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Review: Racism permeates the horror of 'Lovecraft Country'

Solid HBO show mixes scary monsters and scathing social commentary

Tom Long
Special to The Detroit News

Horrible things abound in HBO’s “Lovecraft Country.” Wicked wizards, shape-shifters, gargantuan night monsters, murderous ghosts, the list goes on.

And yet the show’s central horror is unfortunately no fantasy, which makes it all the more horrific. The scariest thing in “Lovecraft Country” is its eye-opening depiction of American racism.

Courtney B. Vance, Jonathan Majors and Jurnee Smollett in "Lovecraft Country."

Created by Jordan Peele (“Get Out”) and Misha Green (“Underground’) and based on the novel by Matt Ruff, “Lovecraft Country” follows many of the standard dictums of modern fantasy/horror. A group of heroes find themselves caught up in a secret world, fighting a powerful evil that they don’t truly understand. Clues are planted, surprises are revealed, gore and cheap thrills are plentiful.

But these heroes are black people, the year is 1955, and the pain and brutality of blatant racism hovers over everything — where people can live, what jobs are available, how they are treated by the police. The monsters are scary, sure; the culture more so because it’s real.

At the story’s center is Atticus (Jonathan Majors) a Korean War vet who returns to Chicago when he hears his troublesome father (Michael K. Williams) has gone missing. Also returning to the old neighborhood is Letitia (Jurnee Smollett) a fiery, ungrounded photographer.

An excursion to Massachusetts,  a near-lynching, a mysterious white woman, those gargantuan night monsters and a palatial mansion all lead Atticus to discover he has blood ties to an evil underground network of powerful people trying to achieve immortality. You can’t choose your relatives, right?

Even though it has a continuous story arc the show goes through tonal shifts, moving from Indiana Jones to grindhouse to bump-in-the-night scares, so that it almost feels like an anthology. But the dark, disturbing cloud of racism is ever present and seeps into every corner of the show like a wraith. Except this monster’s real.

'Lovecraft Country'

GRADE: B

9 p.m. Sunday

HBO

Tom Long is a longtime contributor to The Detroit News.