- Run Time
- 1 hour and 9 minutes
- Not Rated
VP Content Ratings
- Sex & Nudity
- Star Rating
Why, O Lord, do you stand far off?
Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?
In arrogance the wicked persecute the poor—
let them be caught in the schemes they have devised.
Fear and trembling come upon me, and horror overwhelms me.
I am a sucker for those offering something for nothing more than a click on a link, so when HBO offered the first of the ten-episode Lovecraft Country for free, I clicked on—and was quickly enchanted. Those wily rascals! They will soon have my almost $15 payment (and then some, as the series will be spread out over more than one month). I love road trip movies, and this series looks like it will rate right up there with the best, judging by the incredibly good first segment called “Sundown.”!
We are introduced in the black and white opening to the helmeted, rifle and bayonette equipped Atticus Freeman (Jonathan Majors) fighting North Koreans in a trench. He shoots and stabs his way along, and then as the film changes to color, we see the battlefield beyond, looking like a scene from H.G. Well’s War of the Worlds. Three-legged machines march across the field, while overhead several flying saucers emit destructive rays or beams. A scantily clad woman, similar to the many that decorated the covers of Weird Tales Magazine, is lowered from a ship. A slimy green monster is about to attack Atticus but is suddenly smashed by a hard-swung baseball bat. The wielder is Jackie Robinson, the Black pioneer of baseball
Atticus wakes up from his disturbing dream. He is on a Greyhound bus heading north. As the camera pulls back, we see he and an older woman are sitting at the back of the bus, behind the overhead sign declaring it is the “Colored” section. From this point on he faces the grim reality of the early Fifties that Jim Crow customs are followed almost as much in the North as in the South. There just aren’t as many signs on restroom doors and drinking fountains. Atticus is returning to Chicago with a letter that his estranged father Montrose had sent him. He reconnects with his Uncle George and Aunt Hippolyta Freeman (Courtney B. Vance and Aunjanue Ellis) and their teenage daughter Diana (Jada Harris). Also, with childhood friend Letitia Lewis (Jurnee Smollett), whom, as we see at a block party, can belt out a song.
Atticus’s father had strongly discouraged his son’s interest in science fiction and fantasy, but Uncle George had just as strongly encouraged him in it. The nephew presents to George a copy of an H.P. Lovecraft book. Letitia too loves science fiction, having been a fellow member with Atticus of their high school science fiction club. His father Montrose had mentioned in a letter something about a legacy in the Massachusetts town of Arkham, but when George examines the letter he says that it is Ardham. As he researches the history of the town and county (Devon), they learn of the area’s sinister background—founded by English witch hunters and executioners with a reputation for travelers being attacked and killed by strange animals lurking in the woods.
Atticus discovers his father has already left, so he decides to go and find him. George agrees to use his station wagon and travel with him. He publishes The Safe Negro Travel Guide (remember Green Book, the story of the real travel book for Blacks?), thus he can check out establishments along the way and see if they are safe for Negro travelers. Needless to say, they will have a narrow escape from death when they stop at a town where ownership had passed from a friendly White to a rabidly racist one. And worst of all, one night when a killer cop who informs them that they are in a sundown county where n——s are liable to be shot if they are not gone by sundown. No, even worse after this harrowing experience, is the Devon sheriff and deputies armed with shotguns who clearly intend to execute the intruders.
How the three are extricated from the above situations is a blend of adventure and supernatural horror taken right out of H.P. Lovecraft, a band of shoggoths attacking the law(less) officers and making a bloody meal of them. George has discovered that the shoggoths are afraid of the beam of his flashlight, so they agree that they must fetch the station wagon and use the beams of its headlights to keep the monsters at bay. Letitia, once a high school track star, insists on making the run, and an epic one it is. The episode ends with the three bedraggled travelers arriving in Ardham where they see the silver European-make car that had saved them earlier when they fled from the restaurant, and inside the manor house they are greeted warmly.
This episode is a delightful blend of social justice concern over racism with science fiction and horror, The story takes place when I myself was in high school and deeply involved in science fiction, so I bonded immediately with Atticus and George, who were as in love with the works of Ray Bradbury and Robert Heinlein as I was. I have read the first portion of the novel, which is not as bloody as the film. There are numerous changes, the major ones being changing George’s comic book-drawing son into a daughter and transferring the restaurant chase scene from an agent of George’s company to that of our three heroes. Also, the nightmare sequence that begins the story was written for the series, thus providing a memorable set-up for the story that follows.
The title is a clever two-fold play. First, it reminds us of the practice in the North of towns using fear to keep themselves “pure” of African Americans. There were reportedly a thousand and more towns that posted large signs at the town limits warning “N—–”s to be gone by sundown. I remember seeing one a little north of Indianapolis! The other is that sundown marks the point in a day when the monsters come out in search of prey. Of course, the story raises the question as to which are the worst monsters—those who threaten to devour your flesh, or those armed with badges, clubs and guns who seek to destroy your soul? We are well aware that the shoggoths are fictional, but that the racist cops and sheriffs are all too real. I write “are” rather than “were,” because though Chief Pritchard, Bull Connor and their ilk are gone, sheriffs targeting minorities and cops kneeling on Black throats or shooting them in the back are still in the news.
The irony of bringing in the early 20th century classic fantasy/horror writer H.P.Lovecraft is intentional, I am sure*. (And to a lesser degree, Edgar Rice Burroughs as well—remember, Atticus was reading The Princess of Mars on the bus.) Lovecraft’s racism was notorious, he even writing the poem “On the Creation of N——” in which he describes them as subhuman, even “beasts.” And yet his influence on fantasy, horror, and science fiction writers is so pervasive that he cannot be taken down like some Confederate statue.
Matt Ruff’s novel and Misha Green and producer Jordan Peele’s cable series provide us with about as much excitement and food for thought and discussion as we can handle. Despite the cost, I believe this is a “must see” series, so watch for more on this over the next couple of months or so. Now, let’s see, where is my checkbook?
*For Aja Romano helpful, well-illustrated Vox article “Lovecraftian horror — and the racism at its core — explained” click here. Also, for some of my thoughts on my experience of science fiction and racism during the time frame of this series (I was in high school at the time), see my blog on this site. It also includes a childhood memory of a “sundown town” in my my home state of Indiana.
No questions until later after several episodes have aired—possibly by the time the Dec. VP.