Why ‘Lovecraft Country’ Has One of the Best Acting Ensembles of 2020

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Photo Source: Eli Joshua Ade/HBO

As we look back at 2020, we at Backstage have pinpointed the year’s best big- and small-screen ensemble work for your SAG Awards consideration and beyond. For more voting guides and roundups, we’ve got you covered here.

MAIN CAST: Jamie Chung, Aunjanue Ellis, Jada Harris, Abbey Lee, Jonathan Majors, Wunmi Mosaku, Jurnee Smollett, Courtney B. Vance, Michael Kenneth Williams
CASTING BY: Kim Coleman
CREATED BY: Misha Green

With perhaps this TV season’s most mind-boggling introduction, “Lovecraft Country” announces everything it wants to explore thematically in just two minutes. A Black soldier is fighting his way through Korean War trenches as an old-timey radio announcer speaks about the American dream. The surrounding explosions turn out to be from a high-tech spacecraft, and an alien girl descends from a UFO. Then, a horrific, tentacled monster is destroyed by Jackie Robinson wielding a baseball bat.

Yes, you read that right. No expense was spared on HBO’s adaptation of Matt Ruff’s 2016 novel “Lovecraft Country,” a story of segregated America that both draws inspiration from H.P. Lovecraft’s world of literary horror and grapples with its creator’s racism. And no aspiration was too high for showrunner, writer, director, and executive producer Misha Green, who no doubt was able to dream so big thanks to the encouragement of fellow producers and TV visionaries J. J. Abrams and Jordan Peele. Within its first moments, sci-fi and horror audiences know this is a series with a fearlessness that matches its ambition.

What’s more, almost every character is Black. Following in the footsteps of mainstream hits like Marvel’s “Black Panther,” Peele’s “Get Out,” and HBO’s “Watchmen,” “Lovecraft Country” is the latest—and possibly the boldest—pop culture phenomenon to redefine and reclaim predominantly white screen entertainment genres. Across the 10 episodes of its first (and hopefully not last) season, the drama plays out within the context of storytelling tropes that historically have seldom grappled with race: The occult, haunted houses, swashbuckling adventure, and time and space travel are recontextualized with Black faces and voices, all in defiance of Hollywood—and, of course, Lovecraft.

None of it would work without actors committed to playing both nuanced emotional conflict and swing-for-the-fences entertainment. Led by Jonathan Majors and Jurnee Smollett as the romantically entangled Atticus “Tic” Freeman and Letitia “Leti” Lewis, the cast believably swings between moments of painful intimacy, epic action, and hilarious B-movie jump scares. (At least once, every actor is tasked with emoting while doused head-to-toe in blood.)

As each member of the tight-knit ensemble is given their own spotlight throughout the twisty season (mild spoilers follow!), it’s obvious that Green loves and trusts her cast. Majors immediately establishes Tic as a hero with a good heart, determined to protect his family from the sinister Order of the Ancient Dawn and racist policemen alike. Smollett’s Leti suffers no fools, moving into a white Chicago neighborhood and kicking ass in fabulous 1950s costumes without failing to remind us, and Tic, of her vulnerability.

Aunjanue Ellis, Courtney B. Vance, and Jada Harris play Tic’s stargazing aunt Hippolyta, his nerdy uncle George, and his comic illustrator cousin Diana, respectively, each embarking on adventures in an increasingly menacing world of magic. Leti’s half-sister, Ruby, played with magnetic interiority by Wunmi Mosaku, learns of the horrors and benefits of wearing another’s skin thanks to Jordan Patrick Smith’s William and Abbey Lee’s witchy Christina.

Carrying a bottle episode of her own is Jamie Chung as Korean nurse Ji-Ah, proving that this story can expand to fit characters from any background or genre. Rounding out the cast is the brilliant Michael Kenneth Williams as Tic’s closeted father, Montrose, who delivers the series’ most heartbreaking moment: reciting the names of real Black Americans killed during the 1921 Tulsa race massacre as he watches it burn.

That moment proves that great acting can encompass both spectacle and depth. It’s the cast’s job, more than any other storyteller, to sell the biggest takeaway of “Lovecraft Country”: that the only thing more terrifying that shoggoths and other tentacled horrors are racist white people. 

This story originally appeared in the Jan. 20 issue of Backstage Magazine. Subscribe here.

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