It says something deeply troubling about how American History is taught in public schools that entertainment such HBO’s Watchmen and Lovecraft Country are the main means for exploring the darkest times in America. I say this because I didn’t learn any of the history used as the backdrop of these fictional stories. My hat’s off to HBO for producing these stories because they absolutely need to be told.
Episode One of Lovecraft Country, titled “Sundown”, drops the viewer into 1950s America, which if you were a person of color was about as friendly as walking through a cave of hibernating bears while covered in fish guts. I loved the first half-hour of the show, which is set in Chicago and introduces the three principal characters we’ll be following: Atticus Freeman (portrayed by Jonathan Majors), Letitia “Leti” Lewis (portrayed by Jurnee Smollett), and George Freeman (portrayed by Courtney B. Vance). We’re given time to get to know these three people before they head out on the road, experiencing their joys as they celebrate a block party in their home neighborhood.
Atticus is returning home to Chicago after spending time in Jim Crow-controlled Florida. His father has gone missing while looking into the ancestry of Atticus’ mother. Letitia is a photographer who has taken up the fight for civil rights (much to the disapproval of her family). And George is the publisher of a travel guide for black Americans, providing them with safe destinations and areas to avoid in America, particularly the so-called “sundown towns” which the first episode draws its name from. The Travel Guide George publishes is a fictionalized version of The Negro Motorist Green Book, a travel guide published between 1936 and 1966 on an annual basis.
I wasn’t familiar with the term “sundown town” before watching this episode, which shouldn’t be surprising. As a white man, this isn’t something that would be taught in the schools I got my education from. Much like learning about the Black Wall Street Massacre through Watchmen, this was a history completely foreign and ultimately repulsive to me. The general idea is that in a “sundown town”, if you were black, you had to be outside the town (or county) limits by sundown, otherwise you were fair game for the local racists. In case it needs to be said for anyone reading this who isn’t a person of color, the local police force and anyone who wanted to volunteer would take great pleasure in killing any person of color still inside the town or county limits after dark. And if you think this is just a bygone relic of the past, think again. This was a travel advisory posted by the NAACP regarding the state of Missouri.
The above advisory was sent out in 2017. Lovecraft Country is set in the 1950s. Let that sink in for a moment.
Combining the reprehensible human monsters with the otherworldly monsters of Lovecraft is an inspired touch. Misha Green’s brilliant direction for the episode, along with the crisp writing of Yann Demange, stokes tension throughout the episode, particularly during the road trip where our trio of travelers finds themselves in a diner that was burned out to get rid of the previous owner. The encounter with the Sheriff of Devon County in Massachucetts kept me on the edge throughout. In a series that will focus on monsters, it’s easy to forget the ones that wear human masks. Misha Green and Yann Demange make it a mission to not gloss over the actual barbarism of the era, focusing on the casual and lethal racism that exists in America.
I plan on watching the remainder of the show and writing reviews for each of the episodes. This first episode definitely stands out to me as an exceptional and timely message of how far we’ve come and the work that still needs to be done regarding racism in America. Stories like this need to be told and they need to be consumed by the widest audience possible. It’s only through revealing these despicable parts of our history that we can confront them honestly.