Lovecraft Country aims to be a timely examination of racism and white privilege in America. The show is based on Matt Ruff’s novel which includes compelling characters who are ready for the task of fighting the magic immunity of white privilege. The source material also illustrates the importance of family and community ties between Black protagonists. However, the TV series introduces abuse, alcoholism, and family dysfunction, and strips Black characters of their own magic. Lovecraft Country reinforces negative stereotypes about Black people and creates Black and Indigenous queer characters only to disparage and murder them.
The Mistreatment of Sammy
Episode one introduces Sammy, the owner of the bar where Montrose often broods and drinks. He is first seen momentarily having a sexual encounter with another man in the alley behind his bar. This back-alley clandestine encounter turns the show’s first queer representation into something shocking and shameful.
It says more about Sammy’s characterization than it does about queerness in the 1950s. Gay men had homes and other places to have sex during that time. A later episode even reveals that Sammy has a community of openly queer friends. Lovecraft Country places Sammy in that alley solely for upcoming plot convenience, even if it meant degrading him.
Unbeknownst to the show’s protagonist Atticus, his father Montrose began an affair with Sammy in his absence. Tree, a bouncer at Sammy’s bar, mentions Sammy to Atticus. At first, Atticus believes Tree is insinuating a relationship between him and Sammy. He quickly retorts with, “I’m not a sissy.” We later learn that Atticus’ homophobia is a direct result of his upbringing by Montrose. Atticus says Montrose beat him so he wouldn’t become “soft.”
Revealing Atticus as a homophobe in this way immediately impugns Sammy. Outside of Lovecraft Country‘s world, people often accuse the Black community in America for “lagging behind” the rest of the country in terms of queer acceptance. Black men’s portrayals are often hypermasculine to the point of embracing the worst in toxic masculinity and being entirely emotionally unintelligent. Perceiving homophobia as central to Blackness has become yet another racist Hollywood trope.
Homophobia has been an underpinning of all forms of cinema for decades. However, white characters in contemporary film and television are often depicted as being more accepting or benignly ignorant while Black men are portrayed as aggressively homophobic. Straight Black characters are often given a gay Black man whom they can shame and ridicule for being unnatural, effeminate, and “not a real man.” This is despite the fact that men of any other race are just as likely to be homophobic.
This is not an actual fault of Black culture. Rather, it’s the perception of a racist society which seeks to endlessly criticize Black culture and especially Black men for being violent and unthinking. It is the “Buck” stereotype of aggressive and hot-tempered Black men in a new iteration.
The idea of Black men being inherently homophobic because its supposedly entrenched in their culture is so pervasive that several people tried to blame former presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg’s poor performance among Black voters on homophobia. This flawed thought process spears two communities which often intersect with Sammy standing at the crossroads.
As the series drags on (no pun intended), Sammy is given a brief moment of reprieve when he and Montrose step out at a gay club. Sammy dresses in drag, and in an improbable moment that offers little beyond a violent shift in tone, Montrose and Sammy dance together. Sammy’s drag-queen friends hoist Montrose up crowd-surfing style. For a shining second it seems Montrose may be able to accept himself and stop projecting his self-hatred onto Sammy.
However, in the following episode, Montrose immediately begins his verbal pummeling again. The pair spent their first full night together and Sammy sweetly bought and made breakfast the next morning. First, Montrose worries that Sammy’s conversation with a neighbor may have outed them. He then criticizes Sammy’s cooking, thereby souring the morning.
When Sammy stands up for himself and refuses to be Montrose’s punching bag, Montrose chases him out the door. They run right into a confused Atticus and Letitia. A stunned Atticus slurs his angry father who then rips off his own shirt and throws it. Montrose demands respect from his son as though it can only be won through a display of male aggression.
Sammy excuses himself and makes a shameful exit. He leaps from the frying pan of Montrose’s self-loathing and into the fire of Atticus’ anger before disappearing for the rest of the episode. This episode may have been the series’ best so far with Hippolyta exploring other worlds and galaxies that exist beyond her reality and inside of herself. But the use of Sammy’s character to create momentary tension and then quickly forget his storyline makes him a sort of gay whipping-boy. He exists only to be put-upon and never receives his resolution.
Meanwhile, in the next episode, Montrose and Atticus have a moment that could be considered a reconciliation. Atticus asks if Montrose ever cheated on his late mother, and Montrose replies that though he had desires for other men, he never acted on them. His assertion of fidelity somehow changes Tic’s attitude towards the revelation that Montrose is gay but Sammy does not enter into their conversation. In fact, Sammy is conspicuously absent from this episode.
Montrose also tells a story about man who was abducted, committed to a hospital, and lobotomized after being caught in a gay sexual encounter. He says he has feared this type of punishment since that day. This sit-down with Montrose and Atticus might allow Sammy to heal from Montrose’s abuse and move forward with their relationship. But this moment may also foreshadow Sammy’s demise.
Lovecraft Country’s examination of Montrose’s self-hatred is more nuanced than the traditional use of this racist stereotype but Montrose ends up playing the part of the Buck nonetheless. Unlike many others, Montrose’s hypermasculinity is not a fabrication of racism but instead his own defense mechanism.
In episode nine, Montrose tells Atticus he “cut out all the soft parts” of himself in order to survive. As he comes to terms with his sexuality, the cloak of the Buck stereotype he’s been wearing begins to fall away like Ruby’s white-woman suit. But Sammy, who is also not in this episode, is unable to benefit from Montrose’s self-revelations.
In either event, if Sammy is to be allowed happiness, it must follow Montrose and Atticus dealing with their complicated feelings about Black gay identity and masculinity.
Yahima’s Senseless Death
As if Sammy’s tribulations weren’t enough for queer audience members to endure, the series creates a non-binary character purely as a plot device and then quickly disposes of them by means of grisly murder. Lovecraft Country puts every character through the grinder but there is no character who is treated as poorly as Yahima.
In “A History of Violence,” Atticus, Montrose, and Letitia end up in a prison crafted by Titus Braithwhite. They discover Yahima, an Arawak two-spirit person, at a desk. Yahima first appears as desiccated corpse but they slowly and horribly begin to regain their figure. Yahima stands and reveals their long hair, breasts, and penis.
“What are you?” Montrose asks, a question hurled at many non-binary and transgender people: What are you; not who. As Yahima comes back to life, Montrose’s incredulity immediately negates their personhood. Upon leaving the dungeon, Yahima is unable to speak, but can understand and be understood by Atticus.
Though Atticus made his “I’m not a sissy” comment earlier in the same episode, he seems to immediately develop a bond with Yahima. His homophobia doesn’t seem to extend to transphobia, making his relationship with concepts of masculinity and queerness all the more mystifying. However, Montrose later slits Yahima’s throat and disposes of their body to destroy Yahima as a connection to Titus Braithwhite.
Every horror series must have its sacrificial lambs, but Yahima’s death seems senseless and cruel. Creating a nonbinary/transgender character and then immediately dehumanizing and murdering them only pushes the trope that queer characters will not live to see the credits. Yahima was simply a plot device used for exposition and a bit of lazy storytelling. They were quickly tossed out when they were no longer of use to the plot.
Several weeks after the episode’s airing, showrunner Misha Green acknowledged fans’ rightful criticisms about Lovecraft Country‘s treatment of Yahima. Green responded to a fan directly via Twitter, calling her choice a “failure.”
I wanted to show the uncomfortable truth that oppressed folks can also be oppressors. But I didn't examine or unpack the moment/portrayal of Yahima as thoroughly as I should have. It's a story point worth making, but I failed in the way I chose to make it. #LovecraftCountry https://t.co/bDRGOfPClo— Misha Green (@MishaGreen) October 12, 2020
While adaptations can and should stand on their own, the series does a disservice to many of the characters created by Ruff in ways which go beyond playing into racist Hollywood tropes. Unlike Ruff’s novel, the series centers not around the triumph of its Black and queer characters over the “magic” of white privilege and racism, but forms itself instead around their continued suffering.
Featured Image: HBO