'Lovecraft Country': Michael K. Williams on the "Trauma and Pain" of "Rewind 1921"

Lovecraft Country
Eli Joshua Ade/HBO

The penultimate episode of Lovecraft Country's first season took audiences back to Tulsa, Oklahoma, 1921, the night of the Tulsa race massacre. The episode served as a brutal reminder of a part of America's history that is still often unacknowledged, and as a reflection on how America's current racial landscape is built on shared traumas and shared sins that reach across generations. The episode premiered the same week that Vice President Mike Pence denied the existence of systemic racism in America during a debate with Senator Kamala Harris, giving the episode an even greater sense of urgency in our current racial climate.

In “Rewind 1921," directed by Jeffrey Nachmanoff and written by Misha Green & Jonathan Kidd & Sonya Winton, viewers got an up close and personal look at the family history that shaped Tic (Jonathan Majors) and Montrose (Michael K. Williams), a history of trauma that runs parallel to the history of violence that connects father and son. Earlier this week, The Hollywood Reporter spoke to Jonathan Majors about the legacy of Tulsa, and generational trauma shaped through blood memory in a conversation both illuminating and worthy of a follow-up from another perspective.

With so much to unpack in “Rewind 1921," The Hollywood Reporter spoke to Michael K. Williams to discuss his experience filming the episode, Montrose's choices, and what he hopes viewers take away from the first season of Lovecraft Country.

Montrose has been through a lot over the season. I think his goal, to protect his family, has remained the same, but his methods have changed in that he has softened towards Tic somewhat. Do you think the trip to the past helped Montrose through the trauma he's been through? Is he healing at all?

Probably not. If anything it just reopened the wound. I don't think he is yet in the mindset of healing. If anything he probably went and got a really stiff drink to self-medicate. What I do think about Montrose going home is that it improved his relationship with his son. As I myself get older and I deal with my parent that's still alive, which is my mother, I realize, like every other child-parent relationship, there's good things and there's bad things. That's just a fact of life. As I get around my mom more and I talk with her I realize that she has held on to a lot of things from her past that still pain her. And it was inflicted upon me in my upbringing, subconsciously, not deliberately. And as I get older and I look at her, and I hear the stories, what I start to do is I start to forgive her. I start to understand how she came to be the strong woman that she is, and where a lot of her pain came from and why she raised me in the way that she did, good and bad. I think the same thing happened to Atticus in that moment of going back home with his father. I think that he got to understand how his father came to be. And once we have understanding we can begin to forgive. And I believe that's what we're looking at. We're watching Atticus begin to forgive his father.

Along that line of fatherhood and forgiveness, Montrose reveals that George might be Tic's actual father. In the midst of everything else they're dealing with, why do you think Montrose thought that moment was a good time to reveal that info?

I don't think that he was thinking. You know, you can't hide the truth forever. It comes out in one way or the other. Light always comes to the surface, I believe. I think at the point what Montrose was thinking was that it doesn't matter who biologically your father is, I am your father. I think that was the bigger statement, rather than whose biological blood is running through his veins. I raised you, good, bad, and ugly. You are my child.

The last time that we spoke, near the beginning of the season, we talked about the importance of Tulsa in acknowledging American history. What was your experience as an actor in recreating Tulsa and situating yourself in that part of history?

It took me a level deeper in my craft. I'm used to reliving personal trauma, personal choices, mistakes I've made along the way, I'm used to reliving those to breathe life into the characters that choose me. However, with Montrose going back home to Tulsa, I got to revisit the generational trauma. I got to revisit the pain of things that I don't physically have memory of. But I know that the trauma that was passed down from the descendants of Tulsa, I know that's somewhere in my DNA. I know that I have relatives who lived during that time who knew exactly what happened. Who knows, I might even have some Tulsian blood heritage as well. We'll never know. However, I really realize now for me as an artist and an actor that I recognize when trauma and pain is being told on this level that it's important that I acknowledge it after the job is done and to process it, and put it into perspective and not treat it like just another job.

When I spoke to Jonathan Majors earlier this week one of the things we discussed was blood memory, which is the very same thing you're talking about with generational trauma. Even beyond Tulsa, Black people are connected to the trauma of their ancestors, which feels like an important facet of Black life that Lovecraft Country is really bringing to the forefront, for those of us who didn't know the history and for white audiences.

I hope that white America really takes this in. There's a reason why we got here to this place that we're in now. There were some things that were done that were extremely wrong. There are things that my ancestors survived that they shouldn't have had to be exposed to. They shouldn't have had to have been exposed to that type of hatred, ignorance. I hope that as a nation, white people, Black people, white people who didn't know, Black people who didn't know, or even white people who did know and didn't care, I hope they watch this and feel the pain of our ancestors, and know what their ancestors did, and the ignorance that we were subjected to as a people. We didn't get to where we are now all by ourselves. What happened in Tulsa was deliberate. It was out of anger and fear and ignorance. And I really hope that white people right now, I hope that they watch this, and I hope that they can see the pain and the trauma inflicted on my people by their ancestors. And for my people, I hope that we can see the greatness that's in us. The greatness.

Reckoning with the past has been a really important part of Lovecraft Country's meaningfulness. I also think it's a series important to our future. What can audiences take away from the entirety of the first season in order for America to find itself in a better place than what we're in right now?

Wow. There's so much. First off, I would hope that people walk away from having watched Lovecraft Country that they would get an understanding and a glimpse of the timeline of the chain of events, the things that have happened from 1921 in Tulsa up until now. There's been a lot of misfortune, of ill-behavior. I hope that we can start to unpack that. We've come a long way, there's been a lot of good things that have happened in this country, white and Black together. However, this country is built on lies. We are living on stolen property, built on free labor, on the backs of Africans! That is what America is built on! That is America! And until we start to unpack that, and where white supremacy was born, how that got injected into society, until we start to unpack that and address the core issues of what this country was built on, there is no moving forward. So I would hope that Lovecraft Country will create the beginning of the conversation. Because we've really got to talk here! There's no more going back. There's no more pretending to go back to any type of normal. It was never normal! It was never normal! Through the grace of God we were able as a nation to see a lot of good things happen, a lot of good. We've come a long way, but we've got a long way to go. Long way to go. And I would hope that Lovecraft Country would begin the conversation so we could really begin to heal, and really begin to talk about the systemic racism that is embedded in the fiber and the fabric of this nation! I hope that Lovecraft Country begins that conversation.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.