Review of Lovecraft Country episode “Sundown”

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Scene from the Lovecraft Country episode “Sundown”

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When I decided to review the first season of the television series Lovecraft Country, I didn’t know if it would be a single review of the series, episode by episode, or something in between.

Then I watched the first episode Sundown and was truly horrified, but not as you might imagine.

If you haven’t seen it and you care about that sort of thing, there are tons of spoilers ahead.

The show tells the tale of a young black man named Atticus “Tic” Freeman (Jonathan Majors), a veteran of the Korean War who is traveling by bus to his home in Chicago because his father has gone missing.

The show starts out with Atticus in a trench in Korea with other black soldiers fighting and killing (presumably) Chinese. Then he climbs out of his trench and the scene shifts from black and white to full color. It’s a panorama of something out of H.P. Lovecraft, War of the Worlds, and to a small degree, A Princess of Mars. Princess Dejah Thoris actually beams down from a flying saucer and kisses him (I wasn’t fond of her appearance, too red and the features were wrong, but then I’ve always been partial to Frank Franzetta’s depiction).

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Frank Franzetta’s cover art for the book “A Princess of Mars”

A monster attacks and then a black baseball player (maybe also Atticus?) hits the monster with a baseball bat splattering green goo all over the place.

It was dream sequence and “Tic” wakes up on the bus. The bus promptly breaks down and while all the white people are trucked into the nearest town, Tic and the only other black person, a woman, have to walk. She gives him a bit of guff over the book he’s reading, A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs, because the main character, John Carter, was an officer in the Confederate Army, which means, in theory, he fought for slavery.

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Character Atticus Freeman (Jonathan Majors) reading the book “A Princess of Mars”

The Korean War ended in 1953, and assuming Tic was discharged at the end of the war, that means this could be 1953 or 54. I was born in 1954, so this was, more or less, the world I was born into. Of course as a child, I was blissfully ignorant of racism for about the next ten to twelve years, but at least some of what we see in this show was always going on in the “background” (my “background” anyway).

When I watch a show or movie, I tend to insert myself into the narrative, try to become part of it. In this case, projecting myself with Atticus made me really anxious. The show depicts terrible acts of violence against blacks by whites and at every turn, I kept expecting more trouble. It happened naturally, but I’ll get to that.

Atticus makes it back to his neighborhood in Chicago, which looks like a really fun place. It was apparently summer because the fire hydrants were on and a bunch of kids were playing in the water. There was a row of barbecues on the street, loud music playing, and at night, live music. I kind of wanted to join in, but realized that a white person showing up in that place and time would have been shunned. I guess segregation works both ways.

We meet “Uncle” George Freeman (Courtney B. Vance), his wife Hippolyta Freeman (Aunjanue Ellis), and Tic’s cousin Diana Freeman (Jada Harris), the latter being a teen who is a talented comic book artist (drawing only white female heroes in this case).

Uncle George is well-read and unlike Tic, tends toward horror, even owning a volume of Lovecraft’s stories. They do mention a little known missive by Lovecraft called “The Creation of the N—-” You can fill in the blanks, but it does testify to the writer’s racism.

We are also introduced to Letitia “Leti” Lewis (Jurnee Smollett), an old acquaintance of Tic’s who seems adventurous but completely irresponsible. She does look great in a tight pair of slacks, so I can tell it was a man who created and filmed this show.

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Scene from the Lovecraft Country episode “Sundown”

There is a brief scene where Tic goes into a bar looking for someone. Bartender says he’s out back and when Tic goes looking, sees the person apparently having anal sex with another man. It’s brief sequence and nothing explicit is shown, but I had to wonder why show this at all, unless the idea was to illustrate that black gay people existed in the 1950s.

At one point, Tic places a long-distance call to South Korea. A woman answers and without Tic saying a word, she knows it’s him. She implores him to talk to her, but he abruptly hangs up. A mystery that will unfold in future episodes.

Uncle George also goes on frequent road trips to map out safe travel routes and stops for “Negros” (yes, the word is archaic today, but was the proper nomenclature for black people in the 1950s). He keeps maps of safe and not safe places including something called “Lovecraft Country,” which isn’t clearly explained at first. We later find out these are parts of the country where monsters dwell. We don’t see any until near the end of the first episode.

Atticus, George, and Leti go on a journey in George’s trusty woody to find Tic’s Dad, which through some deduction, they figure is in Massachusetts.

Pretty much in every single place they visit, they experience some form of racism, from billboards depicting the perfect live showing only white families, to some white idiot making like a monkey to mock Tic as he’s eating a banana, to much, much worse.

They stop in a town for lunch which supposedly has a cafe run by a black proprietor. Inside, they find only a couple of white people. The patron leaves while the kid behind the counter refuses to take their order and scurries off to make a phone call.

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Scene from the Lovecraft Country show “Sundown”

Leti, looking for a bathroom, overhears the phone conversation and comes out running that they’d better leave right the “fuck” (it’s HBO so I guess they can say “fuck”) now.

Oh, I should mention that the former black owner of the cafe was literally burned out (Tic moves a floor tile with his foot and sees burnt floorboards beneath) and she was presumably killed.

Literally the entire town, every man at least, goes after them, shooting at them or trying to crash a fire truck into their car. A truck with white guy shooting at them with a rifle follows the trio out of town trying to kill them.

Let’s backtrack a second. Tic took a handgun with him supposedly with a lot of ammo (since it fires endlessly) and Leti’s actually firing back at their pursuers. Also, Tic’s gay informant in Chicago said that Tic’s Dad left town with a well-dressed white person in a silver foreign car.

Lo and behold, a silver Rolls Royce shows up and, blocking the racist truck’s path in the road, somehow causes it to do a somersault over the Rolls and crash.

Looking back, they see a very classy white woman getting out of the car and looking at Tic and the others wistfully. We don’t know why at this point.

Okay, I get it. Racism was an epidemic in 1950s America (and some say it still is) and horrible violence was really done against black people. But literally a whole town trying to kill three black people seems a little incredible. Remember, they aren’t in the south. They’re traveling from Illinois to Massachusetts, so this is the “Sundown” north. I found that to be kind of unrealistic, but then again, if someone can show me historic evidence of entire towns of white racists bent on murdering every black person they see, I’ll be glad to read it.

Next, having gotten lost in the countryside, they encounter another racist Sheriff who says they’re in a “Sundown county.”

For those of you who don’t know, in the 1950s (and probably later) there were “Sundown towns.” Basically, that meant any black people in the city limits had better be gone by sundown or they’d be arrested (or worse).

They have less than an hour to get across the county line but have to obey the speed laws with the white racist cop following right behind. They make it barely in time and the cop stops following. But then they’re stopped by a road block of other racist cops, taken into the woods, forced to lie face down, and with shotguns at their heads, the cops try to make them confess to some local crimes.

Night falls and the other kind of monsters, the Lovecraft kind, come out and kill four of the cops. Tic and Leti manage to run and find shelter in an old cabin. George stays still on the ground until the carnage passes, then, liberating a flashlight from a disembodied arm, goes looking for Tic and Leti.

In the meantime two of the cops find them and hide out. One cop has a serious wound which eventually causes him to turn into a monster. Tic manages to wrestle the shotgun from the other cop. The monster kills the other cop and Tic shoots the monster. By then, George is there and they reason that the monsters don’t like light. Somehow, the solution is for Leti to run like crazy for the Woody and pick them up, using the headlights as a monster deterrent.

She makes it but just barely while Tic and George discover that shooting a monster doesn’t kill it. So Leti crashes into the cabin (how did she know what was going on inside?) and crushes the beast.

By daylight, the three are walking on the road (I guess the Woody had it) and arrive at their destination, a huge mansion in the country. Covered with blood and gore, they go to the front door and as they’re about to knock, it opens. A very classy looking white guy greets them, especially Tic, and tells him, “Welcome Home.”

That’s the end of the first episode.

As I mentioned, the show is dripping with racist white people. Really, there are no good whites shown at all in any form except for the woman with the Rolls and the guy at the episode’s end. It was pretty depressing and gives the impression that, at least in the 1950s, all white people hated all black people. Also, while Tic, Leti, and George are all shown as calm, reasonable, well-educated, talented human beings, all of the white people are depicted as ignorant, violent, hostile, mean-spirited creatures, not unlike the actual monsters in the show.

“Sundown” was first shown on August 16, 2020. George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis by a police officer on May 25, 2020, three months earlier. Floyd’s death triggered a nationwide series of violent riots and lootings. I guess Wikipedia is calling it “racial unrest” and it hasn’t ceased yet. As far as I can find, as of April 11, 2021, the Daute Wright protests are ongoing.

While I can’t say that the timing of “Lovecraft Country” was specifically engineered to premiere during this unrest, I can say that it’s likely to have increased the already wide gap in black-white dialog in the U.S.

Yes, this was only the first episode and perhaps things will change and not all white people will be stupid and racist. I can only hope.

A week or two ago, I asked a black business person on LinkedIn what he thought the solution to all of this racial unrest was. He seemed like an encouraging person and I was hoping to engage him in some reasonable dialog (because most of the dialog on race in social media isn’t always “reasonable”).

He said something about the status quo needing to change being the solution. I thanked him and moved on since I didn’t believe a continuing conversation would prove fruitful. The question remains as to what must take place to change the status quo and to change it into what?

I absolutely agree things need to change, but I don’t think what amounts to a violent “revolution” is the answer. Of course, I could be wrong since our nation was founded on a violent revolution.

The acting, production values, really, everything about the show is of high quality. I can’t praise Jonathan Majors, Jurnee Smollett, and Courtney B. Vance highly enough for their performances. This really is a first rate show.

My one deep concern, and I’ve mentioned it already, is that “Lovecraft Country” will do more to continue the divide between black and white people, especially with absolutely zero depictions of whites in any positive light at all. Yes, you can say that historically in television and film, there have been zero depictions of black people as good, intelligent, educated, well-read, thoughtful, and peaceful. However “tit for tat” isn’t going to help.

I’ll write more as I continue to view the series. After one episode, I was emotionally drained.

2 thoughts on “Review of Lovecraft Country episode “Sundown”

  1. 1). The Black baseball player in the opening was obviously supposed to represent Jackie Robinson(#42 in Dodger Blue). You could hear the real Jackie Robinson speaking in the voice over in that scene.
    2). This episode was indeed filmed(directed) by a man, Yann Demange, but the show was created by a woman, Misha Green.
    3). Sundown towns were not just a Southern thing. Illinois in fact had the most documented Sundown towns of any state. Google or better yet read James Loewen’s book “Sundown_Towns:_A_Hidden_Dimension_of_American_Racism”
    4). I hope the Black Business man you reached out to on LinkedIn was someone with who you had a personal relationship. I would find it really awkward as a Black Man to be asked by some strange White Man on social media(especially on a professional platform like LinkedIn ) about my opinion on solving the current climate of “racial unrest”. Especially when Martin Luther Jr. said it over 50 years ago. “True peace is not merely the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice.”

    This show is really dense and uses the fantasy, horror, and sci-fi genres to show and confront the USA’s nasty racial history from primarily the Black American perspective. Please keep that in mind when doing your reviews of these episodes.

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    • Yes, I’m a really strange white man because the person I reached out to was pretty much a stranger. He sent me a request to connect on LinkedIn, and I have no idea why. He obviously didn’t have to answer, and if I asked you a similar question you wouldn’t have to answer either.

      I later found out that was supposed to be Jackie Robinson, but I didn’t do any research on the show because I want to experience it on its own terms.

      People will respond to the series differently based on their own experiences. You don’t know all of mine.

      I have since looked at some other reviews of the first season, and generally, the quality has been found to be inconsistent from one episode to the next. So far, I’ve seen three of them. I watch one a night (I have a day job) and will continue watching them. I understand, as you say, that the show depicts 1955 America from a black American point of view. I don’t know what the show’s goal is, but my goal is to find a way to have a conversation between black and white people that doesn’t involve violence and doesn’t involve me teaching my three grandchildren that they should perpetually hate themselves because they’re white.

      Thanks for commenting Rich.

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