HBO’s Lovecraft Country powerfully shows the inequalities that Black people faced in the 1950s, while also questioning whether much has actually changed for the Black community today.
For someone who is absolutely terrified of horror, someone who nearly cried at the McDonald’s cup holder because they thought it looked like Ghostface from Scream – Lovecraft Country undoubtedly should not be something I should be watching, especially not alone at night. Still, I did through my hands and I’ve not regretted my decision.
I was thrilled to learn the HBO television show (which is airing on Sky and NOW TV in the UK) would be headed up by a talented Black showrunner, Misha Green, and feature a majority Black cast, which is pretty much a first for the genre. Gone are the days of the lazy stereotype of seeing Black people killed early on in a scary film or show. Lovecraft Country is still very horrifying for Black people, though - and not because of the monsters in it.
It depicts America in the 1950s, where white people laugh at Black people for no reason and make ape noises at them. It shows Black people petrified of the police. These scenes left me with one question in my mind: if this is set so long ago, why does this feel so current? In 2020, former England footballer Rachel Yankey says she was subjected to similar ape chants on the pitch and in the same year, George Floyd feared for his life and died tragically at the hands of a police officer.
What’s significantly beautiful about the series is its dedication to showing the Black experience in its full bandwidth. Seeing many displays of Black joy: young kids playing on the street with a sprinkler on, grown adult Black love and my favourites Ruby Baptiste and Leti Lewis singing cheerful blue rhythms while looking radiant as hell, you just can’t help but smile seeing it all come to life.
As the series goes on, I am genuinely amazed and astounded by what unfolds; episode five, in particular, stands out to me. I’ve never seen racism portrayed in such a poignant way, it’s extremely clever and a testament to Green’s fantastic adaptation skills of Lovecraft Country which is originally a book.
When we are introduced to Ruby, who is a plus-size woman, we can see that she is the backbone of the family, cleaning up after her sister’s shenanigans. It appears that she’s not given a chance just to exist. Until a white man called William presents her, as he puts it, an “opportunity of a lifetime” – a chance to be a white woman through the power of magic.
This is a perplexing offering at first but in a world where Ruby is stuck working a minimum wage job, ignored by society and even experiencing colourism within her own community, perhaps the prospect of white privilege isn’t so bad to her.
Ruby looks physically exhausted as she tells William that being Black feels like a “rat race at the finish line… but if I was in your skin I wouldn’t even have to run”. And she’s right. When she transforms into a slim white woman, she accidentally bumps into a Black boy. The police show up immediately and without hesitation accuse him of molesting her. Ruby wants to run away but quickly puts her hands up and so does the little boy, an action that Black people are so accustomed to – the Black Lives Matter symbol “hands up, don’t shoot” is upsettingly familiar to all of us now. The officers comfort her instantly, “Let’s get you somewhere safe, madam,” they say.
Ruby refers to whiteness as “the only currency” she needs – we see this currency come into full effect and how it’s valued so highly when she is hired as an assistant manager at a department store with minimal experience. In the store, there is one Black female employee as a result of their “whites only policy” being revoked, causing anger amongst the staff. In the presence of white Ruby though, her white colleagues feel at ease to explain their disdain for their Black coworker, their fear of Black people as a whole, as well as one woman, feeling comfortable enough to say the N-word.
Again, why does this all feel so recent despite being set in the 1950s? ? In the midst of the global outcry against racial inequality and police brutality, I remember an unsettling call on BBC 1xtra where a white woman says she finds “big Black men scary” and crosses the road when she sees them. Yes, in 2020. In the next scene, the team go to a bar where the same employee who uttered the slur is so keen to dance with a Black man and so eager to learn how to sway to Jazz, a genre popularised by African Americans. It appals and horrifies me that people can hate you so deeply but want your culture.
It breaks my heart that Ruby doesn’t feel loved or cared for by society in her beautiful Black skin. It breaks my heart that, in a viral video from March 2020, a little Black girl cried because she feels ugly. It breaks my heart that a little Black girl’s immediate reaction to a police officer is “are you going to shoot us?” at a protest in Houston, Texas this year.
But in a world that doesn’t care for the Black community, who can really blame Ruby for wanting a taste of privilege. Lovecraft Country is truly brilliant yet frightening but through its versatility, I hope people can see the world for what it really is.
Lovecraft Country is available to watch on Sky Atlantic on Monday at 9pm.
Image: ©Elizabeth Morris/HBO