We love stories. We love to read them, listen to them, and feel them. We love to dive into them under our covers in the dead of night with a flashlight. We like to close our eyes and be whisked away to a faraway land by a voice and by the journey of another. Those stories are endless. Sometimes monsters wait at the bottom of the ocean to devour you if your ship dares to enter their precious waters. Sometimes a young girl playing hide and seek discovers that the wardrobe she hides in is something else entirely. Other times, stories tell of the meteoric rise of Empress Theodora of the Byzantine Empire, who went from a humble background to royalty.
These stories can be fictional, true, or a mixture of both. But sometimes in those stories we find ourselves coming across a stain, an ugliness that is difficult to parse through. It’s becoming a little older and discovering the stunning racism of C.S. Lewis in The Horse and His Boy. It’s coming across a passageway in a tale of H.P. Lovecraft and recognizing with a sobriety that he viewed his monsters with snarling teeth and spiked tails more favourably than people with melanin in their skin.
Stories inform our perception and therefore our understanding of reality. That is a power of the stories described above and countless others. Lovecraft Country inherently understands this truth. The new HBO series about a young Black man searching for his father reaches those stains and ugliness. Instead of forgetting them or ignoring them as he searches in the towns that allegedly inspired Lovecraft’s work, it actively displays them in its own voice. In doing so, Lovecraft Country creates a powerful story whose perception of our reality is far more powerful and terrifying than anything Lovecraft himself ever imagined. The horrors of American history that are front and centre in Lovecraft Country are illuminated under the bright and uncompromising gaze of a terrifying sun.
Part of the terror in “Sundown” is its understanding of how the monsters of our reality are found in of the most benign circumstances. A sprinkler turning on to beat the summer heat. Grabbing lunch in a forgettable diner. A drive through a rural country road. The monsters that attack our protagonists in the dark forest are grotesque but they’re almost tame in comparison to the singular white police officer determined to kill three innocent people for no other reason than that they’re Black and he has the power to do so and a system that backs that power up.
The backdrop of “Sundown” is a simple search by Atticus (a phenomenal Jonathan Majors) to find his missing father (Michael Kenneth Williams). Atticus is a man driven by a love for stories, the kind where he can find the adventure and dreams of being – even if he is aware of the stains those stories may not care to hide. For Atticus, storytelling isn’t simply a pastime. He is aware of the power that stories hold and that awareness is key to his fierce intellect – an intellect that the white officers who agitate him simply cannot stand.
Along with Atticus for the journey are his uncle George (Courtney B. Vance, Uncorked) and the phenomenal Letitia *fu*king* Wright (in a charismatic tour-de-force performance by Jurnee Smollett from Birds of Prey). Their journeys as individuals and together are complex and Misha Green’s script does an excellent job of giving you enough hints to understand the dynamics of the characters and their interactions without overtipping its hand about where the story is going to go next.
The sharpest part of the pilot, and Misha’s script in particular, is its effortless weaving of the monsters among us and those in our imagination that here come to life. The soulful voice of James Baldwin is expertly used as Lovecraft Country slowly and thrillingly takes you through the pages of a nation’s history dotted with blood, hate, and the sheer terror that can be found when a golden, blood orange sun is dipping into the earth. The monsters in the forest are almost a relief.
+The imagery of the dichotomies of the American Dream are beautifully displayed throughout the pilot. The mural of American progress and wealth, defined through the lens of a white heterosexual family, hanging above a line of Black folks denied that wealth is powerful and sobering.
+The narrative inclusion of the Green Book was excellent. The infamous film of the same title that won the Oscar last year is not. The life of this book and of its creator, Victor Hugo Green, are worth exploring.
+If you want more of Jonathan Majors, check out the excellent film The Last Black Man in San Francisco.
+I cannot overstate the excellence of Jurnee Smollett’s performance. She is phenomenal from her dialogue delivery to style running that evokes iconic moments from horror films. Her exclamation in the car (you’ll know it when you see it) is fantastic.
+The title of the episode refers to the horrific phenomenon of Sundown towns. An excellent thread on which towns in America followed this despicable practice can be found here.
+The book Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism by James W. Loewen is also worth a deep look.