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[This story contains spoilers for season one, episode five of HBO’s Lovecraft Country, “Strange Case.”]
Fear. It is the emotion that drives so many of the decisions, both noble and ill-fated, that the characters make in Lovecraft Country. There is arguably no character more fearful than Montrose Freeman (Michael K. Williams), whose fear has manifested itself in ugly, heartbreaking ways during the first half of the season. While viewers may see Montrose as something of an antagonist, especially given his actions in the previous episode — the brutal murder of Yahima (Monique Candelaria) — his fear is driven by something stronger that is struggling to break free: love.
In “Strange Case,” directed by Cheryl Dunye and written by Misha Green and Jonathan Kidd & Sonya Winton, viewers finally get insight into Montrose Freeman. While hinted at in previous episodes through Tree’s (Deron J. Powell) goading of Tic (Jonathan Majors) about his father’s closeness to barkeeper Sammy (Jon Hudson Odom), and the question of Tic’s actual father, the fifth episode of Lovecraft Country reveals that Montrose is queer.
In true Lovecraft Country fashion, there’s a lot happening in the mid-season episode, including Leti (Jurnee Smollett) and Tic’s efforts to translate pages from the Book of Names, and Ruby’s (Wunmi Mosaku) metamorphosis into a white woman and deepening relationship with William (Jordan Patrick Smith). But the matter of Montrose’s sexuality, particularly given the character’s anger, and how LGBTQIA+ identity has been historically seen and dealt with (or not dealt with) within the Black community, is worthy as the primary discussion for the episode.
When Tic finds out what Montrose did to Yahima, his reaction is swift and brutal. Given the moment of tenderness shared between father and son in the previous episode, it’s hard to watch Montrose be beaten so badly, and it’s equally hard to watch Tic give into the rage that’s been bubbling underneath the surface all season. Tic’s anger is understandable, but it’s also understandable why viewers might be angry at Montrose as well. Yahima, as both an indigenous character, and one who refers to themselves as being of two-spirits, which numerous viewers have read as trans or intersex, is brutally murdered almost as soon as they appear. Given both the historical and contemporary violence against the LGBTQIA+ community, and their lack of representation in media, the murder is all the more uncomfortable and challenging to deal with.
So what does it mean to have one queer character killed by another who we come to learn is also queer? Again, Lovecraft Country goes back to this idea of otherness. Throughout the season we’ve seen the effects of racial othering, but now knowing what we know about Montrose, he’s dealing with otherness on two fronts as a Black man who is also queer. On the surface, Montrose kills Yahima in order to prevent them from helping Tic translate the book of names. But on a deeper level, Montrose’s actions could be viewed as a reflection of his own self-loathing, an attempt to destroy and bury a part of himself that goes against his upbringing and the idea of Black masculinity.
While the topic would be better addressed by those who are a part of the LGBTQIA+ community and Black, there is a much-considered discussion within the Black community and Black families about queerness. And the anxiety, particularly among Black fathers of their children being queer, is a storied history. It is a fear of further otherness and a love that sometimes manifests as abuse, which is something Lovecraft Country writer, Shannon Houston, and horror journalist Ashley C. Ford discussed on the previous episode of HBO’s official Lovecraft Country podcast. Montrose has spent much of his life trying to beat the perceived weakness out of his son, in an attempt to also drive perceived weakness out of himself.
Montrose goes to see Sammy at his place in the Cabrini Green. The apartment complex, famous for its crime and poverty, served as the central setting for Bernard Rose’s Candyman, a staple of Black horror. Candyman, based off of Clive Barker’s short story “The Forbidden,” also focuses on a romance that is seen as taboo, miscegenation rather than homosexuality. Montrose goes to Sammy with a resolve that comes across like a man walking to his death. Their sex is rough, and for Montrose, lacking tenderness, rejects Sammy’s attempts to make love to him. There is horror and shame in this sexual act for Montrose, his bruised and beaten face matching his bruised and beaten heart.
Later at Sammy’s apartment, he and Montrose are teased by Sammy’s drag friends. “They haven’t even smacked lips yet,” one of them says. Montrose’s discomfort is clear, and when they go to the drag club, Montrose is shown standing by himself as Moses Sumney’s “Lonely World” plays in the background. Given everything viewers know about Montrose — his potential for violence, his need to act alone, and his propensity to be cruel — viewers expect him to reject his surroundings, to be angry at who the people around him are, and who he is. But instead, something amazing happens. For the first time in the series Montrose lets go of his fear, kisses Sammy, and joins the dance in a moment both beautiful and transformative.
It’s not that Montrose is absolved of his sins by the episode’s end, but that the weight of his history as both one who was abused and has been abused is finally beginning to lift, and he sees his otherness as something that doesn’t separate him, but gives him a new community to be a part of. Yet, because it is a community that Tic is not a part of and one that he is keeping secret, Montrose’s journey of self-acceptance is still ongoing. The question of whether Montrose will be able to truly move forward from here remains to be seen.
For more on the episode, The Hollywood Reporter spoke to four-time Emmy nominee and HBO legend Michael K. Williams about Montrose’s big moment, his relationship with Tic, the Black community, and America’s long legacy of secret histories and secret selves.
Looking at Montrose’s personal library, it’s clear he’s not really a big horror or sci-fi guy. He sees some of the darker truths and racial issues behind these stories and the writers. Where does his perspective come from?
Y’know, Montrose was not given the opportunity to dream or have fantasies. For some reason, the way he navigated through his relationship with that part of the brain was equated by his father as being soft or sissified. So he got beat and he got abused in a way that George (Courtney B. Vance) did not get. Where Montrose might have wanted to take a flower and put it in his hair, and jump around and play, George wanted to read horror books or comic books, and that was considered more of a boy thing. So when Tic comes along and shares the same interests as George, Montrose says, “That’s not what society needs you to be, you need to get your head out of those fantasy books because fantasy books are not real. You get your ass beat for fantasies. You better get into this box and be a man and be the definition of what a man looks like and feels like.” I believe because [Montrose] was punished for his fantasies and George wasn’t, that fueled a lot of his hatred for the genre of books that Tic and George enjoy.
In episode four we see Montrose really try to connect with Tic and be a better father. But that goes off the rails at the start of episode five. What do you think is the thing holding Montrose back from being the father Tic needs?
Fear of losing control. Fear of not being needed anymore. Tic is all Montrose has; that’s all he got. And there’s a need to be needed, a need to be in control and say I can control you because you need me. Montrose is watching Tic become a man right before his eyes, his own man, and he wonders where does that leave him. What space will there be left for Montrose in Tic’s life?
There’s a lot happening in Lovecraft Country, and Misha Green has talked about legacy in terms of the central idea. How did this idea of legacy impact your lens into this show?
When I had to strip away the many shows rolled up into one that we call Lovecraft Country, I had to pick one. (Laughs.) I decided that for me, Lovecraft Country is a family story. It’s a story about a family trying to find themselves, trying to reconnect with each other, trying to forgive each other, trying to love each other, trying to get to know each other, and trying to find what is their legacy and stake in America. What will they pass on to the next generation? Who are they? Every family, no matter your race, wants to know that. One of the things I love about episode one is the relationship between Leti and Ruby. That dynamic between Black women who are sisters, with different bodies and skin tones… different fathers, that’s a very real family dynamic in the Black community. You see all of these different complexities and that’s what captured my attention about the narrative and the storytelling.
During the fifth episode, there is this beautiful moment of healing and coming out for Montrose. The way you play that moment at the drag club is brilliant because as a viewer we’re unsure if Montrose will give into his anger and lash out at his lover, Sammy, when he kisses him, or if he’ll accept it and embrace who he is. Could you talk about performing that moment?
For me, it wasn’t about Montrose coming out or accepting his sexuality because he’s never even had a chance to explore what that is. He’s been beaten into so many boxes. He’s been told what Black masculinity, Black sexuality, and what a Black man means to a Black community: “Black men have sons! We pee with the door open.” All of that kind of crap. Montrose just doesn’t know anything different. He’s had the opportunity to explore that beaten out of him so viciously, for so long, that there’s a lack of self-love. There’s a lack of self-acceptance on that deeper level. It’s deeper than just sexuality. So when he gets in this club, surrounded by all this freeness and acceptance, and no one is judging him, he lets that little boy out. That’s what he lets out. The little boy “comes out,” not necessarily the decision to be gay, or straight, or bi. There’s too much trauma there for him to even deal with that. But that moment of letting the little boy out is the first time Montrose sees a glimpse of that unconditional love that says just be you.
There are a lot of parallels between what’s happening in the show and what’s happening right now in America. Do you think Montrose’s experience as a Black man in the ’50s is any different from the experience of Black men today?
There are some things that bother me that I see in Lovecraft Country still being play out today. They brush on a little bit in the show, but how we treat each other in our community, that lack of empathy, and understanding, and love that we have towards one another. There’s something that Montrose says, I forget which episode, but he references how much Black on Black murder has been going on in the South Side of Chicago, but then you also see this thriving artist community. There are a lot of parallels. We kind of fell asleep at the wheel in regards to Black America. There’s a saying, I forget where I heard it, but it goes “If someone white wants to kill me, that’s their problem. But if someone white who wants to kill me kills me and gets away with it, that’s my problem.” Yeah, a lot hasn’t changed in the Black community but a lot has. We have Black owned business. We’ve got Black billionaires running around here now — with a “s,” Black billionaires. (Laughs.)
But with that, I also think there’s a lot Americans who don’t know Black America. Going off of Lovecraft, there’s a lot of secret history of Black successes and white failings.
There is a lot that we have done as a community and as a culture, and as a country to move forward. However, the truth was never really told to us in regards to our history, and desire and willingness to want to go and find it out was also lacking. My mama always said, “What you don’t know, you’re doomed to repeat.” So to have Lovecraft Country, and to hear stories of white people saying “What!? What do you mean a massacre in 1921 in Tulsa?” It’s major. I just watched this documentary called Stockton on My Mind, and this very affluent Black man from Tulsa said the first time he had heard about this massacre he was like, “No, no you must be mistaken. I’m from Tulsa, that never happened in my city.” So I’m hoping that with shows like Lovecraft and Watchmen, that it’ll spark the conversation for us to get to know who we are, know where we come from, and be reminded of our strength while at the same time identifying our weaknesses, and move forward.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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