During the 1950s, recent Black veteran Atticus Freeman (Jonathan Majors), his uncle George Freeman (Courtney B. Vance), and his childhood friend Letitia “Leti” Lewis (Jurnee Smollett) go on a road trip to “Ardham” Massachusetts. They are trying to find his missing father, Montrose Freeman (Michael K. Williams), and learn about his mother’s legacy.
Black Female creator Misha Green’s HBO Lovecraft Country Season 1 Episode 1 “Sundown” is directed by Yann Demange. The television show is based on the dark fantasy horror novel Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff. I sadly have never read the book, but I might after watching this fantastic pilot. “Sundown” is prevalent because we are all waking up to dangerous world Black Americans have always lived in.
The first few minutes of “Sundown” establishes the tone and themes of Lovecraft Country. Atticus Freeman dreams that he is back in uniform in a battle. A red Asian woman floats down from a flying saucer to hug Atticus. After the hug, a giant Lovecraftian monster with tentacles attacks him. Jackie Robinson destroys the beast with his bat. The monster reassembles itself right before pouncing at them. Atticus wakes up at the back of a bouncing bus heading to his hometown of Chicago. A Black elderly woman tells him they are driving over another bridge named after a “dead slave owner.” The two celebrate leaving the Jim Crow South. The camera pans out, revealing the two are sitting in the back of the bus in the “Black area.” This sequence demonstrates how this television show will be exploring racism, science fiction, and horror.
Misha Green and Yann Demange express how racism is the real horror story before engaging with the supernatural aspect of this show. During the road trip, the trio takes breaks to check out restaurants or hotels that Uncle George can write about for his “Green Book.” For those who do not know, the “Green Book” is a travel guide full of safety tips for Blacks visiting the Jim Crow South. Uncle George, Atticus, and Leti stop at the restaurant called Aunt Lydia’s Diner to see if it’s friendly to Black customers.
The warning signs start the moment they drive into the town of Simmonsville. Atticus spots a fire station where the white Firemen stare at them and their German shepherd bark as they pass by. The music is spooky. The streets of the small town are empty, making everything appear ominous. When Uncle George finds the address, the restaurant is now replaced with the Simmonsville Dinette. Both Leti and Atticus are suspicious of the diner’s hospitality toward Blacks after only seeing White people walking around the street. Still, Uncle George thinks they should have lunch at the restaurant. The horror starts the minute the three Black travelers walk into the Simmonsville Dinette.
When Uncle George asks to be seated for lunch, the White server and the lone White customer stares at them. The three travelers sit down at a booth as the customer scurries off. You can feel the tension in the almost empty diner. The server gives them menus and silently takes their drink orders before running into the kitchen. Leti points out that the restaurant will not be making the guide. Atticus argues that they should leave since their so close to Leti’s brother Marvin’s house, but George refuses to go. He ignores all the warning signs because he correctly believes that they have every right to eat at the diner. While finding the bathroom, Leti overhears the White server speaking on the phone. He tells somebody he did not serve “them” because of what the caller did to the past owner Ms. Lydia. Ms. Lydia was killed for serving Black customers. Suspenseful music plays as Atticus and Uncle George read their menus, not realizing what’s going.
Atticus looks around. He sees that everything is painted white. He asks his Uncle George about why the White House is painted white. George explains that the slaves painted the White House white after the British burned it down in 1812. Atticus moves a floor tile away, revealing burned wood. “Black” is the color usually connected to evilness or sin. This series inverts the trope where “white” is now related to barbaric behavior like burning down the restaurant because the owner serves Black travelers. Sirens go off as Leti runs up, telling her two companions to get out. The three jump into the car. Leti drives off. The fire truck and a black vehicle full of White men shooting guns chase their small car.
Our Black heroes speed through town running for their lives in the first authentic scene of horror in these dark fantasy horror series. Their car gets shot up. Atticus grabs his gun so he can shoot back. The veteran shoots enough to get both vehicles to back down, allowing them to escape briefly. The black truck finds them on the highway, but thankfully they are saved by a mysterious car that takes out the other vehicle out.
At the end of “Sundown,” the trio is stopped by Southern police officers who almost kill them for being Black after sunset in their territory. Just before they are lynched, Big pale creatures with lots of eyes and teeth (with vampire qualities) start attacking the White policemen. These beasts echo the ones we saw in Atticus’ dream. Usually, in horror films, it’s the Black characters who get killed first, but the small-minded racist cops are the ones who die. Atticus, Leti, and Uncle George escape the carnage without being eaten or changed. The three survivors end up in front of a large mansion where Atticus’s roots are from on his mother’s side.
I cannot wait for the second episode.