How the imagination of the ‘Lovecraft Country’ writer’s room failed us
We can imagine more. We can be more. We can fashion better tools. We must.
by Kamilah Bush
This essay discusses sexual assault and r/pe.
The first episode of HBO’s Lovecraft Country is possibly one of the most perfect television pilots of all time, in my opinion. The opening shot, drops us in the middle of a typical enough looking war scene—it is a familiar cinematic landscape with images we have seen 1000 times before. When that image shifts, however, from black and white to technicolor, we are shown that we are not quite in Kansas anymore.
Aliens are coming from the sky, Jackie Robinson suddenly appears with his baseball bat to save our protagonist. Then this unnamed man, whom we have instantly been tasked with caring for, is wrapped in the bizarre but comforting embrace of a femme creature from the great beyond.
What makes this opening scene so indicative of brilliance to come is that it sets us up perfectly for this universe. It is a snapshot of the arc of this pilot episode, and what I had hoped would be the arc of the entire series. Because what’s most important about this scene is what comes next—this protagonist, who we later learn is named Atticus Freeman (Jonathan Majors), wakes from a dream on the back of a bus in 1950s America.
It is clear that the war was real, and that the fantasy was bleeding into his reality—complicating and sometimes comforting, but definitely changing him in deep ways. This theme carries throughout this episode. When he, his Uncle George (Courtney B. Vance), and his fiery love interest Letitia Lewis (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) set out on a trip to find Atticus’ missing father Montrose (Michael K. Williams), they encounter typical dangers. Like the war scene we began with, we are met with familiar images: racist white folk at gas stations, on the sidewalk, in a diner, and then a sheriff comes to chase these three Negroes out of his “Sundown Town.”
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A mundane and normal enough story to expect from a show set in the 1950s. Until the bizarre begins to bend reality again. There are monsters in the dark—monsters seemingly more dangerous than the racist white folk who have them at gunpoint in the woods. Monsters, which transform these would-be lynchers into vampiric dog-like creatures who are afraid of light—but unlike the white men with badges, these monsters can be killed without dangerous consequence. The power shifts, and for the moment, we are at least allowed to imagine that these Black folk can defend themselves against their bloodthirsty attackers.
There is magic and mystery in Lovecraft Country, and we leave the first episode feeling as if anything at all could happen next. Imagine my surprise, however, when some of that anything turned out to be so disappointing and irresponsible.
The design of the show—from the costumes and scenic design to the exceptional sound production- is the stuff of genius. A blend of modern music, snatches of poetry and speech, and thrilling compositions underscore this thoughtful imagery: we see visual references to our actual past. Replicas of Gordon Parks’ photographs including the iconic mother and daughter standing beneath a “Coloreds Only sign”, a houseguest of Letitia’s who is clearly meant to be James Baldwin, a recurring child, called Bobo, who is a fictionalized Emmett Till, and we even meet Josephine Baker. And these flashes of the real being implanted into the surreal is exactly what makes this show great—until it just doesn’t.
In episode 5, “Strange Case”, we see possibly the most imaginative use of magic thus far. Yes, in the first four episodes we’ve fought monsters, upset a secret society, exorcised a haunted house, and gone on a Indiana Jones-esque adventure but the opening shot of “Strange Case” is possibly the most unique. Ruby, usually a statuesque, dark skinned, beautiful Black woman, wakes up in the skin of a small white woman. This is as disorienting for the audience as it is for the character. When I saw it, I sat straight up in my bed and said “No ma’am!” out loud in an empty room.
First off, I would never want to wake up as a white woman. But if I did, what would I do? Ruby takes her new skin out on the town—she gets ice cream, she saunters down the street. She gets the job she keeps being turned down for as a Black woman. And when the potion wears off, she gives this beautiful, moving speech where she says, “I don’t know what’s more difficult, being Colored or being a woman. Most days I’m happy to be both. But the world keeps interrupting.” She is later asked what she would do if she was not interrupted and what happens then is one of the several instances where the imagination of the Lovecraft Country writer’s room fails us.
After witnessing a white man sexually assault a Black woman, Ruby, in her white mask, lures this man into his office where she goes through the painful and gruesome process of turning back into her true self to forcefully sodomize this man. It is without a doubt a rape. And we are meant to feel as though it is the best expression of her rage and the justice he deserves. Be clear—I am never caping for our oppressors. My feelings are not for the white man, but instead about the limited imagination of the writers. They have imagined a world where time travel exists, where the ancestors speak to us through dreams, and where a simple potion can transform someone into a totally different body—but have not imagined a world where there is humanity in justice.
It is important to note that Ruby’s heinous act of sexual violence appears in the same episode where Montrose explores and becomes more embracing of his queerness. He has a relationship with an openly (as openly as one can safely be in 1950s Chicago) gay man named Sammy, who he also assaults, in my opinion. By the end of the episode, Montrose accompanies Sammy and several of his friends who are in drag, to a gay club where he finally lets loose, dances with and kisses Sammy in public. The Montrose story also comes on the heels of him murdering a genderqueer person to keep his history a secret in the episode before. This is all followed by Atticus calling him a homophobic slur to his face in episode 7.
To position these two storylines in the same episode, necessarily invites comparison and conflation. We are confronted with only violent and exploitative depictions of anal penetration—between Ruby’s assault of her employer and the abrasive sex scene between Montrose and Sammy which lacks any semblance of tenderness or care. The Lovecraft Country writer’s room has made a statement—intentional or not—about what this kind of act is in their imagination. In this world, it is never loving and is only used as a way to express rage and frustration. It was, to me, unconscionable. Yes, Lovecraft Country is a horror—but that does not mean that it gets a pass to do something truly horrific.
Why, in the writers’ imaginations, does our rage show up in these ways? Why does our expression of rage so often mirror that of our oppressors? Can we not imagine ways where our justice systems do not dehumanize and demonize. Not for the sake of White people, but for our own sakes. To be certain, I am not parroting Michelle Obama’s “when they go low, we go high” sentiment—I mean, however, to echo our ancestor Audre Lorde—the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. Lovecraft Country gives us an opportunity to imagine what it may be to fashion our own tools, and to find in their limited imagination of justice that the tools they have fashioned are so akin to the master’s disappoints me greatly.
Every character who is coded as queer, save Hippolyta, is on rboth the giving and receiving end of violence and suffering because of their queerness. The straight characters have their own share of suffering—but almost none of it is sexual, and straight sex scenes are allowed to be loving and tender.
In the official podcast for the show, one of the writers – a Black woman—says that she and the other members of the writing team argued about this and other elements—namely Atticus’ calling Montrose the F-word. They ultimately resolved that it should be included in the show because “it is true…” To them, it is enough for it to be true in 1950s America that a Black son may think this of his queer father, for us to have to suffer this.
We suffer a great many true horrors in Lovecraft Country. We know that when Bobo leaves Chicago, he will not return. But in a show where a Black woman gets to spin throughout the universe, feeling her infinite power as a dancer for Josephine Baker, a warrior, a wife, a discoverer—why in a world where this can be true, can it not also be true that queer people are loved and protected? Why can it not also be true, that when given a chance to exact justice, we do so in ways that show our humanity? It saddens me that they did not see that this was possible.
Though set in our real and imagined past, Lovecraft Country is a piece of Afro-Futurism. It could be said that the events of the show would have a profound effect on the present we are living. If this narrative were true, maybe our lives would be different. The ability to envision ourselves in the character’s imaginary future could speak to what we are capable of achieving in the realm of justice and equity. That, after all, is the purpose of Afro-Futurism—it is meant to help us see new ways of being.
As someone recently said to me, “to imagine the future that is possible, has to be a discipline for us”. And by us, she meant Black folk. To me, this discipline is why pieces of art like Lovecraft Country are so important. They are the diet of this discipline. For the writer’s room to give us a piece of Afro-Futurism which does not responsibly shift the power systems and subvert the rules of justice currently in place by White Supremacy, feels to me a deep failure of imagination and a misuse of our necessary discipline.
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I have to be honest and say that episode 5—which should also be noted, is positioned as the direct center of this 10 part limited series—was nearly my last. For everything beautiful about this show, the failure of imagination on the writer’s part in “Strange Case” really derailed my enjoyment and ability to continue watching it. I have pressed on, maybe against hope, believing that there is greater to come. And to be fair, episode 6 and 7 were less harmful in their use of imagination—though these threads are still being followed.
Episode 8 presented its own share of problems, but like all of these episodes, mixed in was some truly beautiful and imaginative work. This is where my issue lies. I do not believe that every piece of art can be perfect, our imaginations will inevitably fail. It is how and when they fail that matter. The failure of the writers to truly trust themselves to define a new truth for us, one that allows us to see ourselves as products of a more humane and equitable system of justice in a world which allows Black women especially, an avenue to express what Dr. Brittney Cooper calls our “eloquent rage” is one that matters. Writers are endowed with a great power.
The power of our imagination is as magical as anything that exists in the Lovecraft Country universe. The cornerstone of Blackness, of Afro-Futurism, of this power is the supernatural ability of determination, and determination not simply as perseverance, but as an establishing force by which we can all build a new way of being. We can imagine more. We can be more. We can fashion better tools. We must. Our stories and our lives depend on it.
Kamilah Bush, a homegrown North Carolinian and the Co-Artistic Director of Paper Lantern Theatre for Our Tomorrow, is a playwright and dramaturge who is committed to telling the varied and complex stories of Black women. James Baldwin said that an artist’s responsibility to their society is to “never cease warring with it” and she takes this responsibility very seriously. Follow her on Twitter as the battle wages on @writingthewrong