry and metal-everything from Shirley Caesar, Etta James, and Marilyn Manson to Cardi B, Gil Scott-Heron, and Leon Bridges, Lovecraft Country manages to holistically comprise feelings of hope, love, despair, and fear into a fascinating story. Though some of the storytelling may baffle viewers unfamiliar with certain folklore (truthfully, I was a bit lost at times), all will be captivated by the multi-layered performances and immersive storytelling.
Just four years since Ruff's novel yet Lovecraft highlights the kind of historical research, visual world-building, and characterization of at least a decade in the making. Remarkable.
TV Guide Rating: 4/5
Lovecraft Country premieres Sunday, Aug. 16 at 9/9c on HBO.