‘Been thinking about something my brother said,” Jurnee Smollett says on the “Sundown” episode of the HBO series Lovecraft Country. That’s the tip-off that this new TV show is another Smollett-family racial hoax. But the Smollett Effect (begun by the 2019 scandal in which actor Jussie Smollett vilified the city of Chicago and the nation) is part of a larger pattern of Systemic Racism Entertainment™ promoted in our film and TV industries, and it’s the keynote of Lovecraft Country.
Produced by J. J. Abrams and Jordan Peele, the series combines critical race theory (the academic exploration of racism in social institutions, first taught to school students and now to TV viewers) with childish horror fiction (unreasonably popularized in the film Get Out). Race hysteria dominates HBO’s serial story of a black Korean War vet confusedly named Atticus Freeman (Jonathan Majors) who, in PC lingo, “experiences” racism — and otherworldly evil — while searching for his father in the 1950s Jim Crow South. Although based on Matt Ruff’s 2016 pulp novel, Lovecraft Country unites Abrams, Peele, Smollett, and show-runner Misha Green as they follow the same route to Hollywood success that public intellectuals take to university tenure. This gender-equity group (two men, two women; three blacks to one white) employs the shock, offense, and tradition of racism as entertainment. Their unscrupulous ambition confirms that our culture is in a lousy predicament.
American history is at stake in Lovecraft Country. Facts are replaced with psychological trauma, sarcasm substituted for national memory. The opening scene — in which Atticus has a dream that conflates World War I with H. G. Wells’s War of the Worlds and Brooklyn Dodger #42 Jackie Robinson — typifies the show’s barely intelligible hodgepodge. Cultural chaos passes for postmodern sophistication, a defect among undergrads who never adequately grasped semiotics and structuralism — and Sopranos subscribers who feel nervously “smart.”
Instead of Atticus and Smollett’s Leti Lewis enduring various forms of inequality, their fear and indignation are turned into supernatural and rather ridiculous metaphors.
Here’s the Smollett Effect: Jurnee Smollett, who began as a child actress in the black feminist Eve’s Bayou and appeared as a precocious school student in Denzel Washington’s fatuous and historically inaccurate The Great Debaters, has made her career within the confines of race exploitation. As an adult, she works in an era dominated by race manipulation — epitomized by her actor-brother Jussie’s infamous criminal deception. Jurnee Smollett’s Leti, a bimbo-activist, constantly outruns redneck police aggressors while Majors resembles a muscle-bound MLK clone out of a Tyler Perry wet dream. Both are perversely eroticized civil-rights-era fantasies. Again, the second-rate trickery known from Jordan Peele’s racial horror fiction (so far Get Out, Us, and TV’s new The Twilight Zone) pushes the same buttons as Jussie Smollett’s felonious ruse.
Lovecraft Country’s shameless distortion of America’s racial past derives from morally bankrupt pulp fiction — and the inability to evaluate violent sensation in social behavior that has been accepted as normal since the advent of Tarantino’s sadism. Charlatans Peele and Abrams think such nihilism is insightful. But what’s the purpose of the “Sundown” episode exploiting the segregation subject of To Kill a Mockingbird and The Green Book, or naming a black saloon after Denmark Vesey? It recalls a Sopranos gimmick of rousing some vague cultural memory to no effect except self-congratulation.
In the series’ blatant homage to horror writer H. P. Lovecraft (an Edgar Allan Poe imitator), jumbled, incoherent action scenes include monsters and vampires — effects that distract from social seriousness. In the “Sundown” episode, the ex machina insertion of H. P. Lovecraft’s berserk poem “The Creation of the Nigger” is certainly provocative. But this cruel sensationalism lacks the emotional richness that D. W. Griffith brought to his adaptation of Poe in The Avenging Conscience (1914), a broad application of Poe’s seminal detective story into America’s first psychological horror film, where the evocation of American literary heritage (a graphic insertion of Poe’s “Annabel Lee” into the “Tell-Tale Heart” plot) visualized a spiritual connection between lovers, colleagues, citizens.
But Lovecraft’s conveniently imagined diseased society (named “Arkham,” later repeated in Batman graphic novels) is a moral swindle. Lovecraft’s perversity uglifies the roots of American spiritual and moral relations, unlike Poe, Griffith, or Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County tales. And HBO’s frenzied F/X are not advanced over Griffith a century ago. Lovecraft Country links to literary racism simply for fake topicality. Anti-American nihilism and hopeless racial cynicism give the show its gotcha.
Sorry, but I laughed out loud when the “Sundown” episode ended with a hipster rendition of “Sinnerman,” the Nina Simone song with which David Lynch satirically concluded Inland Empire (2006). In HBO’s context, it’s not a protest anthem, or a Baptist screed, but a great big guffaw at the morality and religious beliefs that have vanished from the civil-rights movement. That obsolete movement for human dignity is now a cartoon of Millennial self-righteousness whose figureheads are scofflaws, miscreants, and Hollywood lowlifes.
There is more to be said about Peele’s juvenile confusion of real and imagined horror, J. J. Abrams and Misha Green’s opportunism, and the Smollett Effect that is used to entertain national unease. The Avenging Conscience might have been a good title for a series that evoked racism as more than a thrill ride, but the race hustlers of Lovecraft Country show no conscience.