Here’s our coverage of the Lovecraft Country panel at SDCC 2020, where the cast talked about their experience working on the upcoming HBO show.
HP Lovecraft is one of the authors that, while growing up, helped shape my formative years as a writer; however, now having grown up, it’s about realizing that he was a massively intolerant douchebag and racist.
Having to reconcile the art and the artist is a long-standing argument and discussion piece in so many artistic, creative, media, and writing circles, with a range of opinions and perspectives, especially in this era of Cancel Culture.
Based on the 2016 novel of the same name, by Matt Ruff, Lovecraft Country is about the main character searching for his father to bring him back home, while also serving as an analysis on the racism that exists within HP Lovecraft’s work in the context of Jim Crow United States within the 1950s.
The panel begins with the current trailer, setting up the tone of the show and discussion, immediately followed with an awesome and erudite discussion with the following cast members: Jurnee Smollett (who plays Letitia Dandridge), Jonathan Majors (playing Atticus Black), Michael Kenneth Williams (playing Montrose Freeman), Aunjanue Ellis (playing Hippolyta Black), Wunmi Mosaku (playing Ruby Dandridge), Abbey Lee (playing Christina Braithwhite), and Courtney B. Vance (playing George Black).
In a conversation moderated by Sarah Rodman, the cast of the upcoming dark fantasy start off their discussion on what they enjoyed about the show, most with a general consensus among that the cast that they enjoyed working together throughout the production.
Three takeaways from the Lovecraft Country Panel
- The show values positive moments of love among Black families alongside their struggles.
Aunjanue Ellis, who plays the character of Hippolyta Black, commented on the show’s depiction of grown-up black love, leading Michael Kenneth Williams to discuss the importance of the intimate love, specifically a love scene with George and Hippolyta Black, depicting imagery of smiling and looking over the shoulder within, and how scary it is to see an important depiction of that.
Familial love is another important aspect of the story, as the main plot is about Atticus searching for his father to reunite is family, and Atticus’ aunt and uncle joining him on a dangerous journey.
Jonathan Majors, who plays Atticus, also talked about how much he enjoyed Atticus’ characterization, which includes positive traits within the show and his reaction to reading the script when it was first sent to him.
“My first read,” said Majors, “I read it twice back to back when I first got it. It’s a black guy that’s who are we are following? You get to explore not just the archetypical ideas of what we get to play, not just a soldier but a bibliophile, he gets to go on adventures, travels….who’s he’s connected to, [what is] fatherhood, what it is to be a son, to be a part of the black community at that time. He’s a Lovecraftian bibliophile and that’s not common. It didn’t take much to get me on.”
Shifting away and challenging the conventions of the stereotypes usually attributed to African American characters is an important aspect to the show
- It depicts historical realities that still resonate deep today
In the discussion, Ellis points out the use of a Green book, which “was this manual that was used by black citizens that gave an outline of where it was safe to go to eat, safe to vacation, restaurants, hotels, and places that were open to them in segregationist America. The family (protagonists) is involved in preparing the information that black people, which was unfortunately needed at that time.”
Depicting details from history, such as the Green book, is important in speculative fiction, as it is a window into what is occurring in today’s society. This is especially true for racial tensions, with the current situation today.
Moderator Rodman brought up an interesting scene where the writers take a historical reality that was part of the African American during Jim Crow and included within the script. This is the segregationist concept of “Sundown” towns, where Black citizens were physically threatened and/or executed by Whites (cops especially) if they did not leave all-white municipalities by sundown. Rodman asked how it was like to do that scene considering all that is surrounding the issues facing our society today.
Jurnee Smollet responded by saying that “It’s tough because there are some many themes that we explore in the show that resonate with us being Black Americans in 2020 and unfortunately as we are seeing, sometimes our police departments are, as Angela Davis calls, one of the most dramatic examples of structural racism.”
Smollett continued on to stay that dwelling on that negative energy, such as “system racism is a dark place to go to but is necessary.” Smollet explained how essential it was to have everyone face these unfortunate realities together as a family on the production, which helped her get through the show.
“One of my teachers refers to it as blood memory, reverberates through our DNA this visceral connection to the oppression of our people and that’s why we are still telling these stories,” she said. “Yes when you tap into these stories, like Lovecraft, there is a familiar emotion that it brings up for sure but again having family, we have each other, that’s the thing about the show, I don’t know how I would have survived the show, without having my brothers and sisters in arms…helps you have the strength to tackle these stories.”
- The Cast can personally relate to the issues discussed in the show.
Representation in arts and media is essential, and one of the most difficult parts of this panel is listening to the actors talk their own personal horrors of encountering systemic racism in everyday life.
Courtney B. Vance shared a scary experience where he was harassed by the police when he entered his own home in a White neighborhood, and how he has to constantly explain police brutality to his young daughter.
Jonathan Majors shared his experience growing up in Texas, recounting how driving and being Black can elicit an immediate and dangerous reaction from police officers patrolling the roads.
Michael Kenneth Williams also shared a heartbreaking experience about how a white woman called the police on him, his brother, and his friends while having dinner at a restaurant because she misplaced her phone and felt compelled to call the police rather than return to the restaurant and look for her phone.
By discussing this publicly and facing their shared experience to experience together during the production, the cast and the crew of Lovecraft Country show that important of using fiction to discuss these issues while being sensitive to the historicity of the setting within the story and balancing the positives and negatives of that reality.
I think it’s innate to human beings too and very particular to the African American experience, says Jonathan Majors. “We wouldn’t be here now if we couldn’t find levity in humor in humanity… We black folks are full human beings, where there is sorrow there is joy. Just with the cast, we are tight, and there are days we would go crazy on set and crying about this and this…and then shooting the shot. For me it felt extremely natural and that we were home. There is a culture with ups and downs. You can’t make art with a sad face on.”
Reclaiming the works of Lovecraft and transforming the context away from its original authorial intent is powerful and is going to change the way people perceive and learn about Lovecraft’s legacy.
As a speculative fiction writer, myself, I am personally excited to see how Misha Green, co-creator and director of the show, is going to explore and defy the underlying racist and xenophobic of Lovecraft’s work.
Before the panel ended, Rodman introduced an exclusive sneak peek from the pilot.
In the preview, we see the main characters in what appears to be a museum at night, looking for a secret entrance under the bust of a statute. There is a tense feeling and Montrose Freeman tells them to turn off the flashlights. Once they do so, a mystical light appears and shines in a jagged pattern around the room, eventually pointing to a statue tiger’s tooth to unlock the door. There, they find a deep hole and go down it with a rope and find three tunnels, with an inscription warning “Beware All Ye Who Tread the Path, ever the tide shall rise”
Overall, this was a really great panel and one of my favorites so far with Comic-Con at Home. It’s great hearing from the cast and learning about their professional and personal experiences as they completed the production of the show. I highly recommend checking out the panel, which can be found at this link.
The show is created by producer Misha Green and executive producer Jordan Peele, along with J.J. Abrams also serving as an executive producer. The pilot is scheduled for release on August 16, 2020, through HBO.