HBO / Foxtel
As with the TV version of Watchmen, Lovecraft Country, on HBO, dramatises ugly truths about daily life as a black person in America amongst fantastical elements – in this case, monsters in the style of H.P. Lovecraft’s. It’s being doled out, an episode at a time, old school; the pilot, called Sundown, at a hundred and nine minutes, assumedly lays down a fair sense of the larger (eight-episode) framework.
Jonathan Majors, a Yale School of Drama graduate making a big play for big recognition after staking his claim with singular performances in The Last Black Man In San Francisco and Da 5 Bloods, plays Atticus, a 30-something Black American man in the 1950s whose alcoholic father has gone missing in ‘Lovecraft Country’, an area of New England in the United States lived in by the horror fantasist H.P. Lovecraft. Together with his uncle and a female friend, Atticus sets out on a road trip to find his father, facing the terror not only of Lovecraftian monsters but American racists.
As Watchmen did with its amazing pilot, revealing the neglected historical event of the ‘Massacre of Black Wall Street’ in Tulsa in 1921, Lovecraft Country shows us things Americans would rather forget. In the case of the pilot episode, it’s the concept of ‘Sundown Towns’ (and counties), places where, if black people were found after dark, they could be arrested – and worse – by the police. The very concept itself is more terrifying than anything that plays on screen, but the episode is visceral, exciting and polished, and the three leads – Majors is joined on the journey by Jurnee Smollett and Courtney B. Vance – display an easygoing and inviting chemistry. It’ll be intriguing to see how this very high concept plays out.
* * * 1/2
Not to be confused with Victor Hugo’s novel, Ladj Ly’s banlieue policier is deliberately named after it, and is set in the Paris commune – Montfermeil – in which the Thénardiers had their inn in the book. As with La Haine, made twenty-five years ago, Ly’s debut fiction feature is about the seeds of trouble in the Paris projects, and, like La Haine, tension is built from a situation which could be avoided but which inexorably grows out of control.
There’s a lot of very skilful filmmaking, suburb performances and a total grasp of milieu on display: Ly grew up here and he knows the turf, the tensions, the terroir. It’s compelling, sometimes gripping, but, to be honest, the basic plot mechanics here aren’t radically different to similar scenarios in Engrenages (Spiral), where they have been done just as well. But if you’ve missed the first seven seasons of that brilliant TV show, get a taste of what Ly’s offering here, and then do yourself a favour and dial up The Best TV Show Ever on SBS (Season 8 is coming later this year!)