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Smollett: Racism bigger threat than 'Lovecraft Country' monsters

Jurnee Smollett stars in the new HBO series Lovecraft Country. File Photo by Christine Chew/UPI
Jurnee Smollett stars in the new HBO series "Lovecraft Country." File Photo by Christine Chew/UPI | License Photo

LOS ANGELES, Aug. 16 (UPI) -- HBO's new drama, Lovecraft Country, combines the monsters of H.P. Lovecraft's fiction with true horrors of America's past. Set in the 1950s, Black characters face racism while battling the fictional creatures.

"[Racism] is sometimes even more of a threat because it's unexpected," Jurnee Smollett said on a Television Critics Association panel. "It affects your livelihood and it affects you on every single level."

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Smollett plays Letitia Lewis, a woman who joins her friend, Atticus Freeman (Jonathan Majors), on a road trip to find his missing father (Michael K. Williams). They embark from Chicago and wind up in cities plagued by Lovecraft's monsters. The Cthulhu from Call of Cthulhu and Shoggoth from At the Mountains of Madness make appearances.

"Racists, in general, are much more terrifying than the Shoggoth or Cthulhu," Majors said.

Segregation and Jim Crow laws still are in effect in places Atticus and Letitia visit. On the road to Ardham, Mass., Letitia and Atticus pass signs warning Black people away, and face White people mocking them at rest stops.

Smollett, born in 1986, said she researched the history of America in the '50s to prepare for Lovecraft Country. She saw parallels between the struggle against racism then and the Black Lives Matter movement of today.

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"Our heroes essentially are going on a quest to bring down White supremacy," Smollett said. "We are still on that quest today in 2020 as Black Americans. Racism is such a demonic spirit -- it's something that we are still fighting off."

Writer and executive producer Misha Green adapted Matt Ruff's book for HBO. Green said the Lovecraft monsters are symbolic to her of the racism still present in the world.

"For me, genre works best when it is the metaphor on top of the real life emotions that you explore," Green said.

She credited Jordan Peele's Oscar-winning horror film Get Out with opening the doors to more Black-led horror content. Peele is an executive producer of Lovecraft Country, too.

"I think that kind of paved the way for people to really open up to the idea of seeing more Black people in dominant spaces," Green said.

The metaphorical monsters and historical racism become further intertwined upon Atticus and Letitia's arrival in Ardham. Atticus discovers his mythological connection with the Order of Ancient Dawn, a fictional group whose rituals conjure up Lovecraftian monsters.

Majors believes viewers, especially Black viewers, will relate to the story of Atticus's monstrous heritage. Atticus is descended from a slave owned by the founder of the order, who fathered children with her.

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Majors said the fictional story rings true for Black Americans, who feel they still are suffering from the history of slavery.

"The things we experience in the story are things that happen in day-to-day life," Majors said. "It's in the DNA of the African American experience."

Subsequent episodes deal with Letitia buying a house to establish roots. Like a true horror movie, the house is only affordable because it is haunted. However, the threats Letitia receives from her racist White neighbors are horrors of human-making.

"It affects your pursuit of happiness, your pursuit of joy, your pursuit of family trying to live in a neighborhood that is all White," Smollett said. "You realize that America has not evolved into a place for you."

Letitia's White neighbors use insidious tactics to pressure her to leave. They break into cars parked on the street and lay bricks on the horns to create a disturbance.

Majors said it is difficult to know how to deal with threats designed to intimidate you. The monsters may be deadlier, but he said they provoke a simpler reaction to simply run and survive.

"With a monster, it's a direct physical threat," Majors said. "They want to eat you."

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Lovecraft Country premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. on HBO.

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