In the inaugural episode of Dreaming in Color, a new series from The Hollywood Reporter and HBO focused on amplifying talents of color, above and below the line, the stars of HBO’s Lovecraft Country, Jonathan Majors and Jurnee Smollett, sat down to discuss the impact of the series through the lens of inclusivity and social justice — the ways in which media can confront America’s racial history and create a space for Black humanity in an ever-changing industry.
Lovecraft Country, created by Misha Green and based on Matt Ruff’s 2016 novel of the same name, concluded its first season on HBO in October 2020. The series explores the horrors of racial injustice and the supernatural through the eyes of Atticus Freeman (Majors) and Leti Lewis (Smollett), alongside their families in 1950s America. Smollett, who worked with Green previously on the series Underground, says she was “struck by the audacity to show Black folks in such a light, centering on so many Black voices in a genre we’ve been historically shut out of.”
While Lovecraft Country has a very clear message, one that makes contemporary comparisons easy, particularly in light of the Black Lives Matter Movement, Smollett said she was impressed by the series’ ability to do that without forcing the point and remaining honest. Honest, not only about the horrors of racism, but also the triumphs, specifically those triumphs that come from the strength of Black women. “For too long, we’ve been left these lazy-ass or racist narratives [in the genre],” Smollet says, speaking of the passivity with which women of color are so often depicted in genre works. Lovecraft Country confronts that, and Smollet says, “as Black women I believe we are the spine of our nation. We’ve been on the front lines of change.”
To her point, much of Lovecraft Country is centered on the honesty of confronting Blackness, particularly in how we perceive ourselves, and in how others perceive us. On Atticus, Majors says, “He was the archetypical hero … the classical idea of heroism, he did it. However, he had things lined up against him, and because of that, all the tropes and trappings of what it is to be a hero, and furthermore what it is to be a Black man, he got to fully embody those things and then expand them. With Atticus, he carries a burden of that Black masculinity, of the hero, but he continues to use the vehicle of the archetype to expand it. He is a bibliophile, he is a family man. He is a protector. He doesn’t do the things society says he should do.”
Yet, for every expansion of the archetype of what it means to be Black in America, in Lovecraft Country there is a historical undercurrent, a reminder that racism, whether supernatural or based in fact, will continuously attempt to prevent Black people from success and moving forward, from seeing themselves as heroes. The Tulsa Massacre serves as that undercurrent, with events of decades prior reaching out and shaping the actions of the 1950s in the show, and further still shaping the real-world events of 2020. “They couldn’t call it a massacre,” Majors says, providing historical enlightenment. “There has to be reparations with a massacre. If it was a massacre then that’s on the government and there are things to be repaid. And with a riot, which it was labeled by society, there is no payback.”
Smollett is quick to provide further context, a reminder of how often these events have happened in Black history. “It’s not just Tulsa. It’s Rosewood. It’s the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing, Charleston, South Carolina … You can’t really quantify the impact these sort of events have had on the survivors. To be Black or brown in this nation means that someone in your lineage has either had to bear witness or had to survive events like these. That’s in your DNA.”
The impact of Lovecraft Country airing during the Black Lives Matter Movement of 2020 was not lost on either actor. “That real panic that Leti feels when she sees that gun being pointed at this man that she loves, how many families are going to have to feel that?" says Smollett. "How many George Floyds, or Breonna Taylors, or Casey Goodsons are going to have to perish before the world is consistently as horrified as we are? Because that’s a horror we have to live with, beyond this obligatory social media post. It’s quite maddening, but I’m encouraged because what does Nina Simone say? 'It’s our job to reflect the time.' If Lovecraft contributes to the dialogue, or expands the perspective of folks, we will have done our jobs.”
Majors says he feels that Lovecraft Country contributed to the protests. “As the protests were raging, the show was airing every Sunday and there were conversations to be had. Within families those conversations were being had. So it’s encouraging. Jurnee and I were and continue to be part of the protests, part of the movement. And that movement is for justice, equality, peace and love. We don’t necessarily have to check our history books anymore, just stay present.”
There are inescapable horrors that come with being a person of color in America, but in having the opportunity to see ourselves as heroes within our fiction, as we do in Lovecraft Country, is a gamechanger that has a larger impact on our fight for social justice. Our ability to express the fullness of our humanity is an essential part of our DNA as well, and it’s our ability to see ourselves reflected honestly in media that allows us to tap into that. “Art is essential … representation in art matters. I look at my son and I look at my niece, and they observe the world around them and then reenact what they see. Yet, how can they be what they cannot see? It’s a constant struggle for me, as a mother, as an auntie, to find the new book or the new cartoon to put in front of them so that they can dream,” Smollett says. “It’s important to not just see us being heroes, but being flawed. See us stumble and getting back up, seeing us trekking along, seeing us being just people.”
Majors has similar thoughts about the importance of seeing Black people as heroes and more, not just in terms of the here and now, but the future as well. He says depicting the fullness of Black lives “adds to blanket of our culture at large, and once we do that, shit kind of settles out. So what we end up doing is not just allowing other folks to see us the way we are, but we allow ourselves to see us as we are, which then emboldens us as a culture to grow and to expand, and not just keep that in the house or on the stage … You can then live and behave fully. That’s what the artists do. We give permission, in many ways, for people to feel and experience things in the day-to-day.”
As for how they see inclusivity and representation changing within Hollywood, Majors says, “The minds of the gatekeepers have been expanded. However, I feel it has only been expanded because of certain phenomena, because of certain things that have occurred, because of artists of color, Black artists breaking the mold. Because of Get Out, because of Black Panther, those two movies completely shook the minds and the algorithms of what the oligarchy of Hollywood has set up.” And the more we continue to talk like we’re talking now, the more we continue to express ourselves on film, in television, onstage … and refuse to give a stereotypical reading, the more we challenge [creators] and the more we challenge them to expand narrative.” The challenge has been put down in front of Hollywood, but if current trends are any indication, Black creators are no longer waiting for their moment. Smollett says she sees the shift coming in the form of supply and demand: “The audiences are demanding that art reflect the way the world actually looks, they’re demanding that they see themselves in these projects … But I’m also encouraged by the folks who aren’t just waiting for that. The writers, the directors, the producers, the artists, these creators who are just writing dope stories.” This conversation with Jonathan Majors and Jurnee Smollett is a reminder to know of our past and dream of our future, because the scope of stories, how they’re told and who tells them, has changed.