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LOVECRAFT COUNTRY Review: “Sundown”

August 17, 2020 in Review
Lovecraft Country "Sundown"

Okay, friends, my previous recap series of Quibi’s The Stranger got a crazy amount of hits this past week, which is weird because people are still watching Quibi? Like what the hell? Either way, I just finished the first episode of HBO’s brand new series, Lovecraft Country, and holy shit do I have some things to say.

Being a half-white chick eagerly anticipating Halloween, I’ve been hitting the spooky stuff pretty hard. Late August is pretty much an ideal time to debut a mystery/horror show like Lovecraft Country. Not to mention, with all the recent Black Lives Matter advances, this show is dropping at the pinpoint exact RIGHT DAMN TIME.

Some Backstory on “Sundown”

So every first episode has a bit of confusion in regards to establishing the setting, characters, tensions, etc. Fortunately, “Sundown” takes this all in stride, focusing on its rich characters to carry us into the show’s second half.

While the show doesn’t start out with one of those nifty que cards indicating the time period (only places), it doesn’t take one long to understand that our protagonist, Atticus “Tic” has just returned form the Korean War to 1950’s Chicago to investigate the disappearance of his father.

A sci-fi/horror buff, he befriends a fellow Black woman at the back of the bus shortly before it breaks down on the side of the road. When a pickup truck drives in to rescue the stranded passengers, Attictus takes notice of the unfriendly-looking drivers and walks with his new friend the rest of the way to Chicago. The scene conveys Atticus’ careful observation skills and his power of decisive action.

I also took notice of his ridiculous arm muscles. His old school friend Letitia (Leti) does too. Leti returns to Chigaco in an attempt to stay with her sister Ruby after (yet again) running out of money. Seems she’s the black sheep of the family, which makes me wanna root for her, even though I also loved her sister’s character. Leti refuses to clean houses for a living. Instead, she aspires to work at a fancy department store with the white folk, a dream that Ruby affirms her will never come true. (Ruby’s tried for yeearrrrs, sis.)

In Chicago, Atticus reunites with his Uncle George, author of The Safe Negro Travel Guide, which is exactly what it sounds like. Unfortunately, in order to write this book, George must actually travel to various counties in the damn Jim Crow era. He’s already got a knee busted up from some cops on his last trip. George’s wife, Hippolyta, offers to take the trip in his place, but he turns her down for fear of her safety. After all, it is the 1950s.

Leti, however, has a car, so Atticus and George venture out with her to find this mysterious town called Ardham (not to be confused with Arkham!) where Atticus’ father said he was going in a letter.

Black History in “Sundown”

Call me Canadian but I don’t know enough about Black history in America. I of course understand the slavery and segregation, but the ability to see the mental impact that this regulation had on people of colour really put me in a place, people. Lovecraft Country makes me want to understand more.

“Sundown”‘s most gripping scene is a montage of the first leg of the trio’s trip through the midwest. It’s scored to a popular statement given by James Baldwin about how the dream of America, highlighting how the country was built on the labour of black people, and continues to thrive at the expense of black people.

Several scenes of the montage focus on segregation, featuring lines for ice cream and the movie theatre. A very gripping visual is the one of a billboard featuring a white family in a car, selling “the car of freedom” while a line of poor black people stand below it waiting for the bus.

Another overgrown billboard outside of a country features the slogan: “Negros: Don’t let the sun go down on you today.”

Haunting, yes, but for me, a person who didn’t know what a “sundown town” was before Lovecraft Country, well, damn was I in for a fucking shock and a half.

Mid-Century Black Life

So I knew about the separate lineups and the endless mocking that Black Americans dealt with in the mid-century. But holy shit, that first tense scene in the restaurant was scary. When Leti takes a trip to the “ladies room” in the diner, I expected some kind of sexual violence to happen, but instead we catch her taking notice of the diner waiter on the phone, mentioning that “three black people came into the restaurant and he’s worried about what might happen”.

Leti gets the men out the booth and into the car right quick, when a group of white vigilantes chases after them with guns. It’s a wonderfully tense chase scene, but what’s even better is seeing how our three protagonists remain focused in a time of peak adrenaline. Eventually, a mysterious silver car becomes the diversion, swerving and magically flipping our racist pursuers. The passenger door opens and a white lady in a red hat appears before our protags drive off.

After a brief detour at Leti’s brother’s house, the trio heads out again, quickly getting sidelined by a notoriously racist cop, who briefs those of us who need to catch up on our fucking history on exactly what a “sundown county” is. And dang if that was not a tense chase scene at 25 miles per hour.

When The Sun Goes Down, The Horror Comes Up

Atticus, George and Leti barely get to breathe a sigh of relief before driving up to the police blockade in the next county. They’re quickly led into the woods at gunpoint, but it’s okay, because in this fantasy world, where bastard cops play, monsters lurk in the bushes. And they leave lots of blood and gore for us somewhat cowardly horror fans to enjoy.

Lemme just say that the special effects and direction of this scene is literal perfection. Much of the horror gets downplayed for comedic effect but it is absolutely wonderful and is everything that I desire to see in a horror. Adrenaline pumped. Proper jump scares got me off my seat.

The monsters are very Stranger Things-esque. The gore exists but is a fun gore. The cops that turn vampire remind me a bit of the trolls from Earnest Scared Stupid.

And Leti? Leti is no average scream queen. No orgasmic breathy heaves for Leti. Our friend Carl E. would have let her live, I’m sure. Leti’s dash to the car leaves her grunting with avid determination to survive. Plus, she gets some amazing damn screams in. She’s easily my favourite character.

I also appreciated the scene in the cabin, which pitted the surviving racist cops against Atticus and George. You see, the monsters don’t like light (giving me fond memories of one of my favourite horror games, Alan Wake). While the two cops demand all the flashlights and hog all the guns, the bitten racist asshole sheriff starts transforming. Gun-hogging racist cop worries about his bro, but both Atticus and George have a thing called survival instinct. As the infected racist garbage sheriff begins to transform, well, the scene cuts to George and Atticus standing calm with growing concern.

Horror comedy done right.

I love that the racial tension of the episode’s first half successfully builds our protagonists to survive this scene. Whenever they encounter white people, they have to maintain calm, weigh their options and act with survival in mind. They are 100% ALWAYS in survival mode, which makes this monster sequence so fantastic. Atticus, Leti and George all make smart decisions. They act with determination. The cops, who flail and bluster and wave their guns around, all fall to the terror. Our protagonists do not, and it speaks so much to the era, while also giving our characters the chance to escape each threat they face. Even the monsters.

And monsters aren’t supposed to be real, at least, according to the police.

The 1950’s

This was the 50’s, which was always told to me as a time of suburbs and nuclear families and perfection and maybe some dirty-ass nasty coal-covered streets a la Harold the Dirty Dog. I’m sure it will never not shock us that in a time of propagandized suburban perfection that black people were still being regularly hung from trees for being black.

I did love the first third of “Sundown”, which took place in a black neighbourhood in Chicago. The scenes were so vivid, colourful, full of life and blended generations. While it’s sad to think that Black people were forced to form their own neighbourhoods to feel safe, it’s also heartwarming to see just how much these neighbourhoods thrived from this sense of community. At least, you know, before the white people went a fucked that shit up too.

Like geez.

Black Lives Matter, everyone.

The Next Game of Thrones?

By the show’s end, our trio walks to the mysterious town of Ardham, finding a massive Tutor mansion. They pass the mysterious silver car in the driveway. A dude who looks like Carlyle Cullen crossed with Matthew McAughenay answers the door, stating that he’s been expecting Atticus Freeman. He welcomes him “home”.

Whatever that means.

I do feel that this show has a high change of being the next Game of Thrones. It’s got everything. Monsters. Mystery. Lessons in history. Complex black characters AND a little humour. The teaser for the season gives me some Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency vibes. I am so stoked to watch this show as the heat of summer moves into the creepiness of fall.

Notes

  • That Aunt Jemima billboard. Like I imagine that scene was filmed before everything post-George Floyd happened. Like dang, the coincidence of it.
  • Leti’s whole 50’s style, and throwing shade with her cat-eye sunglasses at those uptight white ladies.
  • Diana (Atticus’s young cousin) drawing creepy monsters on the maps. I thought they looked pretty awesome and I bet whoever was responsible for designing those props had a lot of fun making them.
  • Atticus rocking those old-timey specs.
  • Also really interesting about Atticus struggling with his obsession with Lovecraft (a notable racist), which kind of ties in to some unintended social commentary about J.K. Rowling and trans rights.
  • George: “You, you, y-you… need to shoot him.”
  • Hopefully we’ll get to see my good friend Chalky White in the next episode. I love love loved Michael K. William’s role in Boardwalk Empire and I’m so excited to see him again in this show as Atticus’ father.

What did you think of the first episode of Lovecraft Country?

Is it good pulpy fun? Did you learn something? What do you expect? Did you laugh when the zombied racist bastard-cop ate the idiot racist bastard cop as much as I did? Is this the next Game of Thrones?

Sound off in the comments!

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Rebecca

Rebecca is a neo-noir author from Kamloops, British Columbia. Her first collection of gritty short fiction, Vile Men was published by Dark House Press in 2015. She also writes about her writer lifestyle on her blog at rebeccajoneshowe.com.

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I'm Rebecca Jones-Howe, a neo-noir writer and author of the short story collection, VILE MEN. My work has been featured in [PANK], Pulp Modern and Punchnel's, among other magazines. This site houses my writing profile and my blog, which features posts on writing, fashion, lifestyle + more. Want more?

- RJH

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