The slithering supernatural creatures stalking her in the shadows weren’t what put Jurnee Smollett in the appropriate frame of mind to film the new HBO horror series “Lovecraft Country.”
What terrified the actress was shooting the scenes in which her character, Letitia, had to face racist white police officers wielding shotguns in their arms and derision in their eyes. The series, which debuts Sunday at 9 p.m. Eastern, may be set in the Jim Crow era, but it’s disturbingly topical right now.
“The moments in which I was put in the back of a cop car or searched by an officer, I think about friends, I think about my siblings, I think about stories that I’ve heard,” Smollett said. “I don’t have to go very far to pull from the source — it’s right here. We see that the systemic racism that this nation is built upon has yet to be dismantled.”
“These stories are not just very timely, they’re personal,” added the actress, who has childhood memories of a dead fish left on her family’s lawn on the morning of the 1995 Million Man March and seeing her mom being called the N-word.
“I don’t think as a Black American you have to pull very far to access the terror of being Black in America,” she said.
“Lovecraft Country” comes courtesy of showrunner Misha Green, creator of the Civil War drama “Underground,” and producer Jordan Peele, who has used the horror genre so effectively as an allegory to address racism with “Get Out” and “Us.” J.J. Abrams, of “Star Wars” fame, is also a producer on the show.
Adapted from the 2016 novel by Matt Ruff, the story follows Korean War veteran Atticus Freeman (Jonathan Majors) on a journey into the backwoods of New England to find his missing father (Michael K. Williams) and uncover a disturbing family secret. With his friend Letitia (Smollett) and his uncle (Courtney B. Vance), the publisher of “The Safe Negro Travel Guide,” riding shotgun, Atticus and his companions run afoul of racist local police patrolling the all-white “sundown towns,” where Blacks were legally barred after dark with dire consequences for violators.
That’s just where their problems really start.
Though the story is set in 1954, “Lovecraft Country” debuts during a summer of reckoning on systemic racism in America in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by police.
That timing is not lost on the cast.
“What we’re talking about in the story … and in the TV series is the same thing that’s been going on for a very long time,” Majors said. “We talk about George Floyd, Brother Floyd, King Floyd, but there’s also a boy named Emmett Till. It’s funny how those things connect. I think what’s really dope about (the show) in this moment, is we say, ‘Yeah, it’s been happening this entire time.'”
“This piece kind of feels to me like a bodycam,” he said. “Now you got a bodycam for the entire experience of what it is to be African American or of African descent in America.”
Ruff said he came up with the original idea for “Lovecraft Country” back in 2007 for an unsuccessful pitch for a television series, intending it to be a show revolving around the paranormal investigations of a Black family putting together a fictional version of “The Green Book,” a real-life travel guide for Black Americans featuring safe motels and restaurants that would serve people with their skin color.
“The idea was to contrast these sort of paranormal horrors of the kind you would get on ‘The X-Files’ with the real-world historical, mundane horror of mundane racism, asking which is the bigger threat to your safety or sanity,” Ruff recalled.
The producers passed, but Ruff was intrigued enough to finish a novel.
That novel, in turn, intrigued Green and Peele, then still known for comedy but busy at work on a thriller called “Get Out,” who called the author in a bid to adapt “Lovecraft Country” for the small screen. Ruff, a fan of Green’s “Underground” even before the call, made the deal.
Part of the draw for Green, a self-proclaimed history buff, was the chance to explore an undertaught era of history: the segregation era.
“If I made up a sundown town, that you can’t be in this town after dark, and there were signs all over the U.S. that said, ‘Don’t let the sun set on you here,’ people would be like, ‘OK, yeah, we’ll buy into it so we can see (the story),'” Green said. “So, that to me is what makes doing history so fine, is when unpacking things from our past that influence our present.”
“I just have to now bring it to here and arrange it with my sci-fi, this crazy stuff that was happening that I don’t have to make up,” she added. “And to me, that brings an extra layer of depth to it.”
H.P. Lovecraft’s name in the title is part of that history lesson. Ruff intentionally leaned into the aesthetic of the early 20th-century writer, who was as well-known for his cosmic horror stories as his horrific racism.
“One hand, he’s this incredibly influential, talented cosmic horror writer who had a real effect on the genre because he was there at the dawn of modern horror and science fiction,” Ruff said. “At the same time, he [was an] unreconstructed white supremacist who was very sincere in his beliefs that other races were inferior.”
“That’s traditionally something that white Lovecraft fans have had a tendency to miss entirely or overlook, but obviously Black science-fiction fans have noticed all along,” he said.
The cast also appreciated using the controversial literary icon’s own name in a project that very much would go against his racist views.
“I feel like I was giving H.P. Lovecraft the finger every time I walked on the set,” said Aunjanue Ellis, who plays Atticus’ aunt.
Or as Majors put it: “We turned junk food into soul food.”
That has been a successful recipe in recent years.
Not long after his phone conversation with Ruff, Peele released “Get Out” — a horror movie about Black victims forced to swap consciousnesses with wealthy, white aggressors — which became a surprise pop culture sensation, earning $255.4 million worldwide at the box office and starting a less-quantifiable number of uncomfortable office conversations on race.
HBO recently found success in a similar subversion of genre pop culture as a way to address racism with “Watchmen,” a sequel to the iconic comic series.
That show, which led this year’s Emmy nominations with 26, opened with a re-creation of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, the razing of the Oklahoma neighborhood dubbed Black Wall Street and the death or displacement of its residents by a white mob. One of the worst racist attacks in the nation’s history was long overdue for its close-up, said Wilson Morales, founder of blackfilmandtv.com, a news site covering diversity in entertainment.
“They’re using the sci-fi and horror genres to shed light on racism, so they’re going to get an audience,” Morales said.
“A lot of people did not know about the Tulsa Massacre until ‘Watchmen’ showed it,” he said. “Then everybody goes on Google and starts reading about it, and more people learn about the history than if they made a documentary.”
It isn’t just about distant history. These shows say a lot about the present, too.
“When could you have released ‘Lovecraft Country’ and it wouldn’t be timely since 1619?” asked Smollett, referring to the year when the first African slaves arrived in the English colony, and later the state, of Virginia.
“What month, what day would the themes we explore in ‘Lovecraft’ not be timely?”