An essay about Misha Greene’s and HBO’s Lovecraft Country and its example-setting use of on & off-screen representation
It was in the final episode of HBO Max’s original series LoveCraft Country — Misha Green’s follow up from her lesser-known 2016 breakout Hulu series Underground — in which I began to notice the subtle achievement of the recognition of the world outside of the screen by Green and her writer’s room. After nine episodes of an inventive, genre-cocktail of fantasy and science-fiction alike, we’re left with seven characters adjoined in a wood-paneled station wagon, earnestly referred to by the group as “Woody.” In this car sits a curvy bi-sexual black woman, a brokenhearted Korean woman, a black man at the wheel with his pregnant bi-racial girlfriend, a heroic black mother with a genius-level intellect alongside her imaginative black daughter, and a black gay man riding shotgun.
It’s a shot of diversity that arrived without the hamfisting of an executive board who wanted to accomplish such a thing for public recognition. It grew out of organic creation, in a 1950s American setting where no one of these characters would be welcomed into the white-colored, fantasized bosom of classic Americana without pretending to be someone they’re not. Each of them felt independent from one another, never playing the role of their race, their sexuality, or any other identifying trait. No one of these characters would be identified as the “gay black man” or “the black protagonist.”
Producers Jordan Peele and J.J. Abrams probably provided a great deal of cover for Green and her writer’s room to run without having to walk. Still, Green and her team’s collective work in creating a diverse cast of characters and providing an earnest recognition of how their differing idiosyncrasies diversify them from the world around them and the costs of becoming who they were born to be.
For Green and her fellow black writers, the inclusion of black life in ’50s America was obvious. As was Matt Ruff’s LoveCraft Country novel in 2016, a rebuke of H.P. Lovecraft’s documented racism. Who, in the early 20th century, took to pen and publication to vent his fears of the endangered “Aryan race” from an ever-diversifying New York City. He sympathized with Hitler’s vision, frequently referring to Jews through the same underground anti-Semitic conspiracy theories that fuel the bigotry we see today. For Blacks, he published a poem in 1912 titled On the Creation of Ni — — , proclaiming the gods created Black people in a semi-human form to populate the space between the superior race and the nature that encompasses them.
Reflecting upon that history, any black creator would be incited to not only write about race but to find a way to write against the ghosts of Lovecraft’s legacy — both in and outside of fiction. Indeed, some anger-fueled penmanship took place in the writer’s room, as was seen on-screen with the vehement depictions of mythical and supernatural violence against those who use authority or power to oppress our characters. From the Vampires that ate the sundown town’s sheriff department to the main narrative conflict between a slave-owning white cult of magic dwellers fearing magic might be stolen by a slave’s descendent. LoveCraft Country never shies away from examining and intensifying racism’s horrors and their mirrored reflection to today’s so-called modern times. (One scene that does this best is when two white police officers harass young Diana Freeman (Jada Harris) in an alleyway as she screams “I Can’t Breathe”)
There are the touchstones of 20th-century racial history with Tulsa 1921, an event survived by Atticus Freeman’s (Jonathan Majors) father, mother, and uncle, and the grotesque murdering of Emmitt Till by J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant, but the mainstage is absorbed by the fictional depictions of what black life in America could be. The idea of being born into power, by crooked ways of white America, but nevertheless finding oneself-born into a legacy of aristocracy and magical greed. The fantasy of living out the best of lives as a widowed black mother whose intellect was side-stepped for lighter-skinned, lesser-enlightened options for her entire life. Only to discover herself adrift in multiple parallel worlds in which she names herself and embodies the souls of who she was always meant to be. Better yet, arrives the paradoxical illusion of embodying someone else’s skin for a day, living with privilege for the first time, while also recognizing you’re still without the license given to your male counterparts.
It is a show built upon segmented experimentation with the concept of identity in America. And each of them never serves a higher price than that of what the story demands, never explaining the magic behind the genre but rather embracing the narrative’s subtextual texture instead. It’s a writing feat incomparable to most achievements of the same tone while also serving as yet another lesson in what makes representation significant to the craft of storytelling.
The lesson in which to be learned, from LoveCraft Country and HBO’s previous success Watchmen, is not only honesty in which those whose life experiences inform that of a characters’ texture, but also the freedom to challenge the norms and expectations of the viewership.
Some believe the key to diversity is simply matching narrative or character with identity, a gay man portraying a gay character, a black writer telling a black character’s story. I, however, would argue that the intention of said narrative matters most. Suppose the story is set to inform and emotionally depict the hardships and trials experienced by that race, creed, sexuality, or gender identity, then yes. In that case, that story should be constructed by those who know the hairlined details that craft an authentic rendering of that shared life. If the tale simply involves a character descended from any of those identifying traits, like that of Captain Marvel or any future gay superhero film, then perhaps it’s not a requirement but certainly, an addition to consider.
Diversity is a strange beast that is continuing to evolve in storytelling. What should it look like? How should it feel to an audience of that same color, that same sexuality, that same gender, that same-gender identity? And how do writer’s rooms or novelists aspire to satisfy that specificity demanded from an underfed audience instead of the typical white, straight, male majority.
LoveCraft Country is just another leading example of what those possibilities resemble, but not the final underlining rendering, as much more storytelling of the same nature is bound to arrive on our screens in due time. The question is, how do you top this?